Saturday, November 14, 2020

MIDSOMMAR 2019

Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review. Therefore, many crucial
plot points are revealed and referenced for analysis. 

Like every other Black family I knew growing up, I was raised in a household that normalized living with a savagely tortured semi-naked white man. On the wall of the hallway leading from our living room to my bedroom hung an ornately-framed painting of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross. This meant that the first thing I saw each morning and the last thing I saw before bed was the gruesome spectacle of a bearded, emaciated man captured in the throes of unspeakable agony from having spikes driven through his hands and feet, and thorns crammed into his skull. This nightmare tableau was illuminated by a tubular electric light attached to a heavy, gilt-metal frame, and, as it was one of those lenticular, Vari-Vue prints much-coveted among the Catholic set at the time, when you stood in front of it and moved side to side, Jesus’ pleading, heavenward-cast eyes would close and open.

That the painting’s over-the-top kitschiness disturbed me more than the pious torture-porn it depicted speaks to why, in later years, my Catholic status graduated to lapsed. I always had a problem with what I came to view as the religion's glorification of suffering and the preponderant role violence plays in the spiritual instruction of children. The alignment of violence and morality makes it all too easy to convince people to accept, justify, and even legitimize all manner of cruelty, repression, and brutality. Provided there's the reassurance of said carnage being carried out in the name of a perceived sense of righteousness, a presumed moral authority, or an unquestioning fealty to religious dogma.

In the minds and hearts of many, there exists the humane assumption that spirituality and violence represent a paradox; that they are inherently and at once at odds with one another. In the alternatingly glorious/grotesque very grim fairy tale that is Midsommar, director Ari Aster posits the dualist theory that spirituality and violence are in actuality--and as one finds in all aspects of nature--symbiotically linked. Intensely and inextricably joined...dark and light, despair and joy...the winter and summer of human experience.

Midsommar's first image, which serves as a kind of panel-curtain opening for this pagan passion play, is this disturbing mural by Taiwanese artist Mu Pan. Its content is impossible to comprehend the first time you see the film, but revisiting it reveals that the entire plot of the film you're about to see is laid out in drawings which take us from winter to summer. This spoiler stands as the first of the film's many instances of foreshadowing.

Director Ari Aster hit a horror home run with his breakout film debut Hereditary (2018), a harrowing shocker about a dysfunctional family crumbling under the weight of grief, mental illness, and the insidious machinations of a demonic cult. By contrasting the chaotic dynamics of an unstable family with the regimentally orderly rituals of a Satanic sect, Hereditary drew discomfiting parallels to the intersections of religion/cult, devout/fanatic, and tradition /predeterminism. 

With Midsommar, we see Aster continuing to explore the world of single-word titles, family dysfunction, cultism, mental illness, the ways we process grief, unhealthy relationships, and the shriek factor of head trauma. The focus of this, his unsettling and sure-footed sophomore effort, has four American grad students visiting a Swedish commune to witness a 9-day midsummer celebration. The plot places Midsommar as a contemporary blood-descendant of Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man. But where The Wicker Man contrasted Christian extremism with pagan zealotry, Midsommar sees Aster casting his twisted gaze on our culture of isolation and souls left untethered and adrift in the pursuit of individualism, provocatively juxtaposing it with the spirituality-based interdependence of a Swedish pagan commune. 

Florence Pugh as Dani Ardor

Jack Reynor as Christian Hughes

Vilhelm Blomgren as Pelle

William Jackson Harper as Josh

Will Poulter as Mark

Midsommar begins in winter, the heavy snowfall obscuring the film's opening titles a forecast of the emotional cold front piercing the nearly four-year relationship of New York graduate students Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) and Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor). Christian, an anthropology student with a sub-major in waffling and gaslighting has been angling towards a break-up for a year but lingers out of fear of the alternative. Dani, an anxiety-prone psychology student who pops Ativan to cope with panic attacks and dysfunction-stress linked to her family in Minnesota, is an exposed nerve so steeped in denial about Christian’s emotional abuse she fails to notice half the content of their conversations consists of her apologizing. 

Alas, at the precise moment when it's most obvious that the dissolution of this relationship would be the healthiest outcome for all parties involved, a devastating tragedy sends Dani into an agonizing spiral of grief and despair. And in an instant, we realize the bonds of emotional neediness and the shackles of guilty resentment will be added to this already toxic union.   

