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Film Review: Midsommar

Midsommar (2019; Directed by Ari Aster)

On one level, Ari Aster’s Midsommar is a handsome and grandiose new folk horror classic, following a quartet of American graduate students as they learn more than they ever would have wanted to know about an isolated Swedish pagan commune with sunny dispositions and very dark cultural (emphasis on “cult”) practices. On this level, it’s an artfully disturbing experience, its arcane midsummer ceremonies and maypole dancing punctuated by bloodier and more primeval approaches to communal spirituality that speak to the horror genre’s gory prurience. Its most obvious and well-know genre antecedent would be The Wicker Man, but cinephiles might recommend a number of other folk horror entries worth considering, many of them from Britain and Japan.

But on another level, Midsommar is a peculiarly-pitched but extraordinarily powerful artistic statement on the isolation of grief and the power of community compassion in mitigating that isolation. Considering the very literal blood sacrifices required to lift the weight of that grief, it is twisted as hell, indeed almost sociopathic, that this is Aster’s ultimate thematic point. But Midsommar is cinematic art that can’t not be called challenging, after all. It cuts very deep.

Protagonist Dani (the utterly amazing Florence Pugh) feels the fresh sting of the agony of loss, her bipolar sister having carbon monoxided herself and their parents to death in the film’s coldly troubling opening scenes. Unfortunately, her only support network after this devastating tragedy is her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who is emotionally disinterested and self-centered, more invested in hanging out with his college buddies than providing for Dani’s emotional needs and intending to break up with her before her entire family’s death makes that too much of a dick move even for him. Christian also intends to travel to Sweden over the summer with those friends: horny frattish Mark (Will Poulter), focused anthropology major Josh (William Jackson Harper), and chilled-out, beatific Swede Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the latter of which grew up in the secretive ancestral commune that they intend to visit (and that Josh, whose thesis deals with traditional midsummer celebrations, intends to study). To mitigate the perceived slight of planning to leave the country in Dani’s time of need (social politeness gets many characters into deep trouble in this movie, not that rude refusal provides any escape either), Christian invites her to come along, and despite recurring, overwhelming panic attacks at slightest hint of what happened to her loved ones, Dani accepts.

On the way to the idyllic hidden-valley compound of the Hårga in remote Hälsingland, Aster’s camera follows the travellers’ car down the highway, tracking over it and then flipping upside-down, with the ground at the top of the frame and the sky at the bottom. This (dis)orientation continues as they pass under a welcoming banner draped across the forest-lined road, then bleeds into the next scene of preparatory welcome and magic-mushrooms-bidden hallucinations (Pelle’s communal “brother” Ingemar, played by Hampus Hallberg, is likewise a portrait in bliss even as he practically introduces the Americans and his own English guests to the other Hårga with “Check out the new meat, everyone!” relish). This place is in the land of the midnight sun, close enough to the Arctic Circle to have only a couple of hours of duskish darkness at night in high summer before the sun comes out again. This effect further disorients Dani and the others (Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia explores a similar effect on Al Pacino’s murder-investigating character in Alaska, itself a remake of Norwegian film likewise set in the far north), combining with the sleep deprivation, natural hallucinogens, and otherworldly weirdness of the Hårga community to add up to a unstable experience. Like the camera move on the highway, the midnight sun is a symbolic idea of inversion that sets the stage for the rest of Midsommar.

