Dir. Ari Aster
A young woman, Dani, loses her entire family in a tragic accident. She accompanies her boyfriend and his college associates to Sweden to observe the Midsummer celebration of an isolated religious community. Soon Danifinds that at the idyllic setting and charming inhabitants might not be as peaceful as she first assumes.
Ari Aster’s first short film, The Strange Thing About The Johnsons, showed an early aptitude for slow boiling, intense horror. After a stint directing shorts, Aster came screaming out of the gate with 2018’s Hereditary, to wide critical acclaim. Critics loved the film. A. A. Dowd at The A.V. Club compared the film to The Exorcist, in terms of it’s harrowing seriousness. But Aster was by no means slowing down. A year later, Aster’s sophomore feature length film, Midsommar, in July of 2019. Other than The Witch, few films have brought Folk Horror into the mainstream. And in many regards, it’s the ideal film to bring modern audiences into the subgenre.
Midsommar, in many regards, is the spiritual sibling to The Wicker Man, utilizing the best available cinematography of it’s day to capture pure daytime horror. For the modern era, it might be the single best representation of the genre, and hopefully a sign of things to come. Folk Horror as a subgenre might not ever have the sheer raw appeal of a horror subgenre like a Slasher or Haunted House story. But for the braver sort of film goer, Midsommar has it all.
All of the elements necessary for Folk Horror to occur is in place; an isolated community, an outsider, an ominous secret, and the horrific power of revelation. But where the other Folk Horror films fall short, Midsommar hits the mark. Hagazussa, for instance, shows us Albrun isolated from her community. The Wicker Man gives us Sgt. Howie and his investigation. But Midsommar provides us with Dani, who is ultimately relatable. Her relationship with her boyfriend Christian is strained. Her family relationships are shattered by tragic, senseless death. Compared to Albrun’s seeming mental illness, and Sgt. Howie’s seemingly relentless bigotry, Dani is relatable. Most people have been in an unhealthy relationship. Many people have been forced to make sense of their lives after an unexpected family death. Dani is the human center that so many successful stories require. Florence Pugh, who plays Dani, brings an absolute vulnerability to her role that it’s impossible to not feel for her.
A theme that runs through Midsommar is consent. Dani is forced into almost
every situation in the film. Starting with the death of her family and ending with her interactions with the Harga (the cloistered religious community who serve as the ostensible antagonists in the film.) Dani is in many ways deprived of autonomous choice throughout Midsommar, and this subtly dehumanizing force makes her a target. But what is more insidious? The seemingly brutal naturalism of the Harga, or that of social norms in the less-cloistered world? Christian, Dani’s boyfriend, is the sort of bad partner who quietly gaslights only for his own relative comfort. Their relationship is in many regards, codependent. This line of early dialogue clearly outlines their issue:
Dani: [on the phone] It’s just in his tone – you can hear it. It’s like he’s trying to work up the nerve to say something and I just keep staving it off.
Girlfriend: So don’t stave him off. Be direct! Confront him!
Dani: Well – what if I scared him? I’m always roping him into my family crap…I’m always leaning on him! I tell him everything! I even called him today in tears because my sister sent me another scary email. What if I’m scaring him off?
The terrors of unhealthy relationships blending with potential malice of a small religious community, however, is counterpointed by simply stunning choreography. Set in rural Sweden, during a time of year with minimal night time, the biggest moments of terror are shown in pure sunlight. The majority of the film is not given any obfuscation. The seemingly idyllic countryside is as full of as much danger as the muddy furrows of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, but the lack of any exterior ugliness is part of the lure of this film. Rather like Summerisle in The Wicker Man, there is something seductive about the life of the Harga. Seeing this sundrenched community dancing, eating communal meals, and sharing seemingly genuine affection for every member of their commune is refreshing. Pelle, one of the members of the community, delivers this point brilliantly while trying to sooth Dani about her life:
Pelle:My birth-parents both died when I was a little boy. They burned up in a fire, and I became – technically – an orphan. So believe me when I say I know what that is, because I do. Yet my difference is: I didn’t get a chance to feel lost. Because I had a family – here – where everyone embraced me and swept me up and I was raised by a community that doesn’t distinguish between what is theirs and what is not theirs. That’s what you were sacrificed to. But I – have always felt…held. By a family. A real family. Which everyone deserves. And you deserve.
But What Is Midsommar Trying To Tell Us?
Midsommar is, at its heart, a story of loss and toxic relationships. But it offers an interesting set of questions. It asks us about the role of community and love.
Dani’s relationship with Christian is so obviously unhealthy. But it’s not hard to imagine a different plot, where Dani is genuinely comforted by Christian. It seems like the right thing for him to do is not metaphorically push her away with one hand after her tragic loss. Had Christian showed Dani more genuine affection in that moment, perhaps her mental state would not have been so shaky. It’s also shown that her family relationship has been wildly strained by mental health issues with her sister. Had her family been more stable, though no fault of their own, would Dani have found herself so tempted by the Harga?
As stated in the analysis of Hagazussa, communities have a traditional role in making the lives of it’s members better, and more stable. Dani has been isolated from any organic community and she suffers profoundly because of it. Isolation can be destructive and Dani suffers it’s ill-effects in very believable ways. The conflict of modern and ancient serves as a profound backdrop to this very issue. The Harga is connected to each other, to their land, and to their ancient traditions. The relative isolation of modern people is sharply visible when contrasted to these practices. As such, if offered a position of comfort and care amongst a caring community, how might any other grieving, alienated person behave?
Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis. For more of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show