(Top) Christian consoles a traumatized Dani after the death of her entire family, his face betraying his feelings of entrapment. On the rare occasion when men in movies are shown bearing any of the emotional weight of a relationship, it tends to be depicted as a burden (1971’s Play Misty for Me [pictured] and Fatal Attraction -1981 come to mind). But male-gaze identification is subverted in Midsommar—as Dani’s anguish speaks more eloquently than Christian’s “good guy” sense of aggrieved obligation.


Six months later—winter to summer—finds Dani still traumatized and frozen in the process of her bereavement. Meanwhile, Christian, by way of a profoundly hurtful and pusillanimous move, is on course to forging a passive breakup by surreptitiously accepting an invitation from fellow anthropology student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to join friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) on a trip to Hårga, Sweden for study. When Dani accidentally discovers Christian’s plans, only co-dependency and utter isolation account for her accepting his brazenly reluctant, 11th-hour invitation to join them on their all-boys’ excursion. In an amusing touch that feels deliberate for a film in which the necessity of family is a major theme, scenes depicting the journey to Pelle’s “hometown” perfectly capture the traditional joyless torpor of family vacations.

In an inversion of colonial tradition, Josh, a Black anthropology student, is conducting a study of a primitive white culture. The side-eye he's giving here is a reaction to Pelle's veiled response to Dani's foreshadowing statement " See that Pelle, you've managed to brainwash all of your friends."

The arrival of the Americans to the hippie-like village of Hårga, a sunny paradise of smiling faces and flowers, flowers everywhere, signals Midsommar’s entrance into The Wicker Man folk-horror territory. And if that sounds like a spoiler, it is. Midsommar’s horror doesn’t come from the shock of the unexpected (although there’s plenty of that to go around) so much as the dread of the foreordained and perhaps inevitable.

Since we know we’re watching a horror film, the depiction of Hårga as an idyllic, welcoming place of tranquility is discordantly unsettling from the get-go. A feeling compounded as details of the lives and traditions of the Hårgas come to light via elaborate ceremonial rituals that grow increasingly bizarre. Things initially perceived as benign—those wide-eyed smiles, the blissed-out solicitousness—take on a sinister air as the village’s overriding atmosphere of compliant conformity begins to feel less like being in the presence of worshippers of ancient pagan religion and more like being trapped in the clutches of a hyper-cheerful death-cult.

London lovebirds Connie and Simon (Ellora Torchia & Archie Madekwi) are guests of Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg). That the affable, baby-faced fellow's invitation masks a petty personal grievance (outside of the ethnic targeting thing) makes him one of the film's most amusingly creepy characters.


There’s a scene in Hanna & Her Sisters where the character played by Max Von Sydow comments on having just seen a TV program about the Holocaust: "Intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. They can never answer the question 'How could it happen?' It's the wrong question. The question is 'Why doesn't it happen more often?'"

In Midsommar, Aster uses nature’s inalterable earth schedule of changing seasons and the phase cycles of the sun to metaphorically comment on humanity’s own predetermined…even destructive…cycles. We accept that it is in our natures to seek connection, community, family, faith, and the shared expression of love and sorrow. But is it also an equal part of our human hard-wiring to be desirous of and susceptible to codependence, collectivism, religious populism, and moralized violence? The blood-stained global record of history repeating would say yes.

"You're out of the woods, you're out of the dark, you're out of the night. Step into the sun,
step into the light."
 Midsommar's The Wizard of Oz moment.


Hereditary was my favorite film of 2018, so after seeing Midsommar’s poster (seems like ever since Naomi Watts in tears served as poster art for 2007’s Funny Games, crying faces came to replace screaming faces on horror movie posters), I was uncommonly stoked for its June 24, 2019 release. 

My reaction to seeing Midsommar for the first time was a kind of mental loss of equilibrium. So much of it played out like an extended anxiety dream, I had to watch it twice just to appreciate how Ari Aster was able to build such a compellingly unique and disturbing film out of what is essentially a dramatization of a psychotic break (Aster is the king of nervous breakdown horror). The movie is so hallucinatory and weird, that when my partner and I watched the 24-minutes-longer director's cut a year later (it was his first time, this marked my fourth) he was certain the film would end (like The Wizard of Oz) with everything revealed to have been a dream.

The difference between the theatrical and director’s cuts lie chiefly in the latter’s ability to expand on a few themes (the cult viewed through the prism of white supremacy and Anglo-European nativism, for example) and provide broader context and insight into the unhealthy dynamics of Dani and Christian’s relationship. 

Swedish actor Bjorn Andresen as Dan, a man at the end of his Harga life cycle in Midsommar. At age 15, Andresen portrayed Tadzio, the symbol of youth in Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice (1971). 

