Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter
Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
First with Hereditary and now with Midsommar Ari Aster has delivered another horror film where the most intense and dreadful scenes aren’t those that where the violence inflicted on the characters is physical but is instead emotional. In a movie packed with crazy cultists and bloody murder, it’s the raw depictions of such unbearable emotions as grief, rage, depression, helplessness and isolation that hit the hardest because of how uncomfortably close to home they are for so many of us. Who amongst us hasn’t had that fear that we’re driving our closest friends away by burdening them with our baggage? Who amongst us hasn’t dreaded the prospect of being abandoned by our loved ones and left alone, inconsolable and powerless? Who amongst us hasn’t craved in vain for a place where we can belong and be loved and accepted as we are without reservation? Such are the devastating fears that Midsommar opts to explore and eventually realise on an appallingly extreme level. For all the blood and gore in this film (of which there is a lot) and the disturbing nature of its setting and many of the characters, it is the great dejection of the severely damaged person at its centre that makes it so gut-wrenching to watch, especially as we behold the emotional fallout of the fundamentally broken relationship she is in with all the intensity of watching a gruesome car crash in slow motion.
Our protagonist is Dani (Florence Pugh), a young woman who, in the opening minutes, suffers a devastating, unimaginable loss. It happens on a rainy night when she receives an ominous email from her sister, who has bipolar disorder and a history of self-harm. Dani’s desperate attempts to get in touch with her and their parents go unanswered, leaving her in a tearful panic. Compounded with her dread that something terrible may have happened is her apprehensive fear that her worry is an overreaction and that her hysteria will only make things worse. Although she has a boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), whom one would assume she could rely on to provide comfort and reassurance in this ordeal, she’s worried she’ll end up scaring him off if she continues to impose upon him with her anxieties and problems. By the end of the scene, we see Dani’s greatest fears turn out to be true on both fronts. Her sister has done something awful beyond anything she could have imagined (the way Aster goes about the nail-baiting reveal through the menacing, stalker-like movement of the camera is masterful) and her boyfriend does think of her as a nuisance who asks too much of him. We learn that he most likely would have dumped Dani before long if not for her tragic misfortune, but even as he remains by her side he can barely will himself to provide more than polite, nominal support for her in all her tremendous pain and anguish.
Months later Christian’s friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) keep egging him to rip the bandage and dump Dani so that they can all move on and enjoy the trip to Sweden they’ve been invited on by their classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Dani, so starved for relief and affection that she finds the half-hearted company of her ambivalent boyfriend and his mates preferable to the prospect of being left alone, invites herself along. While the gory moments in the later part of the movie are pretty unsettling in their own right, it was the suffocating tension between Dani and Christian in their inability to communicate and be honest with one another that had me peeking between my fingers. The way that Christian kept tip-toeing about how burdensome he finds his girlfriend to be at this point and Dani’s awkward interactions with the friends who can just barely disguise how annoying they find her presence on their boys’ trip to be are so endlessly bleak and uncomfortable to watch that they had me wincing in ways that even the most graphically violent horror films tend not to. The only person who seems at all excited to have Dani along is Pelle, who suffered a similar loss to her at a young age and is more compassionate and sensitive to her anguish than the rest by a mile and a half.
Their destination is the remote community of Hårga, a picturesque and pastoral place that’s so out of the way and so divorced from modern society that only a single vehicle ever goes back and forth between them and the nearest town and mobile phones cannot pick up any reception. If that’s not the makings of a horror movie setting, then I don’t know what is. Their life is a communal one, free from the trappings of modern civilisation. They live off the land, share their worldly possessions, living spaces and labour, and function freely without government, hierarchies or capital. The people, all of them fair-skinned and wearing luminous white frocks, greet their guests with congenial smiles and inviting hospitality, excited to have them all along for this momentous, near-centennial festival that marks the occasion. On the outset, it’s a given that the culture they’ve come to observe and celebrate is a foreign one; one that Christian and his fellow graduate researcher friends understand has preserved a more authentic and agrarian lifestyle than what they are used to with their 21st century upbringings, which is what primes them to indulge the stranger and more macabre aspects of their traditions. Thus, as odd it is to see a caged bear in the vicinity for no apparent reason and as unsettling as the disturbing folk art decorating the shared living area are, they are rationalised as customs that differ from our own as opposed to sinister red flags.
While the setting is foreign to most audiences (although, come to think of it, isn’t that true about pretty much every film?), the sensibility will be very familiar to British and American viewers. The movie taps into a desire for community and connection that many people share, both to the present and the past. It’s what inspires us to selectively romanticise aspects of history and of foreign cultures while brushing the less appealing and flattering aspects under the rug (in the UK, one need only watch an ITV costume drama for an example). The whole reason Christian and co. embark on this expedition is because they are anthropology graduate students leaping on the unique chance to study a secluded society. Thus when they are invited to witness what turns out to be a ritual suicide where two elders walk of a cliff (only for one of them to survive and have his head crushed by a giant hammer), the academics reason that they ought to stay and keep an open mind rather than fleeing there and then as any other person would. While Dani most certainly wants to leave at this point, it is she who learns better than anybody else the deeper value of the attachments that these traditions serve. The guys don’t end up developing more than a detached interest in the community, which is why they don’t feel particularly apprehensive about wanting to get off with one of their young, beautiful maidens or sneaking around during the one hour of night-time darkness to photograph their most private scriptures. It is Dani alone who truly acclimates to their warped ways and finds that there really is something at the heart of the cult’s repugnant practices.
The most remarkable moment in the whole film comes towards the end in which Dani, having been crowned the May Queen upon winning a dancing competition, has a total breakdown that reduces her to a sobbing mess. These have been quite a frequent occurrence for her since that terrible night in the opening scene, as is demonstrated in a terrific shot that seamlessly transitions from a breakdown in her boyfriend’s apartment to another breakdown in an airplane bathroom. Every time this happens to her, Dani is by herself and she suffers in silence. Only this time, having witnessed an upsetting act that triggers another meltdown, her pain and anguish are met not with ignorance and apathy but with heartfelt affection. The women of the village follow Dani as she attempts to retreat to somewhere more private and, when she cannot hold the tears back any longer, they all cling on to her and wail in empathy to her tortured screams. It is a cathartic moment for Dani who, after months of being made to feel like her pain was nothing more than a burden on others, is finally validated as a person who deserves to be held and nurtured. For all of their murderous deeds and vicious rituals, the people of Hårga offer Dani the kind of love and acceptance that she so desperately needs and has been so cruelly denied by those closest to her, something for which no price seems too great. There’s a certain horror in learning that you don’t belong (as it was in The Wicker Man, clearly a key source of inspiration), but Midsommar shows that there’s just as much to be found in discovering that you do.