Midsommar (2019) Director: Ari Aster
Following up on his celebrated horror debut with Hereditary in 2018, Writer/Director Ari Aster released Midsommar in 2019 to much critical fanfare. According to Aster, the film was largely inspired by a recent break-up he experienced. For the most part, I tend to enjoy this new era of Hollywood horror films we seem to be experiencing with directors like Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers, and others. Perhaps it is because I simply long for something different than the typical cycle of lazy, re-hashed franchise films that are cranked out of Hollywood these days. At least it’s nice to see directors like these breaking out of the mold. However, with all that said, Midsommar is a grotesque, disorienting movie that leaves the viewer feeling extremely unsettled –therefore its goal is largely achieved. In some ways it introduces new concepts to the horror genre: instead of a dark claustrophobic space, we are given bright endless sunshine in open rural pastures, and yet we still feel completely isolated from the touch of civilization. Also instead of fighting her way out of this strange and disturbing cult, our protagonist is instead emotionally and physically manipulated into joining it, and yet this is still a strangely cathartic conclusion for her.
Midsommar is indeed a shocking film. It is well-paced, impeccably captured, and long-threaded. It is about a vulnerable college student named Dani (Florence Pugh) whose whole family has been tragically killed by her mentally ill sister who then promptly killed herself. Dani finds herself alone in the world, save for her emotionally distant boyfriend named Christian (Jack Reynor). He has been hoping to break-up with her and spend more time with his annoying group of friends, all of whom are pretentious anthropology students working on their academic theses, but he feels pressure to remain with her out of pity. The group including Dani all travel to Sweden at the invitation of a foreign exchange student to witness the “midsummer” festival which occurs once every 90 years in a Nordic group called the Harga. Throughout the trip Dani is constantly gaslit and neglected by her boyfriend who checks every box on the toxic list, from forgetting her birthday to not helping her during a particularly disturbing mushroom-influenced vision of her deceased family.
At the remote Harga festival, absent any digital connection to the outside world, the orchestrated celebrations move slowly and organically. The sun never seems to set and the colors are light and muted. People dress in traditional Nordic garb hearkening back to ancient pagan ceremonies, and they all act as one. The group of tourists soon witness a ritual suicide of two elderly members of the commune, each member of the Harga ritually jumps off a cliff to their death at the age of 72. In this instance, one did not fully die upon impact and so he is beaten to death. It is a horrifyingly bloody scene, but all the Swedes simply smile and claim it is a joyful part of their cultural inheritance. From here, the ceremonies only continue to horrify. Various grotesque things happen over dinner, people start experiencing a cocktail of hallucinogens, and each member of the clique is slowly killed off one at time, including a scene of horrendous torture showing the mythical “blood eagle” (at this point, the facade of distant, neutral, observational academic research is quickly lifted as the students are enmeshed in the Midsommer atrocities. The petty, prideful argument over who gets to write a thesis about the Midsommar festival is quickly shown to be irrelevant). In the end, Christian is placed under the influence of drugs and lured into a strange fertility ritual, while Dani witnesses it through a keyhole. She is then named May Queen as she is finally welcomed into this new family of Harga. Seething with anger, she selects Christian to be committed as a human sacrifice. His drug-induced body is placed inside the body of a giant bear and left in an edifice at the far end of a field which is then promptly burned to the ground surrounded by corpses of his friends. When the burning is complete, a strange, twisted smile appears on the face of Dani and the film ends.
There are a number of wonderful themes explored in Midsommar –the sterile perspective of Western academia, the contrast between traditional Nordic culture and modern commercialized emptiness, and the overwhelming need for a person to belong. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of Midsommar is the feeling of complete vulnerability by Dani as she trades one toxic relationship with her boyfriend for another with this deceptive, abusive cult of pagans. Perhaps she feels herself empowered at the end, but in fact she remains a victim, forever at the mercy of stronger people around her. To those who smile along with Dani at the end, Midsommar is a perverse revenge story that shows her own female empowerment narrative to be nothing more than a cruel, bloodthirsty, pagan ritual.