I loved every minute of Midsommar. Grateful that once again Aster was expanding the concept of what "horror" films can be and impressed by how...no matter how far-out the film went...the psychological drama remained the most dynamic and moving element.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM

Loaded with challenging themes and disturbing images, there’s so much to unpack in Midsommar it's hard to even nail it down to a single genre, much less walk away from it with a singular sense of what it’s all about. Like Jordan Peele’s US (2019) Midsommar is a puzzle of a film that, by staunchly refusing to explain itself, courts ambiguity and invites multiple interpretations. As one of the film’s creators remarked in an interview, what one comes away with after seeing Midsommar has a great deal to do with what one brings to it.

At its most elemental level, Midsommar is a story about the worst breakup on record. Many saw the film as a woman's journey of empowerment, leading to a cleansed-by-fire finale that brings our heroine the love and acceptance of a chosen family. At a price.

Another view places Midsommar as a tortuous treatise on the need to feel, express, and process grief. Dani's impulse to repress her feelings so as not to scare Christian away with her neediness is a denial of her humanity. This denial of humanity was emphasized when I watched this film during the summer of 2020 and the Black Lives Matter protests. Impressed by how seriously grief and bereavement are treated in Midsommar, I reflected on the way Black grief is minimized in American culture, its psychological & emotional scars trivialized over a societal fixation with needing the display of the traumatized forgiving and embracing their abusers...encouraged to move quickly past their pain so as to affect a superficial unity. Just like many a toxic relationship.
Another persuasive take is that the film is an exploration of the pernicious allure of religion and cultism to the vulnerable. Drawing black comedy parallels between the elements of dysfunctional personal relationships (codependency, brainwashing, control, isolation, making self-negating sacrifices) and religious addictions. This view finds the ending to be far from a happy one as Dani is seen to have traded one codependent attachment for another.
Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017) tapped into the reality of the danger white spaces pose for Black lives. This perspective sees Midsommar equating the all-white commune's obsession with blood purity (and quick dispatch of ethnic couple Connie & Simon) as reflective of the current climate of exploit-then-erase racism, anti-immigrant nationalism, white supremacy, and the proliferation of hate groups. 

The thing that grounds all these scenarios and makes them work, no matter how high-flown or fantastic, is the emotional truth & depth of the character of Dani. As written, and especially as portrayed by the remarkable Florence Pugh, Dani’s recognizable humanity tethers Midsommar’s nightmare landscape to an authentic, shared emotional reality that anchors the film to the real world.

Another cryptic entry: In a drugged haze after being crowned May Queen, Dani hallucinates seeing her dead family at the festivities. The loving look from her father contrasts with the harsh stares of her sister and mother. 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS

Memories of my Catholic upbringing kicked in big-time watching Midsommar, specifically concerning the role sadistic violence and death play in Hårga tradition. Like the grisly Christian artwork that greeted me each morning as a child, the walls throughout the Hårga village are covered with violent biblical/religious imagery. In the film, every ritual human sacrifice and blood offering to the gods share one thing in common: cruelty seems to be the point. That none of those sacrificed are dispatched mercifully or in even remotely humane ways (indeed, some methods appear to be needlessly sadistic) reminded me of when, as a youngster, I was told that stories in the Bible were so violent and full of death and suffering because they wanted to convey God's wrath and power. A sort of "Scared Straight" method of discouraging sin. 

Midsommar proposes something similar in suggesting that the violence embraced in the Hårga rituals is a form of acknowledging nature's power and ultimate dominance. Fine, but then the human element enters into it. When we learn that resentment is a motive behind Ingemar's sacrifice selection, the point is reinforced that people have always twisted and perverted spirituality and religion to fit their own needs, justify their prejudices, and morally rationalize their innate brutality.

In many ways, the commune of Harga is an outdoor iteration of the Old Dark House horror movie trope: a handful of characters confined to a large, often haunted, house, discover its limited avenues of exits during the traditional finale that has the sole survivor running through the house looking for escape. In The Stepford Wives, another movie about an epically terrible breakup, when Katharine Ross recognizes the danger she's in, her escape is thwarted by the hemmed-in confines of a dark mansion. Turning another horror trope on its head, in Midsommar when Christian awakens to his peril, he finds himself equally trapped, but in wide-open spaces and in broad daylight. 


It's so nice to be insane. No one asks you to explain.

The above line is a lyric from the 1975 Helen Reddy song "Angie Baby" and clues you into my particular take on Midsommar's famously ambiguous final image. I take the position that mental illness has always been a struggle with Dani (Pelle asks her if she’s studying psychiatry--Dani: “Psychology. That’s how you know I'm nuts.” Pelle: “Yeah. Also that funny look in your eye”) and what with her history and how strongly she responded to her family's death, that her mind could withstand the horrors visited upon her psyche at the commune. Something in her would have to give in order to make sense of the madness. 