If you don’t wish to be spoiled regarding Midsommar‘s subsequent shocks and unsettling images, then suffice it to say that although the Hårga present themselves to their guests as cheery and bright and positive, their rituals and cultural and social beliefs might well be described, with sober academic detachment, as completely fucked up. If you’ve seen the film or are otherwise willing to have some of its latter half details revealed, it might be so necessary to do so in order to consider how Ari Aster achieves his potent cumulative artistic effects. Although I haven’t seen Aster’s acclaimed feature debut from last year, Hereditary, I am to understand that it shares many features with Midsommar; Youtube video essayist Ryan Hollinger describes the films as natural companions, with Midsommar very much a spiritual sequel to the darker and more macabre Hereditary, as both films are about social units in painful emotional turmoil over the backdrop of violent and menacing cults. But where Hereditary was about the fracturing of a family under the force of supernatural horrors (Robert Eggers’ The Witch, another recent standout of folk horror from A24, the distributor of Aster’s films, has similar subject matter and themes), Midsommar is (quite perversely) ultimately hopeful, a film about finding communal acceptance (even if that community kills people with casual regularity) and thus overcoming grief.

Midsommar is a horror parable about life and death, about loneliness and belonging. Dani (a psychology major) is constantly seeking mental and emotional equilibrium after the unthinkable tragedy she has suffered, but it is always taken away from her: by her emotional disconnection from Christian and his friends, by the weird, drug-laced experiences at the commune, and above all by anxious manifested eruptions of memories of the tragedy itself. Her fellow guests seek equilibrium at the commune, too: while Mark seems to just want to drink, get high, and get laid (find your equilibirum however you need to, I suppose), Josh and eventually Christian seek stability and meaning in the academic study of the commune and its culture, in the epistomological quantification of their unquantifiable spiritual earth-magic belief-system and its anthropological manifestations. But the Hårga’s belief-system is predicated on natural balance and eternal circularity, on a paganistic emphasis on equilibrium between the human and the natural world, between the living and the dead, between the conception of new life and the serene yet visceral intentional ending of an old one (the scene of a ceremony at a cliffside that demonstrates this graphically is the first of several ghastly shockwaves that this movie has in store). In this balance and its communal shouldering of life’s emotional traumas, Dani is the one who finds an unlikely home.

Josh’s privileging of knowledge over enlightenment and Mark’s crude thoughtlessness both disrespect and transgress that balance, and they pay the price for their transgressions. Christian tries to ingratiate himself into the community and its culture, a quite literally more hands-on form of research than Josh’s attempts to record and classify, as the distance in his relationship with Dani becomes impossible for either of them to deny, but the condescension and self-involvement and bumbling half-unintentional jerkhood that characterizes his behaviour vis-à-vis Dani hamstrings his rapprochement with the Hårga: after deciding to do his thesis on the commune (thus trespassing on Josh’s academic territory, to the latter’s resentful chagrin), Christian is marked as a suitable mate to a breeding-age teen girl (Isabelle Grill) and willingly participates in ritualized intercourse with her, surrounded by the naked chanting women of the commune. But his shame and doubt overcome him after giving up his life-granting seed, and he is immobilized after discovering the grisly fate of other trangressive outsiders.

Dani, who shares a history of loss and grief with Pelle (the nice, handsome cult boy offers her emotional support and understanding that Christian is incapable of, and whose own parents’ fate anticipates the events of the film’s final scene), does not trangress the cultural norms of the commune and indeed becomes accepted as one of them, winning a semi-hallucinogenic maypole dancing endurance contest to become May Queen and being celebrated as an important figure among them with a vital role to play (she even briefly understands and speaks Swedish, symbolically crossing the barrier of linguistic incomprehension). When a heavy-breathing anxiety attack threatens to overcome her, the young women of the commune gasp and howl in unison with her, her agony becoming theirs and therefore transmogrifying into cathartic communal ritual, a weight shared that becomes a weight lifted from her own shoulders.

It’s surely no accident that almost all of these foreigners who break the paganistic Hårga’s rules with arriviste arrogance have biblical names: Mark (the Evangelist), Josh(ua, the general of the Israelites’ invasion of Canaan after the Exodus), Simon (the other name of Doubting Saint Peter, as this Brit character proves to be when confronted with some of the most extreme of the Hårga’s beliefs). The name Christian, of course, is an on-the-nose invocation of Christianity, and darkly ironic given his lack of selfless decency. Even Dani herself might be gesturing to the Old Testament hero Daniel, who proved himself worthy and loyal to his Babylonian captors while remaining true to his Abrahamic beliefs.

