ari aster, empathy, folk horror, horror, isolation, midsommar, movie review
I rewatched Midsommar last week for the first time, and it was just as glorious as I remembered.
Ari Aster considers this his first horror movie rather than Hereditary, but I might be inclined to switch that around, if I had to. Hereditary was built almost like a haunted house story within the family home—with the family naturally being more haunted than the house—and a few nice jump scares. Plenty of people responded to Midsommar by saying it wasn’t scary, just because it didn’t have any notable scares, forgetting that not all horror is built that way. I’m a huge fan of slow-burn horror that unsettles more than scares, and if you like slow burn awash in sunlight, Midsommar should please.
If anything, though, Midsommar actually has some nice nods to classic horror, such as playing with slasher tropes in its punishing of young (American) tourists doing what they shouldn’t; the use of the Blood Eagle, which is a Viking method of execution, but Americans might be familiar with it from Silence of the Lambs; even Dani’s blanket, which seems to be a nod to carpet design The Shining, but I might be reading too much into that, which isn’t to dismiss the parallel descent into a kind of madness; and of course, The Wicker Man. Possibly The Serpent and the Rainbow, but I haven’t seen that one yet.
Midsommar took the emerging (re-emerging?) subgenre of folk horror and asked itself whether it could make a horror movie with nothing concealed, in full sunlight for most of the movie, because it takes place during the Midsommar festival of the Halga community. The answer is to whether you can make a horror film in sunlight is yes, but part of the side effect is that the result is trippier than scary. But it’s not the kind of horror that requires darkness, really. Supernatural horror, with monsters of the human and creature variety, depends on darkness to hide the monstrousness, but there are no real monsters in Midsommar. Folk horror, instead, often depends on the in-full-view nature of culture shock. Isolated communities have nothing to hide, but their profound differences from the prevailing culture of the audience causes the disorientation that can be so effective as a horror device—not to mention the literal mushrooms everyone’s taking.
The way that Midsommar ultimately works is in Ari Aster’s commitment to nonjudgment of the Halga community, which is aided by the fact that he wrote the script himself. While there’s a little contempt for the three ‘new blood’ male American visitors to the Halga, there was actually very little external judgment going into the story.
Except Christian. The eventual punishment may not have fit the perceived crime, but everyone agrees that Christian is a grade-A douchebag.
But although the Midsommar ceremony gets more and more horrifying as the movie progresses, Aster is careful to show how seductive the community is in spite of it, what it offers to an outsider like the protagonist, Dani, what void from the audience culture that it fills. It’s not too dissimilar to the intimacy void that most other cults claim to fill, except it goes to a less orgastic extreme, the delightfully odd sex scene notwithstanding.
The movie opens with profound disconnection between Florence Pugh’s Dani and Jack Reynor’s Christian. Within the film’s first act, we’re given every indication that this is a relationship that Does Not Work. They’re not communicating, Dani is minimizing her emotions so much that she feels like she needs to isolate in order to have them, and Christian has apparently been checked out for over a year by the time tragedy strikes Dani and he feels he can’t abandon her at that point. It would seem a kind act, except he was already so passive in the relationship, and it’s a lot easier to keep it going than take a stand and let it go. He’s ghosting her while still her boyfriend, in addition to subtle gaslighting and just outright ignoring her. Dani wants connection; Christian wants out, but not enough to shake a status quo that he understands.
Really, I could write for hours about how Aster sets the stage with the isolation experienced by all the characters:
– Dani’s sister commits suicide because, in her words, ‘everything’s black,’ and murders her parents with her, the ultimate attempt to quell the alienation and isolation that depression can cause.
– About ninety percent of the shots of Christian show him through a mirror, turned away in three-quarters profile from the camera, or parts of him cut off—subtle camera storytelling to indicate how disconnected he is from Dani and his friends but also to distance him from the audience.
– Christian’s friends pretend to be friendly with Dani, but she brings down the whole dynamic of the male bond between the five men—not that the friendships are warm and intimate to begin with, given the stiff way the boys sit with each other and eventually go off to do their own thing while Dani speaks with Pele, the foreign exchange student to the Anthropology Department.
In the beginning, that’s the only real moment of warmth, although it’s broken when Dani has to walk away to deal with her grief alone. Who’s she going to share it with? Her dead family, her sister whose emotional extremes led to the murder-suicide? Her boyfriend, who held her during her initial sobs but who showed the audience his thousand-yard stare of despair at being trapped in the relationship due to Dani’s grief? Every time, she walks away to be alone as she struggles to hold tears back. Which Florence Pugh is really good at, by the way. Kind of like Robin Tunney in The Craft, Pugh spends a good portion of the movie in a near or complete breakdown state, which isn’t emotionally easy at all.
This is something that hits me hard every time it happens in the movie, because I’m sure I’m not the only one to bottle up a powerful emotion until I can get to a place of relative isolation. People don’t know what to do with grief, sadness, frustration, anger, because in an aggressively optimistic culture, these feelings—all of which are quite normal—are seen as aberrations to be hidden and excised as soon as possible, weaknesses that must be shored up with a brittle smile. Our culture (although not ours alone) has no idea what to do with these emotions except scold them into submission, thus enhancing this sense of isolation with others and discouraging empathy or even just sympathy.
Which is why the Halga community offers something so tempting to someone from the outside. They don’t just forge intimacy through sexuality but through extreme empathy for the people they live with and through their connection to nature, which is the entire foundation of the movie. They’re a collectivistic rather than individualistic society, a family of sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, with defined roles for everyone. Really, aside from the Blood Eagle and human compost, what’s not to like? The way Pele immediately latched onto her as needing the community the most, because she’d lost her family and had no one with whom to share the load of her grief, the way they accepted Dani both in her quiet horror at the suicide ritual and as the community’s May Queen to bless their crops, ultimately to when the girls refuse to let her go off alone in her grief and instead cry with her, not just mockery but making themselves feel her pain… Because in the Halga community, no one has to be alone. The emotional turning point of the movie is when Pele says to Dani about Christian, “He’s my good friend and I like him, but… Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?”
From what I can tell, Midsommar was Florence Pugh’s breakout role, and well-deserved, although she got another chance in something more mainstream with Gerwig’s Little Women. I’d apparently seen her in two other horror(ish) movies—Malevolent and The Falling—although I didn’t recognize has as someone I’d already seen when I saw her in Midsommar. Pugh is a master at withheld emotion, containing, pushing down behind her unique face, then finally letting it show.
I swear, she got this role on the strength of her almost exaggerated frown, needed to show the transition from her grief and loneliness to the moment she finally feels free and held by the community, laden with wildflowers.
At what cost? Aster doesn’t judge, but although Christian, Josh, and Mark all trespass in some way, the reason for the deaths of the UK couple seems a little less clear. The way I interpreted it was that Ingemar was punishing Connie for choosing Simon over him, which isn’t so much of a trespass as a personal vendetta. Perhaps their trespass was Simon’s far more vocal reaction to the suicide ritual. Or perhaps there wasn’t a slasher trespass at all and they were just bodies for the final ritual, which is far more disturbing and I can sit with that for a while.
Because of how slow-burn Ari Aster is with his movies, I’m a little afraid that executive permissiveness might lead to him making bad editorial choices in the future. But after Hereditary, it was a helluva thing to produce a sophomore movie just as masterfully disturbing as the freshman outing. I have no doubt he’ll be held up with Mike Flanagan and James Wan as one of the great horror directors of this era, and Hereditary and Midsommar remembered for the same artistry as The Shining, but with more heart.