I think Dani has most definitely lost her mind at the end ("She has surrendered to a joy known only by the insane" - descriptive passage from the Midsommar screenplay), but it appears her break with reality brings her a freedom and sense of peace heretofore elusive in her life. It also places her among and on even footing with the demented Hårga death cultists with whom she has at last found love, community, family, and acceptance. 

It’s a monstrously sad/happy ending quite fitting with Midsommar's perversely optimistic view of fatalism. I don't see how any sane person could keep their sanity long in Hårga (and it's unlikely they would ever have allowed her to leave and possibly tell others about this place of ritual murder), so, in its way, the ending is also quite merciful to Dani, a character I came to like and care a great deal about over the course of the film. I agree with those who have called the ending horrible and beautiful.

It is. Just like Midsommar.

Here's something to chew on: Midsommar ends on something like the 4th or 5th day
of a 9-day midsummer festival! What the hell could they have lined up next on the schedule?


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2020


10 comments:

  1. I was hoping you'd get to this after your earlier review of Hereditary. I first watched Midsommar a year ago and wrote my initial thoughts on a film score message board. (Thus the emphasis on the music):

    "I can guess for some people that the deliberate Lynchian pace, the "do-I-laugh-at-this-or-do-I-feel-weirded-out-or-do-I-feel-both-at-once" mating ritual scene, some of the strange hallucinatory effects, etc. will decidedly not be their cup of (psychedelic) tea, but I dug it.

    The score album is only 40 minutes long, so I'm eager to find out how much is Krlic's music. The entire score is fantastic; I particularly like the trio of woodwinds that greet the guests when they arrive at the village and, toward the end, the haunting music used for the placement in the temple of...well, if you've seen the movie you know what I mean. In his review, Jonathan Broxton suggests those who like Jonny Greenwood's film scores will like this one. Count me in."

    And to a fellow member who called Midsommar one of the "worst of 2019," comparing it negatively to The Wicker Man:

    "I liked it not as a genre horror film or a Wicker Man variant, but as a psychological study of a relationship and for its compelling use of both the physical landscape and musical soundscape."

    A truly effective disturbing film, as is Hereditary. I still need to see the three hour director's cut. Florence Pugh made quite a splash in the last couple of years with this, Fighting With My Family, and Little Women. May she continue on strongly. And it was odd to come across Bjorn Andresen in this - he always seemed frozen in time as the boy from Death in Venice

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    1. Hi Mark
      Love your observations on MIDSOMMER!
      From its pacing, to its themes, to its discomfiting violence, the movie isn’t trying to win anyone over, so I understand why people don’t like it. But to dismiss it via a comparison to The Wicker Man is to look at a daisy and say it’s a knock-off of a sunflower; they share superficial similarities, that’s it.
      The musical score to MIDSOMMAR is so good it deserves a blog post of its own. The music throughout is used to great effect, but nowhere so much as during the final scene. It’s so heart-wrenchingly beautiful and disturbing.

      I’m with you in finding the “horror film” descriptive insufficient when talking about what MIDSOMMAR. It’s a horrific film, to be sure, but I see it more along the emotional/psychological lines you described.
      Also, I feel the same in finding scenes composed in ways that don’t signal to you how you’re supposed to feel about them. I think this is one of the film’s greatest strengths—its unwillingness to tell you whether you should find scenes darkly funny, disturbing, or just creepy. This is especially hard for people who want a movie to provide emotional guideposts when confronted with imagery and ideas they don’t immediately recognize from genre tropes.

      Because I never like to know much beforehand about a film I am interested in seeing, I avoided all advance promotional stuff about MIDSOMMAR. It was only when researching this...over a year after its release...that I learned Florence Pugh was English!!
      What a remarkable American accent she has in this!! MIDSOMMAR was my introduction to her, but I've since seen LITTLE WOMEN. I look forward to seeing some of her other work because she does a tremendous job here.
      Thank you for reading this post and sharing your thoughts on this ceaselessly fascinating movie!

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    2. I heard her on NPR discussing Lady Macbeth, which I believe was her fist role, so I knew she was English and had to see that movie, highly recommended! She was convinced that she would never have another role as great as that one (little did she know). I'm amazed that the old man was the beautiful youth in Death in Venice, great sleuthing. All the best, loulou.

