By Jacqueline Howell
Midsommar is a story of a young woman coming-of-age, through devastation and mute grief, careless life choices and while being dropped into the strangest of settings she must try to survive by her wits. Or is her own trajectory prearranged, rigged, cast by a community and her friend who invites her there? Midsommar is not what the clips, memes and trailers show, though they show some eerie, riveting and beautiful scenes. Nor is it what the film critics who fail to get it and are not actually interested in interpreting it tell you it is: how they claim it fails or falls short.
Midsommar is something new. It is a daylight-drenched folk horror film full of actual twists in a genre which has made a tired cliché of twists. Its unique tricks of genre begin before the film itself: its poster, featuring a still of a woman’s face in tear-stained anguish, is itself a red herring. What appears to be another in an infinite line of women we’ve seen for more than a generation now in dirty tear-stained horror (bait for the horror film fan) is seen in hindsight as a still of its star mid-cathartic primal scream. She’s, for once, not alone. This is coded, like so much of the film, like so much of many great films. Midsommar is not a pale imitation of The Wicker Man, or of anything. The urge to label it as such is one of desperation, for its point of view is incisive and blunt. Midsommar is full of sleight of hand, like the poster, like the marketing, efforts that ultimately add to the pleasure of close watchers in need of unexpected catharsis and rescue from the darkest corners of our psyches as it enrages others who tune out and reject the film’s arguments and plot points, ones that are nuanced and designed for close watchers, not the jump-scare crowd that needs a ear-shattering violin note to know when to react, who need to feel they would outwit all the villains before them. Our biggest enemy is often our own drives.
The jokes, memes and silly, giddy love that have followed Midsommar, often promoted by young women but also those who just get it, including some of the leading creaters of off-beat film (like Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro) are all real and valid, because the social critiques of the film reached their targets: their own audience. Their subjects. Millennials grappling with life direction and hope. People in bad, lazily long relationships. Women who need a primal group scream, who are tired of being let down and hurt past the point of registering an expression or mustering up an argument. People who endeavour not to be cliches: the bad tourist. The ugly American. The dilettante anthropologist. The reality TV reject who disappears and is forgotten, early on, making a fool of themselves.
Midsommar, Ari Aster’s drastic departure from Hereditary, was designed to alienate viewers (and reviewers) most comfortable with the accepted norms of storytelling in film, TV, graphic novels and pulpy thrillers: wherein a wife may so often not have a word of dialogue, may be murdered in a pre-credits sequence, need not be named, or exist only as a framed picture for the male hero to launch his lone-wolf vigilantism, consequence and morality free. It feels custom-made for the half of the audience who have spent their whole lives silently suffering untold depictions of girls and women being choked, smothered, dragged, struck, beaten, terrorized, killed, and stuffed in suitcases or tossed in trunks or over bridges into shallow creeks as if they were all but crumpled cigarette packs. This has been women’s lot in film, that women have had to accept as reflections of ourselves, until very recently. This increasingly casual, visceral and realistic violence against women has passed for entertainment since the golden age of cinema darkened over the grande dames who once made our humble grandmothers stand taller and risk a bit of red lip for their modest waitressing jobs, allowed our mothers to question their assigned roles in the turbulent 1970s, and made ourselves turn from movies to 1990s music for role models where, as few as women were on big stages, they (and we) seemed, for a season, unkillable.
Midsommar hit a public nerve that is strikingly familiar to the one struck by The Witch. That film was appreciated by people who love all things folk horror, as well as those who appreciate the difficult and honest-to-goodness travesty of justice that was life in witchcraft-era Salem / New England, especially for girls and women (the dialogue is taken from real trial transcripts of the time that led to death sentences as tools of lawless social control, of regulating women’s behaviour and of managing unsexy community-wide crises like bad crops and firewood shortages). The trials also served as public entertainment in long, dark days of chilly misery. In The Witch, the obscure verbiage of Salem is disturbingly uttered by a cruel, milkless mother, two creepy, demonic twins, and a hubristic father who cannot even grow corn. The girl’s choices are being sold into servitude and left prey to the whims of an employer, or slowly dying from starvation; or could she break free of her goat pen of a life and embrace the woods? What’s not to love?