Midsommar does not employ its pagan rituals to destabilize Christian orthodoxy and query its hypocrisies and its ineffectuality as The Wicker Man did, and although the films share a memorable infernal climax, Midsommar‘s is concerned with personal revelation and hard-won joy: Dani the May Queen is cocooned in flowers, weeping in anguished horror alongside the empathic paroxysms of the Hårga cultists as a sacred temple with human sacrifices inside is consumed by flames. But in the final frames, as the building collapses, so does her debilitating pain and grief, and, superimposed on the destruction with eyes shining, Dani smiles. The direction by Aster and cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is astounding in this scene, and Pugh is mesmerizing, veritably possessed by primordial emotion. But the element that elevates the sequence to transcendence is Bobby Krlic’s simultaneously swelling and unnerving score: in its closing crescendoes, a lush rising sunrise melody contends with underlying splintering frayed-nerve strings, the heartclenching sublime of high Romantic myth tangled in the existential anxiety of a Schoenbergian nightmare. What a piece of remarkable total cinema that closing scene is.

Midsommar is the sort of hyper-real, indelibly haunting high-horror film that demands elevated attention to detail. Experts on runes (a.k.a. Futhark alphabets) could surely pick out hidden meanings carven on standing stonesm sewed into ceremonial gowns, even encoded in the arrangement of dining tables. Extra-careful awareness in the film’s establishing scenes Stateside reveals resonant, unsettling minutiae in Henrik Svensson’s production design: not merely the uneasily anticipatory Hårga murals emblazoned on the walls of commune buildings (a splash-page-style frame of such folk art opens the movie, its images laying out nearly the entire plot of the film to come), but ominous elements in the American students’ apartments like a book on the Nazis’ interest in secret runic languages and a foreshadowing print of a girl wearing a crown kissing a hulking bear, “Stackars lilla Basse!” by 19th/20th-century Swedish artist John Bauer. Svensson even claimed that messages critiquing Swedish nationalism are embedded in the folk-art murals and other design details in the film. It’s certainly hard to miss that the fire temple consumed in the closing scene is painted with the gold and blue of the Swedish flag, like a miniaturized IKEA selling not cheap plywood furniture but disemboweled bearskin suits.

Given all of this depth and layering of design and symbolism, this heightened thematic and emotional meaning, this transcendence of folk horror genre convention, and its central superb performance, one is lead towards speaking about Midsommar as great. It’s worth thinking about Aster’s auteur bonafides, which are backed up by a conspicuous Martin Scorsese shoutout in a New York Times op-ed about the state of cinema, after all. There is much that is impressive and even profound about Midsommar, but also much that is salacious and provocative for the sake of shock about its horror elements (one of the cult’s victims is given a blood eagle, a quite likely imagined gory execution method that is such a favourite of pagan Viking Age cultural products that it has practically become a stealth cliché, and carries little meaning here). Its disturbing imagery can sometimes reflect the depths of Dani’s grief and her disintegrating relationship with Christian (Aster wrote the film while going through a difficult breakup, and as is often the case with unnerving works thus inspired, I feel sorry for the woman anonymously addressed in these ideas and images) or the Hårga’s loop of death and rebirth, but it also often exists for its own shocking sake in the cycle of stomach-turning one-up-manship of the horror genre. Midsommar summons such primal, surging power – especially in its final throes – that it can be easy to overlook its flaws, its half-explored concepts and plot points (what’s with the disabled incest-produced prophet and the missing sacred text? Who knows!), its occasional sops to generic expectations. Midsommar can be a nasty film, but it also can be a beautiful one. There is a delicately poised balance between the two, and Aster’s film frequently finds it. What more can one ask of cinema?

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