Midsommar (2019)

From Spotlight on Horror: Classics of the Cinefantastique, published 2020

Watching our fears play out on screen can be cathartic for horror fans. Reality seems more manageable after watching vampire hunters stake Dracula or a final girl defeat a masked killer. If Sally can escape Leatherface, surely we can handle the light bill.

Of course, those characters rarely get the same emotional release. If they make it out alive, you know they’ll be irrevocably damaged. Look how many sequels begin with the lone survivor in a psych ward.

Ari Aster’s Midsommar violently reverses this dynamic. He starts by subjecting his heroine, Dani (Florence Pugh), to a devastating personal trauma, then sends her on what looks like a standard folk horror misadventure. In the process, he rewrites the template for an entire subgenre, and offers the most grimly satisfying breakup movie since War of the Roses.

Dani lives in a state of constant dread, popping Ativan while worrying that her unstable sister will do something awful. Her anxiety is wearing down her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who quietly plans to end the relationship. When Dani’s sister kills herself and their parents, Christian puts off the decision, while remaining emotionally distant. He just barely works up the energy to play the good boyfriend.

When he gets an opportunity to travel to Sweden, Christian reluctantly invites Dani along, much to the consternation of his bros. Josh (William Jackson Harper) plans to study an isolated group called the Harga for his anthropology doctorate, but for Christian and Mark (Will Poulter), it’s more of a holiday. Having a depressed girl along will definitely cramp their style.

They travel with their friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a member of the Harga “family” and the only person who seems genuinely concerned about Dani’s well-being. It’s mid-June and Pelle’s village in Halsingland is about to hold a very special festival, one that occurs every 90 years. This is not enough of a warning sign, so everyone settles in for a good time. What could be more relaxing than a vacation in the peaceful Scandinavian countryside?

As soon as the characters arrive, Aster literally turns the world upside down, with a vertigo-inducing shot of their car driving down a narrow road. The disorientation continues when Pelle offers up hallucinogenic mushrooms, which seem to be part of Harga daily life – nearly every drink is spiked with something. When they emerge from the forest into the settlement itself, it’s hard to tell how much of the weirdness is due to the drugs and how much is just…weird.

The Harga have created a largely self-sufficient agrarian society, one that seems happily stuck in the distant past. The younger members travel abroad, and there are references to movies and telephones, but every aspect of village life is governed by much older traditions. The Harga are warm and welcoming to their guests, and the celebration initially seems harmless, if a bit confusing. Naturally, that won’t last. We’ve all seen The Wicker Man, right?

In true folk horror fashion, the visitors tend to ignore or disrespect their hosts’ beliefs. In true all horror fashion, they are also prone to very stupid behavior. Two Brits are picked off early, after reacting angrily (and understandably) to a gruesome ceremony. Josh is so devoted to his studies, he blows off clear warnings about where he’s allowed to go. Mark is a rude horndog in classic ugly-American fashion. It’s almost possible to think they’d be OK if they would just stay out of that building or take a leak somewhere else. They wouldn’t, but this is why people yell at the screen.

Christian’s fate is unique, in that it’s tied directly to Dani’s. His nice-guy act barely conceals his self-absorption and constant gaslighting (she actually apologizes to him when he’s being a jerk). She’s trying not to seem needy for fear of driving away the last person she can still count on. But the longer she’s in the village, the less she needs Christian and his half-hearted “support.” When she discovers just how untrustworthy he is, her only tie to the outside world is severed. Once again, she has to reach for any available lifeline, and she finds it in this sunny, murderous commune.

It’s possible the Harga orchestrated Dani’s arrival, although a full-blown conspiracy would be too much, even for Aster’s creatively twisted mind. Her decision to make the trip is certainly fortuitous. The village elders are thrilled to have her, noting that Pelle is an excellent judge of people. He’s certainly more sensitive than anyone else Dani knows. He offers sincere condolences for her loss, and encourages her to stay in this place where she can feel “held” and at home. His interest seems both brotherly and romantic, appropriate to a community where those boundaries are fairly flexible. When he explains how the Harga cared for him when he lost his own parents, he illustrates the value of that flexibility (although the circumstances of their deaths remain vague, and possibly sinister.)