Like Midsommar, The Witch is a pitch-black comedy for an underserved audience. The Witch contains a few disturbing scenes – a very few in horror terms – one of which involves the fate of a plump baby stolen by a witch. This provoked men online to cry out in horror at this “terrifying, awful film” – a mystifying reaction in a storied film history (and real life) of full sized children and women brutalized regularly. This reaction echoes in the objections to Midsommar. The Witch is a film with a final girl you are meant to root for. If you don’t, there may be something askew in your view. It’s a great coming-of-age film for lovers of sharp satire, which I thought we all were becoming today. The Witch is not in the least scary, unless you are rooting for the wrong party.
Similarly, Midsommar’s protagonist is not in a position of control of her world. Dani (Florence Pugh) begins the film in mostly mute grief and clad in grayed-out depression-wear, her unhealthy but passive relationship with her longtime college steady a farce (to nervous laughter of date-night viewers who find it too relatable). The film sets its own rules early on: all the violence is disturbing but measured and used economically. These deaths matter, or have causes and effects. (This is a rare distinction that elevates a film.) Remember, death, even fictional death, should shock us. We should still know how to feel.
This story begins in our real post-everything world: where we hang on too long to young love in a search for family; everyone is medicated some way; disturbances spill over too often into suicidal impulses and prescriptions are beta-blocking and failing everyone. And like The Witch, Midsommar carries a very strange strain of pitch-black comedy and social critique that holds the whole narrative in delicate suspension. This critical eye must be appreciated to fully get or enjoy the film. For an end of term summer trip which is half-way a lark for Dani’s friends (her boyfriend and his buds, on which she’s tagged along) the landscape is ripe for tropes of horror film and of real life alike: the ugly, loud, disrespectful American tourist. The affable Brits who somehow always know how to find a pint. The shitty friend who thinks he can cruise into your hard-earned work as a lark. The friend-zoned buddy who would probably love the girl better than the guy she’s with, if only she could see him. But the visitors have been drawn here by unseen criteria and selection modes, like sociology teaches eager students how to do. They have messy love lives or flexible morals. They have time to kill. They are naive and entitled.
This film must be viewed through two important filters: Dani is grief-stricken through the first two acts. This informs her motivations, her decisions, and her performance. She is not played as charismatic but flatly, and is not any more likable than anyone else. The other filter is the knowledge that the group is zonked out on various, unfamiliar homemade hallucinogens from the moment they leave their car on a dirt road through to the film’s conclusion. The pleasant, smiling community in quaint white embroidered linens deign to explain their closed sect and way of life only a little, with their norms and rituals unfolding in a time-stopped daylight haze, but what becomes abundantly clear to us is that these folks are expert chemists with a raft of manipulating powders, potions and teas, which are usually enjoyable and accepted by these visitors born into the post-pharma generation.
I’m not sure you’re supposed to relate or root for anyone in Midsommar, of if the film invites you to stand apart in judgement; begin assigning value to their lives and prescribing punishment for their ways and transgressions quietly and dispassionately. This is a challenge to one’s attachment to the character stakes, but also one that is important to our “witnessing” of the rituals and rites of the film. It also challenges the experts of horror and of anti-hero cinema and TV. Whoa, did you see yourself in the wrong character? Oops! This gets under the skin of the viewer who sees a new version of the helpless baby in The Witch as someone who has a close encounter with a bear. Why would we identify with a fool? Life is not fair. We know this already, too well. Each character in Midsommar has a fair chance to show their mettle and become useful in various ways. It may be that the land consumes everyone, but agency is possible along the way. Where are the heroes?
The best of current horror often dwells and engages with the monstrous nightmare of grief. The small community which is the native home of Dani’s friend Pelle is one that has clear rules about life and death, gender roles and child rearing which are shown as flawed and also objectively pragmatic. Their death ritual is perhaps objectively preferable to the nightmares of lengthy illness, but to witness it or to anticipate it personally is deeply troubling, brutal and frightening. What Midsommar does so well is provoke in deep and meaningful ways, rather than push buttons for the sake of shock value (which makes the “pointless” and “nothing happens” critiques more disturbing as one ponders the appetites of the writers holding those opinions). We can stay outside Dani’s perspective if we wish, given the luxury of a healthy, intact family of origin; a trustworthy friend or partner; a purpose. Or we can dip a toe into the friendly but seriously competitive maypole circle: what choice would we make at this point or that? Would we pass this challenge or fail (as most do)? This film is interactive, maybe troublingly so. We can also seek identification (or more likely) stand in judgement of Dani and her friends as they cross each trial to the presumed (or even cheated) finish line: Do they listen? Are they respectful visitors or embarrassing louts? Do they leave the land as they found it?
