Midsommar, 2019 tells the story of a couple on the brink of a break up, who are invited by their Swedish friend to experience a ‘crazy nine day festival’ as Pelle phrases it. He is of course referring to the celebration of the summer solstice, midsommar. Though this film is about so much than paganism, rituals and history, that’s merely the vehicle used to drive the story. It tackles the human condition when faced with the unimaginable weight of grief. Our leading lady, Florence Pugh is phenomenal in capturing that sense of loss found in the depths of grief.
The film belongs in the folk-horror genre but encompasses a family tragedy, a mental health drama, a break-up movie, a psychological study through the theme of Swedish folklore.
Director, Ari Aster describes it as many things, but the one I like the most is an ‘operatic breakup-up movie’. Aster is such an exciting new auteur. He is someone who can use the horror genre and all its sub-sectors as a tool in order to psychologically analyses very real life experiences.
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 jump-scare, thrill rides that Hollywood regurgitates year after year. I Spit on Your Grave, 1978 is an example where some of the brutal assaults’ occur in a sunlit forest.
I saw the original Wicker Man, (not that Nicholas Cage abomination) in college at age 18, ( for those who don’t know, college in the UK consists of the 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.
One day, in film class the teacher put on the Wicker Man with Christopher Lee. Unsettled by the strange underlying horror that incapsulated the film, I went for a smoke afterwards, hyper sensitive to the sounds and movement around me.
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. The film industry’s subversive horror capabilities had matured, the result; Midsommar.
The pagan plot had thickened in the seven years since I’d last encountered folk horror.
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. It’s celebrated throughout the world in various ways, but almost all will celebrate the long summer day with feasts and gratitude for agricultural prosperity. The iconography includes flowers and nature, maypoles, runes, ritualistic activity.
Aster was incredibly ambitious with this film and the geography of the plot. It moves around quite a bit, giving focus to different people, different locations, different issues that exist within the main group of young friends.
Aster wants viewers already emotionally connected and vulnerable going to the destination of terror. Opening the film with an insight into Dani’s family situation, through phone calls and messenges from her bipolar sister, a basis of unease is formed. We learn a bit more about the severity of her sister’s illness when Dani calls her boyfriend Christian after a disturbing email from her. From a subsequent conversation with her friend, it’s evident that Dani and Christian’s relationship is struggling, introducing ideas of dependency, empathy and resentment.
The terrible family tragedy that Dani experiences could well be the climactic moment of any other film, but for Midsommar, it’s merely the foundation of Dani’s character and a basis for a psychological investigation of the human psyche when something, conceivable only in horror films, happens to you.
Once the gang are in Sweden they attend a ritual, unbeknownst to them, it would result in a ritualistic suicide. When the tourists, shockingly, freak out, native Pelle takes Dani to one side. He comforts her claiming her emotional response to this 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’.
Although Pelle shows signs of empathy, more so than Dani’s own boyfriend, one might suspect some feelings of love there. However Pelle seems to always be operating on an alternate spiritual plan than Dani and it’s not certain whether his intentions are genuine.
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. The gradual unravelling of the atrocities definitely kept me on my toes. 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 may also take a breather, benefiting from this emotional release.
It’s quite a beautiful thing that the Hargan’s do, sharing in each other’s emotions, crying and screaming in unison.
Josh, the anthropology student, played by The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper has a genuine interest in his research on the village and its traditions. This gives the plot a purpose, it’s 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 ironically punished at the end.
The film is a beautifully warped fairytale, a catharsis of the human psyche, a cleverly designed break up movie, explored within the realm of folk horror. It places a very fragile relationship dynamic amongst a community that operates on centuries worth of historic ritualistic behaviour. The two don’t fit together, but somehow need each other to make a shift that was so separately needed for Dani and Christian.
The saturated technicolour captured in the stunning wide shots is amazing and Gene Park’s sound engineering on the haunting score is perfect in aiding the disorientation. Overall, I think it definitely deserved the title of ‘masterpiece’. It’s carefully thought out and is not an easy watch. To absorb the meaning of the film is to lean into that tragedy and feel what the characters feel.
It was refreshing for me to see mental health in families depicted in film. However, I hope going forward we see more realistic and less evil portrayals of mental health. Not everyone with bipolar disorder will kill an entire family, just like not everyone who celebrates midsummer will support ritualistic suicides. Generalisation and lack of individuality feed into stigma’s and stereotypes in this film, and I am not blind to it. I just see it, as a whole, a step forward in intellectual filmmaking. For we don’t see that too often these days unless you’re highly anticipating the 20th instalment of the Avengers. Now I sound god-awfully snobby, it’s time to sign off.
Thought’s from a rambling eyelyd.
Ooh, a tip: check the art on the walls throughout Midsommar. It’s full of easter eggs.