Dani is so emotionally numb, she barely reacts to the disturbing aspects of Harga life, and Pelle’s entreaties have the desired effect. When she finally falls apart, she no longer has to cry silently alone, hoping not to bother anyone. Instead, a group of women surrounds her and joins in her grief, wailing in solidarity instead of giving her space she doesn’t really want. Everything here is shared, and it may be the first time Dani has not had to worry about abandonment. 

The question remains of why the Harga bring her into the fold. There are discussions regarding bloodlines and the role of incest in the community, and the need for diversity explains the practice of sending members out to bring friends home. Christian is used in this way (and Mark might be), but it doesn’t quite explain why Dani is welcomed so fully. There must be additions to the gene pool more often than every 90 years, so maybe adopting the right kind of outsiders is how they handle that need.

Aster offers some clues about this. A banner advertising Halsingland’s festivals contains an anti-immigration slogan (an Easter egg he mentions in his IMDB trailer commentary). The Harga certainly fit the stereotype of racial purity. They are pale, blue-eyed, bound to their Viking and Anglo-Saxon heritage, and hostile to anyone who doesn’t fit in. Characters of color are discarded quickly, and certainly not invited to mate with the locals. It’s a subtle, deliberate dig at the dangers of xenophobia.

Aster also includes the genre’s usual blend of familiar and fictional. Dancing around a maypole and wearing floral garlands are common midsummer activities, still seen throughout Sweden and elsewhere. The movie-specific practices are referenced in European folklore and in books like James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough – albeit in exaggerated, if not entirely fabricated, form. Google “attestupa” and “blood eagle” for a primer, if you can stomach it.

The elaborate murals are based on those found in real Halsingland farmhouses, and Aster uses them to foreshadow every major plot point. Runic symbols are everywhere, including the clothing and set design. The name Harga comes from a popular Swedish myth, which is retold in the maypole scene. Even the characters’ names are significant – Dani’s surname is Ardor, as in fire or passion, and “Christian” is almost too on the nose in this threatening pagan environment.

The performances are similarly thoughtful and detailed, especially Pugh’s. She’s never overwhelmed by Aster’s excesses, thanks to her willingness to throw herself off Dani’s emotional cliff. It’s difficult to watch her attempts at self-control, wondering when and how the breakdown will finally happen. As in his first film, Hereditary, Aster constructs the story very carefully, trapping his hapless characters like the figures in those ever-present art pieces. In both cases, he has lead actresses who can ground his wild narratives in something like reality. Toni Collette never fully got her due for Hereditary, but Midsommar gave Pugh’s career a solid boost. The industry noticed, even if it won’t win her any Oscars.

This is all a lot of effort for a movie that was originally pitched as an Americans-abroad slasher flick. Aster was going through a breakup at the time, and the dysfunction of the Dani/Christian relationship is more scarily authentic than anything else in Midsommar. Aster has been at pains to point out that this is not a revenge fantasy, but anyone who has ever been cheated on (or just really, really annoyed) by their ex will undoubtedly relate.

Perhaps surprisingly, Aster fills Midsommar with absurd, sick humor. A sex ritual becomes the worst first time ever. The Hargas’ revered prophet is a severely disabled man who expresses his wisdom by smearing paint all over their holy texts. Even the most shocking deaths inspire uncomfortable laughter – it’s a great way to relieve tension when you’re looking at the mutilated corpse of a cult victim. That this all takes place in a bright, beautiful paradise (Hungary standing in for Sweden) makes it that much more outrageous.

Hereditary is similarly bizarre and intense, and its comparative darkness is more than visual. In it, Aster piles on tragedy with the inevitability of an actual, demonic curse, tearing a family apart in the process. Midsommar kicks off with tragedy, then sends its characters to a place with the power to transform them. The ones who resist or prove unworthy are changed in horrific ways. The one with nothing to lose is made whole again.

It’s never clear if the Harga truly accept Dani, or if she’ll become just another victim. Aster ends the film on a disconcertingly upbeat note. Dani chooses to stay, earning a powerful role as the May Queen, who blesses the crops and chooses sacrifices. She even has a vision of her parents, as if her adoption of this new family somehow brings them back.

No matter what happens after the credits roll, Dani has one moment of true joy, as people scream and burn around her. Midsommar’s final, provocative message is that human sacrifice can be a form of therapy. It’s a perfect distillation of horror’s appeal, delivered with flowers and a smile. –  Loey Lockerby

 

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