Larger rituals are being carried out over this particular Midsommar celebration than can be anticipated or gamed by anyone unfamiliar with them. There are important goals to be achieved, ones straight out of the world of agriculture and farming, harsh rituals that exist in reported anthropology of numerous “uncivilized” cultures of the world, and ones that speak to primal (/”uneducated”) beliefs to keep harmony with the earth and respect the ancestors, something the modern world has utterly failed to do. There are mating rituals, exalted positions, and sacrificial lambs, all on a gently precise schedule that the viewer is pulled seductively into, in the bright, endless sun. Watching the film closely, you are treated to hallucogenic film effects: the leaves breathe, we lose our appetite for the strange, suspicious, decorative food, the sense of time is confusing. We want someone to win or lose the maypole dance and form opinions about people’s worthiness or performance (even in games that might be rigged). We fall into the crowd in crisp white, finding our own level and limits within the space of the film. Where do we laugh? And why? What bothers us? And what doesn’t? What happens when the seer can only produce scribbles and so people begin making up laws? This and other details are not relegated to folklore. They are the scary realities of politics even in 2020, of corrupted media, of unfair families. The fear is real.
Midsommar is chock full of ideas like this, rich with careful and affecting symbolism that you can pluck at will (or miss). Dani, numb with grief and loneliness, sees the world she’s visiting quite differently than her male counterparts. She notices the details, like women do. She takes time to read the writing on the barn walls, while anthropologists argue and making a mess of things around her, missing both the wider story and important details that might save them. Midsommar is a timely statement on male privilege and notions of authority, as well as the place of natural and fraudulent talents and instincts under pressure (school pressure. Relationship pressure. Pressure to conform). Dani’s friends come from a rarefied, cosy and still largely old/white/male academic world, and are unprepared for spaces not custom built for their comfort. Through this, Dani floats free, a young woman in a state of transformation she never asked for, but one that all girls of her age or situation encounter, always in an unplanned way.
Like all “final girls” of horror and of crime-as-entertainment, Dani is ultimately alone with only her wits to help her, and must draw on something inner, primal and buried. The way Midsommar plays out tells the truth: that some things are predestined. That life isn’t fair. That people lie when they tell you “take this, and you will feel no pain”. That it’s always good to offer to help out as an invited guest. That you don’t always know how the sausage is made, but that it’s better to know, even thought it may make you recoil.
At year end as in its season, Midsommar is a beautiful, kaleidoscopic anomaly in a world of formulaic and green-screened infantilism known as Hollywood today. You can wax poetic on the colours of light sabers and the exact shades of superhero capes these days, forcing kiddie-lit to impersonate art as if box office has ever correlated to the zeitgeist, the underground or sea changes, but that’s a lie. To dismiss a seriously beautiful and artful film like Midsommar seems like an aggression directed at art itself (and at new, upstart filmmakers) as people attempt to classify the film they don’t like because it hit them square in the cajones as frivolous and feminine, unserious and frilly. As if half of us weren’t bone tired of living in a world of green screen flatness and brown washes, fantasy and sci-fi all merging into dull backgrounds of unlovable otherness. As if we weren’t full of primal need to see reality: things made by hand, scenes full of wooden tables and chairs, even strange yellow painted houses we aren’t supposed to (and hope we never will) enter, in our dreams and imaginations. Films like this remind the un-easily amused who we are, what life means, and keep us sharp and present. They go against all the grains of genre, and for that they are the most interesting thing going in the art form, deserving the longest and most acute gaze.
Midsommar draws and comforts people who are drawn to and comforted by filmic elements like clean design and interesting costuming, out-of-time rhythms and fresh-painted artfulness; it does not pander to the dull desires of fans of any genre. The film is to be exalted for its achievements in genre-breaking, audience affecting, and art: a rare and welcome foregrounding of set design, cinematography, and the particular challenges of an almost 100% outdoor shoot set in the blinding midday sun, with silvered mirrors bouncing off the smiling faces of benign evil, forcing us to look just a little bit harder, and overcome the glare bouncing back at us.