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    3. Hello, loulou
      Florence Pugh is so hypnotically good in this. Now I'm going to have to watch this again just to listen to her flawless American accent!
      I will take you up on your recommendation of LADY MACBETH. I'd forgotten that title, but way back when I first saw MIDSOMMAR and talk about it with people, that is the film I was most consistently told I should check out.
      A certain level of my unfamiliarity with a lot of contemporary actors proves to be a dividend with a movie like MIDSOMMAR. For me it was a a cast of unknowns, and that led to a certain easy immersion in the story.
      Since I've come to find so many cast have done a lot of excellent work.
      And I found out about the Death in Venice youth from British press write up of the film I read after my 1st viewing.
      Good to hear from you, loulou! Thanks!

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  2. I wonder why so many people panned MIDSOMMAR. This was fascinating from start to finish. I didn't know it was the same writer/director as HEREDITARY until after it was all over and I watched the extras on the DVD and did some imdb.com reading. I don't pay too much attention to the names of young directors or writers these days. I'd seen that crazy movie and loved it mostly for Toni Collette, the weird insight into the world of building miniatures, and the marvelous performance from Ann Dowd. But I hated its out of place ludicrous ending. It just erased everything I just seen and made me think it was trying to rip off ROSEMARY'S BABY.

    On the other hand, I found MIDSOMMAR utterly engrossing and hypnotic and multi-layered. Sure there are THE WICKER MAN analogies to be drawn, but it's so much more than any of those Mother Earth/Seasonal Ritual cult horror movies. Frankly, I think it has more in common with HARVEST HOME, thematically speaking, than THE WICKER MAN. (Sort of the reversal of HARVEST HOME actually, a decidedly nasty movie with more than a tinge of misogyny, or rather fear of women, rather than outright hatred.) When I watched the DVD extras on MIDSOMMAR with the director explaining the movie's origins and learned the movie was all meant to be a break-up purge movie I was astonished at the way it was all revealed in an entirely new light.

    Despite the intricate world Aster creates in this Swedish communal subculture, I keep coming back to the eerie flashback of Dani's discovery of her dead parents. So many questions left unanswered about that scene, I think, and new ones arose for me once the movie ended. That's worth an essay in itself.

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    1. Hi JF
      With so many movies-by-market-research out there, with so many social-media fanboys/girls exerting their crowd-pleaser influence on how films are made, I was thrilled that MIDSOMMAR drew such strong hate it/love it reactions. It comes across as such a personal vision, it feels perfect that not everyone likes it.

      And in addition to having a refreshingly "unique" world view, the director seems to have an equally unique gift when it comes to casting and performances.

      I like your referencing HARVEST HOME, a book I remember being one of those I couldn't put down. It's nice to hear that you liked MIDSOMMAR and found much to think and wonder about, even with all that's out there related to the making of the movie and the director's intentions and inspirations.
      Reading your comments reinforce what I feel about it as well, that it's a movie that your mind is drawn to revisit and rethink. How many films can we say that about?
      Thank you for reading this and commenting. Nice to see you again, JF!

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  3. loulou again. Vulture did a story about the intense sunshine of the movie and how they were able to achieved it without washing the movie out. They were interviewing the director, it required some fancy foot work/camera work I guess. It really did define the film IMO, sunglasses please.

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    1. Thanks for passing on the info about the article. As you say, the bright, almost glaring look of the film is such a defining attribute of the film, to read about the whys and how is intriguing. By the way, I don't know if you're a fan of Aster's work, but if you haven't checked out his short films: "The Strange Thing About The Johnsons" and "Munchausen"...I recommend. (There are others, but these two are my favorites).
      Thanks, loulou!

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  4. Hi Ken! Greetings from Barcelona (Spain). I hope you and your loved ones are doing well. I read with enthusiasm and passion your detailed essay on 'Midsommar'. Did you really experience seeing it "a kind of mental loss of equilibrium"? Wow! I need to see this movie now!

    A hug,
    Juan

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    1. Hello, Juan! Thanks for inquiring, and indeed, my family and I are all doing well. I hope the same is true for you as well.
      And yes, this film kind of did a number on me. It's quite unusual how rooted it is in a very relatable motional and psychological reality. Yet so much of its visual impact is dreamlike (or nightmarish). Add the effecting use of sound and its gorgeous/eerie musical score, and I was caught a bit off-guard.
      It wasn't anything like I assumed it would be. Even after seeing HEREDITARY!
      It's an interesting film. Should you check it out sometime, I would love to hear your thoughts, even if they are negative. Good to hear from you and thank you very much for reading this. Cheers, Juan!

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