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Certainly not for everyone, Ari Aster’s sophomore film, Midsommar, is most certainly cause for celebration for serious horror movie fans. Like his first feature, Hereditary (2018), Midsommar is bold, original, smart and most definitely disturbing (in an artful way : ) While delivering the expected doses of violence and psychological terror, the film also succeeds at exploring some deeper themes and questions, documenting in painful detail the deterioration of a relationship, examining indirectly the limits of cultural relativism, and calling attention to the defects in a society that prioritizes individual success over meaningful group connection. What is most readily apparent about this movie is its production design – the meticulously realized sets and costumes, the whole organic world that has been created not only as backdrop but as active participant in the evolving story of the film. Strong acting throughout the cast is led by Florence Pugh (Dani), who delivers a powerful and raw performance. Clever and creative camerawork keep us entertained and engaged while the intense and evocative score rises to the occasion. This is an ambitious and creative horror movie, which, just like Hereditary, is quite demanding of its audience (i.e., get ready to sit through some long, very uncomfortable scenes). But I do think it’s worth the emotional toll. If you don’t mind the occasional bludgeoning or ritual sacrifice in your cinema, this is a must see.
Midsommar centers around a young couple, Dani (Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), and their friends, who take a trip to Sweden to observe a Midsommar festival that occurs once every 90 years. Upon arriving at the festival, the group realize that the initially peaceful and bucolic seeming commune is actually full of very dark and sinister secrets. The story is original and told in such a way as to keep you guessing and constantly looking for clues. It doesn’t deliver its main themes or message in a heavy handed monologue (the biggest weakness of Us (2019) in my opinion), but rather leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the attentive viewer to discover.
In terms of visual style, there are a lot of interesting things going on. Aster’s direction is full of exciting camerawork. He’s clearly having fun and experimenting. There are occasionally individual shots that call attention to themselves (i.e., when the camera turns upside down just as the characters drive up to the festival grounds, a kind of metaphor for the inverted world they are about to enter). In a number of scenes, the characters are under the influence of hallucinogens, and on the screen we see a swirling / rippling effect, representing the characters’ perspective and mindset. There is another clever visual effect that happens toward the end of the film, when Dani has deeply enmeshed herself in the cult and become their “May Queen”, adorned in an outfit of fresh flowers. We see the flowers in her outfit pulsate like an organ, while the leaves on the arm of her chair lift up and down, in tune with her movements.
One of the key themes in the movie is the idea of feeling others’ pain and “feeling held”. Early in the film, we see that Dani is experiencing mental illness herself and also within her family. Her sister has bipolar disorder, and tragically kills herself and her parents in one of the opening scenes (this scene feels similar to various moments in Hereditary, in terms of its raw / fever pitch emotional intensity). Dani’s anxiety is like a burden to her relatively unconcerned boyfriend, Christian, who, influenced in the worst ways by his friends, pays not much more than cursory attention to Dani’s struggles. Dani herself is embarrassed to ask for help. This lack of connection and understanding of another’s pain contrasts starkly with the Swedish commune/cult. Here, the people are connected almost to the point of absurdity. When one member cries out in pain, they all do. When someone experiences joy, it radiates throughout the group. They help each other process difficult emotions by sharing them fully. The American culture represented by Christian and his friends prioritizes independence, individual success and competition, while the culture of the commune is characterized (at least initially) by empathic, communal bonds.
The representation of Dani and Christian’s unhealthy relationship, and the at times ignorant / rude behavior of Christian and his friends act as a kind of critique of American culture. There are several lines in the film where characters comment on the “Americans”. In one scene, Pelle invites Christian to barge into one of the ceremonial dances, as he’s an “American”. In another scene, we see Josh (William Jackson Harper), unknowingly pee on a sacred tree, and get excoriated by a member of the cult for his ignorance.
Though it’s not exactly spelled out, I sensed a kind of examination of the limits of cultural relativism in the story. Christian and his friends are studying Anthropology at school, and at least one of them, namely Mark (Will Poulter), is there to seriously study the Midsommar festival as part of his dissertation. Mark, and to a lesser degree, Christian, adopt an academic mindset toward the commune, interviewing members and analyzing the rituals and ceremonies with a detached, observant eye. This stance is tested when members of the commune sacrifice two of the elders in the group in a seemingly barbaric manner. Even after this, Mark and Christian are willing to explain away the shock of other characters (namely Dani) as simply their failure to understand this different culture. Of course, eventually, things go so wrong that the characters (and the audience) are forced to accept the reality that this nature-loving commune is in fact a homicidal cult. This initial tension between the two cultures is an effective way of pushing us into the story. We’re not just thrown into a world that is clearly evil from the outset; it is at least initially represented as a place where people are happy and enjoy meaningful bonds with each other and with the natural world.
