By: Jolie Featherstone
“I forgot I was making a horror movie.”
Director Ari Aster’s quip about his headspace during the production of Midsommar, his highly-anticipated sophomore feature film, elicited a round of impressed (and somewhat nervous) laughter from the delirious audience that had just experienced his two-and-a-half-hour opus centered on a young couple trapped in terrifying circumstances. As Aster himself would describe it, Midsommar is not so much a horror film as it is a break-up folk tale. Fair warning: this break-up folk tale has more in common with Blue Valentine than He’s Just Not That Into You.
Midsommar introduces us to Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), a young couple who have been together for four years and are becoming acutely aware of the frayed edges and thinning fabric of their partnership. Dani’s energy is pulled between her responsibility to her family and her fear that she is relying too heavily on Christian, while also feeling disconnected from him. For Christian, the state of his relationship with Dani is weighing on his mind. He is paralyzed by his uncertainty between continuing to commit to Dani or ending the relationship. Within the first 30 minutes of the film, Dani is faced with a horrific experience that plunges her into a deep state of grief and depression. Christian attempts to provide comfort to Dani, but it is clear that he is still wrestling with where their relationship stands.
Unbeknownst to Dani, Christian and his friends have been planning a trip to Europe. Their friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), is an international student who hails from a collectivistic community based in a remote village in Sweden. The community, known as the Hårga, devoutly abides by its pagan-esque belief system. Every 90 years they observe a nine-day midsommar festival. Pelle invites his American friends to join him for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Mired in guilt, Christian invites Dani to join them on the trip – much to his friend’s annoyance. As the group embarks on their first drug-fueled foray into the midsommar experience, the film undergoes a metamorphosis. It leaves behind the dark and dismal world of Dani and Christian’s life back home and enters a blindingly bright pastoral paradise. The metamorphosis is not unlike that of a classic family film which also transitions from a bleak, gritty reality to a Technicolor dream-world. This would explain why Aster has referred to Midsommar as “The Wizard of Oz for perverts”. He admitted that he made that declaration after a few beverages, but it’s not entirely inaccurate.
The triumph of Midsommar is Aster’s ability to tilt the metamorphosis: the film moves from a grim reality to a floral daydream. Yet as soon as the characters enter the sun-kissed Swedish ‘Eden’, an oppressive dread permeates the air. From here on in, the audience enters an enduring fever dream.
This tonal change is stunning to behold. Additionally, its ramifications on storytelling and purpose are ten-fold. Aster said that the events that take place during the festival are “wish fulfillment” for Dani. Hence, this incisive descent into a dread-soaked dream is wholly intentional, from both a visual and narrative angle. We are no longer a fly on the wall witnessing a troubled relationship between two people. We are now aligned with Dani’s perspective which is influenced by waves of grief, anger, resentment, fear, and loneliness. As the film reaches its crescendo, Aster artfully leads us to question the reliability of our narrator. The final act, like any good folk tale, imparts a message. The message here being that in any relationship, truths and experiences are intricately coded and connected by histories, personalities, and, perhaps most dangerous of all, expectations.
There is a strong parallel between the Hårga and their American counterparts which is vocalized by Pelle. In an intimate conversation with Dani, Pelle explains to her that she comes from a society where people argue over what belongs to them. He explains that in his community, no one argues over such things. They live in a communal and loving system. This brings us to the notion of belonging and possessiveness in a relationship: how much do we ‘belong’ to another person? To what extent do they ‘belong’ to us? Aster hinted that perhaps the true villain in Midsommar is co-dependency. He wrote Midsommar as a way to process and regain his footing after a break-up. Aster pushes the audience to question their own biases in relation to the film’s subject matter. The Hårga are a collectivistic society: is that co-dependency? Is Dani and Christian’s strained relationship co-dependent? As interviewer Andrea Subissati of Rue Morgue so eloquently put it, Aster’s films are a sandbox: whatever you dig up from it is whatever you were looking to find.
Similar to Hereditary, Aster chooses to augment and process trauma through a woman’s perspective. Florence Pugh, one of the most promising and exciting young actors working today, delivers a primal and powerful performance. Since her electrifying turn in Lady Macbeth, Pugh has proven herself to be a versatile and intuitive actor. She is captivating to watch. Her performance in Midsommar is astounding not only in the crushing physicality it demands but also in successfully making Dani feel relatable and real despite the hallucinogenic atmosphere.
The movie almost succeeds in demonstrating elliptical pacing but doesn’t quite hit the mark. Aster’s debut feature-length film, Hereditary, presented much tighter narrative pacing. In Hereditary, reality and the paranormal maintain a lock-step integration, lending the film a groundedness that amplifies the wound at the end. It’s so acute in its sting, that when it reaches its finale the catharsis is silencing. In contrast, Midsommar’s finale does not elicit the same acute response as the catharsis is more diffused.
On a similar note, the tragedy Dani experiences at the beginning of the film is under-explored. We see Dani both struggling and coping with grief at different points. As the film progresses, her initial loss feels relegated to little more than a launchpad into the events and fodder for a couple of jump scares during her odyssey. This does not “break” the movie by any means. However, it does leave a little to be desired; a large stone left unturned.
Midsommar stumbles in its pacing and plotting. However, the film is visually stunning and masterfully sensual. A true artist is a creator who experiments and takes risks in bringing their own vision to life. That must always be applauded – therefore so should Midsommar be applauded in its ambition and uncompromising vision.
The tension in the question of individualism vs. collectivism – whether in a societal or an interpersonal sense – is rife with opportunity. Following an interesting thread he raised in Hereditary, Aster explores pre-determination and individual will in Midsommar. Just as the fates of all of the family members in Hereditary were sealed well before they ever had a chance to understand their circumstances, Dani and Christian’s fate is sealed before they ever reach the festival. Aster continues to challenge audiences to evaluate their perspectives and expectations. With Midsommar, he solidifies himself as an emerging, modern auteur.
NOTE: Quotes recorded from a Q&A with director Ari Aster, actor Jack Reynor at the Toronto Scotiabank Theatre on June 25, 2019. The interview was conducted by Andrea Subissati of Rue Morgue.
Do You Tweet? Follow These Tweeple:
Jolie Featherstone: @TOFilmFiles