There are a few special films in which the horror occurs in broad daylight, sunlight even, that can terrify me more than the darkest of nightmarish visuals. I Spit on Your Grave, 1978 is an example where some of the brutal assaults’ occur in a sunlit forest. Another example is a film that started this whole cinephilia thing for me; The Wicker Man, 1973.
I saw this film in college at age 18. (For non-UK readers, these are two years that predetermine university). I didn’t have much interest in going to university up to this point. I lacked a clear passion for a specific topic that I wanted to dedicate 3/4 years and my life in debt to…but I digress.
One day, in film class the teacher put on the original Wicker Man with Christopher Lee. I’m not over-dramatizing a memory here but, I came out of that screening a changed person. I was so affected by the unique horror and unsettling events that occurred. I went for smoke afterwards and remember feeling very on edge and uncomfortable. I’d never been affected by a film that much ever in my life, up until that point.
A week or two later, I applied for a Film Theory degree at university.
The reason I recall this memory, is because Midsommar left me with the same level of unease, if not more than that screening of Wicker Man. Although, I have to say I was even more affected this time around. Along with maturing, myself, the film industry’s subversive horror capabilities have also matured. The pagan plot had thickened in the seven years since I’d last encountered folk-horror.
Firstly, Ari Aster is such an exciting new auteur for, although I am yet to see his first feature; Hereditary, 2018 I have heard a lot about it and I think Aster is the director that the industry has been needing for a while now. Someone who can use the horror genre and all it’s sub-sectors as a tool in order to explore very real emotions and experiences.
Midsommar, 2019 tells the story of a couple on the brink of a break up, who are invited by their Swedish friend to travel to Sweden for this ‘crazy nine day festival’ as the friend, Pelle phrases it – the Pagan mid-summer festival. This description seems feeble to anyone who has seen the film. In essence yes, it details the baseline. But this film is about so much more to the point where it’s quite unexplainable, rendering this blog post obsolete, but I’ll just continue any way…
It belongs in the folk-horror genre but encompasses a family tragedy, mental health, dwindling relationships, a psychological study through the theme of Swedish folklore.
Director, Ari Aster describes it as many things, one being an ‘operatic break-up movie’, which is a pretty and profound description.
The festival of Midsommar is originally a Pagan festival, a celebration of the summer solstice. It is now considered merged with the Christian celebration of John the Baptist, with his feast day on June 24th. Iconography includes, flowers and nature, may poles, runes, ritualistic activity.
Aster was incredibly ambitious with this film and the geography of the plot. It moves around quite a bit to different people, a different county, different issues that exist within various groupings of people. I mean, the Wicker Man was unsettling, but we didn’t know Edward Woodwood’s childhood or personal issues, we weren’t let into that. We really join his journey from when he arrives on the island of Summerisle and then, it’s kinda all about the weird island-folk and the strange happenings there.
With Midsommar, Aster wants viewers already emotionally connected and vulnerable going to the destination of terror. Opening the film with a clever insight into the necessary information to paint the picture of the lead character, over phone calls. We watch Dani call her boyfriend Christian after a disturbing email from her bipolar sister. We learn from Dani’s conversation with her friend that her relationship with Christian is struggling, introducing ideas of dependency and resentment.
We then witness the terrible tragedy that Dani experiences which could be the climactic moment of any other film, but for Midsommar, it’s merely the foundation of Dani’s character.
It’s quite a clever storyline, as later one when Dani witnesses a disturbing event at the festival in Sweden Pelle comforts her claiming her emotional response to a ritual suicide is due to her family tragedy which she rejects along with us, the viewers who are sitting there thinking, ‘no dude, family tragedy or not, that shit was messed up’.
The film is undeniably a slow burn, with a run time of 2 hours and 28 minutes it’s a commitment – but a worthwhile one at that. I can say, I didn’t find myself checking the clock many times. The gradual unravelling of the atrocities is enough to keep viewers engage for the lengthy run time. The emotional catharsis overwhelms the viewer, so by the time Dani fully lets go and breaks down after witnessing the ritual mating of her boyfriend and Maya, the sisters comfort her and the audience also feels this emotional release. It’s quite a beautiful thing that the Hargan’s do, share in each other’s emotions. We see this is not only a tactic used on outsider but with each other (during the ritual suicide scene).
There is so much beauty in the village of Harga, from the landscapes and the natural elements, to the seemingly good, honest day to day work of the Hargans. The connection in the community can also be a beautiful thing, if it wasn’t for the absence of individuality. The arrival of the guests at the festival sees little sprinklings of normality from the Hargans. When Dani compliments a man’s robe, he replies, ‘oh this, yes very girly’, swishing the length of the robe mockingly. This informal, jovial dialogue is not to be seen again as the trip progresses. This is effective in enticing the newbies, allowing them to see that the Hargans themselves have a sense of humor and can see the immediate strangeness of their appearance.
The film is one big psychological experiment it seems. With the interesting storyline of anthropology student; The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper as Josh and his genuine interest in his research on the village and its traditions. This gives the plot a purpose, its not random terror for terror’s sake. Josh is a likeable character and the most neutral and balanced of the group. His character paralleled with Christians emphasizes the latter’s lack of honesty, loyalty and individuality, which is punished at the end.
The film is a beautifully warped fairytale, a catharsis of the human psyche, a cleverly designed break up movie, within the realm of folk horror. There is a lot to be said about this film, but I think it’s truly one to see for yourself, when you are mentally in a stable place…
The saturated technicolor captures in the stunning wide shots is amazing and Gene Park’s sound engineering of the haunting score is perfect in aiding the disorientation of these visuals and the plot.
One very big tip: watch the walls, check the art on the walls throughout – it’ll prepare you. Available to watch on Netflix UK and NL