The definition and goals of horror abound and stretches in this golden age: as does the run time. And now, The Hereditary filmmaker Ari Aster returns with his ode to folk horror: Midsommar, whose genre conventions play out in an ambitious and profoundly disturbing film detailing community, decaying relationships, and miscommunication, while returning the director to the subject of paganism.
Aster’s Midsommar‘s 140 minute run time is split into three sections: the quiet sardonic opening, the hallucinogenic killing, and the catharsis. The film’s most important shot: a close-up of Ativan just before Dani (Florence Pugh) swallows her medication, happens in the first 20 minutes. Used to relieve anxiety, Ativan also causes suicidal tendencies, paranoia, and lapses in memory and judgment. We only see her take the pills once, but Aster: in a film relying on characters consuming hallucinogenics, creates several unreliable narrators, namely Dani.
Midsommar‘s main themes: apathy and community, comprise the film’s first section. Dani, whose circle of friends includes her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his classmate Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter), are incapable of demonstrating empathy, even after she experiences an unspeakable tragedy. Instead, they’re distant, as Aster’s camera and script often is, avoiding confrontation on a ratcheting test of emotional repression. Such apathetic fissures burst when their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites them to his community for a once every 90 years festival. The secluded idyllic community initially offers “refuge” for the students, before descending into a Whoville commune of drugs, death, and pagan rituals. Instead, they’re distant, as Aster’s camera and script often is, avoiding confrontation on a ratcheting test of emotional repression. Such apathetic fissures burst when their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites them to his community for a once every 90 years festival. The secluded idyllic community initially offers “refuge” for the students, before descending into a Whoville commune of drugs, death, and pagan rituals.
The festival, occurring around the Summer Solstice, where daylight stretches throughout the “night,” offers a blindingly bright sunlit pallet, allowing Aster to command a disorientating composition. Here, fright and murder may occur when the sun’s out too. The ubiquitous white costumes of gowns and flower crowns worn by the villagers, designed by Andrea Flesch, matches the washed out country landscape, while the mise-en-scène and set design, as well, relying on medieval runes and art, often act as foreshadowing. In combination with a relatively quiet film, especially for a horror, Aster designs significant spikes of alarm when he subtracts the sound all-together, especially in the second section of the film.
The second portion, the killing section, relies on an escalation of unreliability, miscommunication, and mistranslation. Throughout the film, an ascension of drugs occurs: the group, namely Dani, transitions from using weed, anti-anxiety medication, and sleeping pills to extreme hallucinogenics. Under those drugs, everything the viewers sees is impaired, allowing Aster to create several layers of unreliable narrators while consequently adorning the film with several surprisingly funny instances of miscommunication and mistranslation.
Like the unreadable runes, individual emotional queues, cultural traditions and symbolism, and the mirrored breathing between characters, which is a language in itself reminding one of the performance art at the center of Madeline’s Madeline, taking shape in the background of the Swedish dialect, Dani and Christian also experience instances of miscommunication. In fact, Midsommar is mainly a break-up film, and furthermore, a redefining of the family unit. Dani, through each disintegration of her familial and romantic bonds, experiences “betrayal.” Her sister kills her family; her friends lack compassion; her boyfriend treats her like crap, and ultimately catches the attention of a young girl in the village, and the only welcoming arms she finds is Pelle’s ritualistic cult, making religion the ultimate refuge to find constant connectivity.
Running at a methodical pace, Midsommar approaches this community from both an anthropological and psychological perspective. There’s a tid bit of a joke here, as anthropologists and psychologists often find each other’s methods and conclusions grating and incomprehensible, making the fact that Dani is the lone psych major among the anthropology grad students another opportunity for miscommunication, and causing further internal strife within the group. Aster combines certain knowable characteristics of this commune’s culture and festival with the unknowable interiority of their motives, especially as the hallucinogenics take hold of individual characters.
Consequently, Florence Pugh, through much of Midsommar, masterfully matches surface-level tension and grieving, with a stoic distancing from events. No scene exemplifies this melding of emotions than the sacrifice: When two town elders disturbingly leap to their deaths off a cliff. Dani, in shock, stares as they plummet. However, later releases an understandable desire to leave, which is quickly dissolved by Pelle. The flip between surface to interior by Pugh is incredible, an ability she demonstrates throughout the film, especially during the hallucinogenics scenes, which by their very nature requires a slight of hand when concerning interior emotions and images: in this case, how Dani sees her body becoming part grass, reminiscent of Annihilation.
Sometimes the strata of unreliable narrators causes the logic of Midsommar to fray, but as the characters open themselves to the “infinite,” Aster provides a sense of community within the script, even among disintegrating relationships. Among this commune, this religion, a shared empathy occurs. Here no one fights over “what’s theirs and not theirs,” as Pelle remarks. Instead, this Swedish “family” allows for an emotional transfer to occur that can’t happen under the auspices of the apathetic American students.
The final cathartic 10 minutes, as Dani’s pain is felt and actualized throughout the community harks to the film’s first section. A wild abundance of empathy pervades this cult, reflecting and refracting on each citizen as they copy and consume Dani’s breathing and wailing, making the fear and act of feeling the main trauma and horror at the center of Midsommar. And, as violin strings loudly rise over the once quiet and hilly landscape, as a temple burns asunder, and Dani slowly lurches across a wide shot covered in a bed of flowers while the sounds of wailing surrounds her, her expression changes from fear to a perverse smile. And in the sadistic and giddy smile of Dani, lurks Ari Aster’s ambitious, confounding, and stellar chapter of folklore horror. Indeed, Midsommar is worth its weight in flowers, an echoed scream into the daylight.