Midsommar (2019)

Directed by Ari Aster

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The most horrifying moment in Midsommar might be in the prologue.  It at least has the most dread in the film, a sequence that like most horror films is dark, moody and tense.  The rest of the film takes place in the often bright, sometimes purposefully overexposed and all around pleasant environment somewhere in Sweden.  It’s a summer festival which does turn deadly but which challenges your understanding of how horror should look and feel.

I suppose that’s because this might not exactly be a horror film.  Like with Hereditary this is a movie in which the horror, or at least the more sensational aspects of the story, connects to another kind of trauma, one that is similarly heightened but otherwise unconnected from the horror movie premise.

In Hereditary that was a moment which happened pretty early into the film’s runtime but was caused, we’re led to believe, by certain factors already at play within the story.  In Midsommar we open with a disturbing family tragedy that has no bearing on any subsequent plot events.  Instead it effectively sets the mood and puts us in the mind of our main character, Dani (Florence Pugh).

The prologue takes place in winter, somewhere with snow.  The majority of the remainder of the film takes place in summer, a time of rebirth, as we’re told.  Dani tags along with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).

They have planned a trip to a week-long midsummer festival at a commune at which Peele grew up.  Though one of them has in mind to write a thesis about such festivals, they’re really going for the same reason you go anywhere.  It’s a “guys trip,” and when Dani decides to come along it throws them all for a loop, mostly because they can’t stand her and think Christian should get rid of her.

Aster has said that this is first and foremost a breakup story.  In a phone call with another friend Dani expresses her fear that she’s unloading too much on Christian when he hardly seems to have baggage of his own.  Her friend points out that she shouldn’t look at it as unloading, maybe she’s just opening up while he is not.

We’re firmly in Dani’s head, so that we experience her nightmares, but we can also see how she will change.  By the end of the film she will let go of Christian and use his departure as a way to fulfill something else, to find catharsis.  It’s an unsettling but effective moment which finds tragedy in everything even as it turns into a joyous moment for Dani.  

I’m getting ahead of myself, but this is quite a fascinating film, and one reason I think has to do with these interpersonal dynamics.  Putting aside Dani’s trauma, this really is just a breakup story, and that in itself is melodramatic.  This then being more of a psychological horror film, I wonder if there isn’t an existing similarity between horror and melodrama.  As Ari Aster explained on The Big Picture podcast, “you take the movie and make it as big as the feelings the characters are feeling… where the external matches the internal.”

We’re meant to feel everything that Dani feels, and much of it has to do with how she feels about Christian.  Their relationship, even though it’s the driving subtext, is still just the subtext.  Oddly enough the actual festivities seem to be commentary on the subtext of their relationship, and since it is the text of the film, this is indeed a film about the internal being externalized.  

But isn’t that so much of horror?  I’m just talking myself in circles, and maybe it’s a chicken or the egg thing, which came first, the knife-wielding villain or the threat of symbolic death that the villain represents?  Or something like that.

Grief is a theme within the film.  Dani, because of her kind of sh*tty boyfriend, is forced to grieve alone.  Within the commune, however, people will literally scream in horror when another is in pain, perhaps just trying to mimic it but then doing so with such force that it seems as though they actually feel that person’s pain.  Later they will scream for and with Dani.

And it’s quite compelling, both as a visual and as an idea, that it’s better to grieve with others, to share the burden.  Ideally we have people to lean on to help us through, people who can do a better job than Christian.

So Dani will find strength in community, in the people around her, and by the end of the film she has essentially been reborn.  She finds an acceptance in a place that literally kills people and more symbolically kills off part of her.  She lets her old self die, so to speak, and becomes someone else, and it’s in that catharsis that the film remains quite haunted, purposefully so.  For her to let go of Christian and the others, well maybe it’s obvious that they’ve died, because they’ve died.  They’re picked off in the ways characters are always picked off in horror films, and she survives.

But she always had to let him (and by proxy his friends) go so that she could be reborn, just as anyone is after a breakup or a tragedy or anything somewhat life altering.  It’s beautiful and poetic as an idea, but because that “death” is so horrific, well it’s clear we shouldn’t forget about it.  It’s meant to be murky.  She gets what she wants but at what cost.

And I think this idea asks us to consider the ways we move past things, how we grieve and what it does to us.  One way we move on from things, it seems to me, is that we do kind of kill them in our minds.  We grow defiant, proud, or maybe just vindictive.  The ways of before are thrown under the bus, and then we celebrate the present and future.  In this manner of things maybe we don’t properly appreciate who we are, at least if we’re so eager to put that version of ourselves behind us.

So I suppose the film argues for more moderation in self-evolution.  Maybe the process of change shouldn’t be so down and dirty.

But at the same time the film presents the idea of moving on with grace, probably too much grace.  When during the festival two characters jump calmly to their deaths, the visitors including our main characters react with horror.  Pelle explains that it’s not so horrific, to voluntarily give your life, and maybe the way we cling to our own lives is the truly horrific thing.  

It’s an idea, and it connects to certain modes of thought that suggest we hurry to submit ourselves to the greater forces at play.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, that kind of thing.  There are a couple moments in the film when Dani, having taken shrooms, sees grass growing from her hands and feet, harkening back to an image in Alex Garland’s Annihilation.  We came from the earth, and we’ll return to it.

So on one hand it is about acceptance, giving up control.  We can’t hang on forever, and we’re just killing ourselves if we try.  And yet rebirth within the film is so torturous, particularly at the expense of others.  Dani will finally get her moment in the sun, but only following many people dying.  

So is there one takeaway?  Probably not.  It’s a story about grief, a bit here and there about vengeance, about relationships and selfishness, about death itself and perhaps how we live on afterwards.  If we live on afterwards.  The film makes the idea of healthy interpersonal relationships feel implausible, just as Hereditary did with healthy family dynamics.

Up Next: Red River (1948), Wild Rose (2018), Asako I & II (2018)

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