While I do think this is one of the better / more creative and ambitious horror movies to come out in the past few years, it is not without its flaws. One of my issues with this movie is something that seems to be a conscious stylistic choice for Aster – the decision to draw out and highlight incredibly intense / disturbing moments within the story almost to the point of masochism. These scenes always have a purpose in the movie, but still, I would argue they sometimes overstay their welcome. In Midsommar, I’m thinking of the early scene showing Dani’s sister / parents’ deaths, and then later on, the scenes portraying ritualistic sex / human sacrifice. I guess for me, the amount of these scenes and their duration make it hard to enjoy this movie with friends or really anyone who isn’t fully geared up for a disturbing and difficult ride. My biggest issue with this movie is the inclusion / portrayal of one of its characters, an “oracle” for the commune/cult. The character is the product of incest, and as such is able to see with “unobstructed sight” (according to the cult). He has the ability to see things the other members cannot, and his seemingly inscrutable paintings act as inspiration for the group’s spiritual texts. All of that is interesting and plausible for the story. However, the character, as a result of the incest, also has a very visible facial deformity. And the image of this deformity is sometimes used as a kind of prop or “boo” scare. Given how much in this movie feels original and new, the choice to zoom in on a deformed face in various climactic moments feels kind of cheap and uninspired.
Let me go down this rabbit hole a little further. During one very intense scene, Christian is having sex with a member of the cult, while a bunch of older women in the group are gathered around, all naked, moaning and gyrating. This goes on for quite some time (reference my earlier comment about masochism above). While this scene is playing out, the camera cuts away and does a close up on the oracle’s deformed face. What’s going on here? Why the cut away? In my mind, it felt like a lazy attempt of adding an exclamation mark on an already EXTRA scene. In thinking about it now, I guess you could argue that the combination of the two images together makes sense – it’s representing how this community survives; because of their insular nature, they depend on incest and criminal manipulation of “outsiders” for their very existence. The juxtaposition of the two images is kind of a like a final stamp of “wrong” on the commune, showing it for what it is. But that’s me rationalizing after the fact; my immediate reaction to this scene was not a positive one.
As more and more talented young filmmakers choose the horror movie as their medium, I’m wondering what role these movies have in our culture. How do different people perceive these movies and why do we (for those of us who do) enjoy them? For some people, horror movies are a non-starter – no matter how incredible the cinematography, screenplay, acting, visual effects, if there is graphic violence or if there are certain frightening elements within the story, it’s a hard pass. I remember my mom telling me about the time when my grandfather took her to see Alien (1979) in the theaters. During the iconic scene when the alien pops out of the man’s chest, my grandfather, absolutely disgusted, stormed out of the theater and spent the rest of the movie in his car. He called Alien “trash”. Now, Alien is obviously a classic, celebrated as a landmark for its story, makeup, production design, pacing, score etc. But at the same time, this is a movie where aliens are exploding out of people’s bodies. For some people, no matter how good the story or cinematography, that’s a bridge too far. Setting aside the legitimate reasons to not like horror / scary movies, I also wonder if there is a bit of a stigma influencing some people’s aversion to the genre? There have been some really trashy horror movies produced over the years (and they’re being cranked out on a streaming platform of your choice every Halloween season). These are the kinds of movies that seemingly have no heart, no substance or reason for being other than to represent visual, shocking violence and special effects. The existence of these movies kind of taints the overall genre. If you only had exposure to these movies, I can see why you’d want to avoid the horror movie genre altogether.
In my opinion, good horror movies are sometimes worth sifting through the blood and guts. In no other kind of movie are the emotional stakes as high, and rarely do we get such a visceral experience from the comfort of our couch. The genre externalizes our internal fears and shows us the boogeymen in our society in a compartmentalized and manageable way. The creative canvas can seem dark and forbidding, but the experience of navigating these dangerous worlds is unlike any other. Having said that, Midsommar is an excellent example of what a horror movie can be – dark, thrillingly terrifying, able to push you outside of your comfort zone, while also offering a stunning visual experience, rich with detail and supported by a clever story that keeps you guessing until the final frame.