Archive for July, 2019

Warning: total spoilers for Midsommar, references to suicide, incest and drug use

Midsommar is the second feature-length film directed and written by Ari Aster; the first, Hereditary, I haven’t yet seen, but on the basis of how much I enjoyed Midsommar, I’m strongly inclined to check it out.

On the surface, Midsommar is a film with a simple yet darkly compelling premise: in the wake of a family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh), joins her long-term boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends, Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), on a holiday organised by their third friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who has invited them all to his community’s midsummer celebration in Hårga, Sweden. Things are rocky at the outset: not only has Dani’s sister recently committed a horrific murder-suicide, killing both herself and their parents with carbon monoxide poisoning, but Christian is The Worst: a self-absorbed, emotionally neglectful and thoroughly disinterested partner who was planning to break up with Dani prior to her loss. But what Pelle has sold to his friends as a drug-filled festival soon turns from pastoral vacation to sinister ritual: guests start disappearing, and in a haze of horror and hallucinogens, Dani begins to realise that there’s no way to escape.

Right from the outset, Midsommar leans both narratively and thematically on the four-act, seasonal structure of its pagan mythology. Early in their arrival at Hårga, Pelle explains that his community views life as a cyclical series of stages, all marked as periods of twice-nine years: childhood, from birth until age 18, is viewed as spring; 18 to 36 is the summer of young adulthood, a time of exploration; 36 to 54 are your working, adult years, the autumn; and 54 to 72 is old age, winter. At the end of this explanation, Dani asks what happens after 72, and Pelle replies by drawing a finger across this throat, indicating death.

This cyclical, seasonal motif imbues the entire film, as do references to Swedish pagan mythology and pastoral life. In the very first scenes, a kulning – a Swedish herding call used to summon the cows home to pasture, but which can also be sung as a farewell – plays hauntingly over shots of a winter landscape, only to cut out jarringly and be replaced by the ringing of a telephone. The ringing takes us inside Dani’s parents’ house: we hear her leave a worried voice message on their answering machine as the camera pans over their sleeping (and soon to be dead) bodies before cutting back to show us Dani herself. Likewise, when the title card comes up, it does so over a depiction of the seasons – winter, spring, summer and autumn, in that order – rendered in the same traditional, Scandinavian-pagan style used throughout Hårga.

Thus: the film begins with a symbolic winter, marked by the deaths of a young woman and two elders, overlain by a song that acts as both a farewell and – crucially – a means of calling someone home, the “someone” in question being Dani. In early scenes in her apartment, the camera makes sure to show us the paintings on her wall: two different images of women wreathed in summer and autumnal flowers, vibrant yellows and oranges, and a third painting, displayed prominently over a bed where we see Dani sleeping, of a young girl holding out a burning lantern to a bear. Like the kulning, the significance of these images is not immediately apparent, but they mark a pattern of foreshadowing that continues throughout the film.

The same is also true of scenes with Christian’s friends. Prior to the revelation of Dani’s loss, Christian, Mark, Josh and Pelle are all out to dinner, with Mark encouraging Christian to break up with Dani. In retrospect, it’s telling that Pelle alone refrains from contributing to this conversation, while Josh – an anthropology major, like Christian – suggests that his friend is drawing out his relationship with Dani despite his unhappiness as a way to avoid his academic issues, such as his lack of a thesis topic. Christian is annoyed by this, but is easily sidetracked by Mark making a crass joke about all the Swedish women he could be “impregnating” on their trip to Hårga. Later on, during a trip-planning session, Mark makes a similar wish to do some sex tourism in Stockholm on route to Hårga, and is disappointed when Pelle says that they won’t be passing through Stockholm at all, as it’s in the opposite direction.

Though Christian’s lazy selfishness is already evident in his treatment of Dani, it soon becomes clear that this behaviour also extends to his friends: when Dani learns unexpectedly of his plans to go to Sweden in just two weeks, Christian responds by inviting her along, but only tells Pelle and the others of his offer when Dani is literally at the door, so that none of them can argue. While Josh and Mark are clearly bothered by this – Josh because of the awkwardness it creates, Mark because he wants it to be a boys’ trip – Pelle is almost incongruously accepting of it. He alone makes conversation with Dani, who notices him sketching, but when he mentions losing his own parents as a child, the word family becomes a trigger: she gets up abruptly to recover in the bathroom, and in a superb scene transition, the bathroom of the flat becomes the bathroom of the plane, where all of them are now en route to Sweden, the plane shaking in a brief encounter with turbulence.

Arriving in Hårga, the group takes psychedelic mushrooms together in a field with other newcomers: Dani is initially hesitant to join in, wanting to get settled first, but when Mark points out that taking the drugs at a separate times will result in them being on separate trips, Dani caves and participates. The subsequent scene is deliberately and successfully funny: as Pelle talks calmly about being one with nature, Mark freaks out that the sky is still blue at 9pm, while Christian is comically upset at the prospect of meeting new people. Dani, however, is doing just as Pelle says, watching the bark ripple on the trees as blades of grass appear to grow through her hand. It’s only when Josh starts saying that the guys are his real family that the word, once again, proves a trigger: Dani gets up and bolts, taking refuge in a wooden outhouse. There’s a brief flash of horror as she lights a candle and a face seems to appear briefly behind her in the dark, after which she runs into the woods and collapses into sleep, dreaming of her dead sister and parents.

When she wakes up again, it’s still light, and Pelle is leading the group on a hike to the actual homestead. Accompanying them are his “brother,” Ingemar, and Ingemar’s British friends Connie and Simon. There’s a moment of social awkwardness when Ingemar says he dated Connie before Simon did, only for Connie to say that they went on just one date that she didn’t even know was a date at the time. The moment passes, however, and soon the group are being welcomed to Hårga: a pastoral, low-tech setting where all the locals are dressed in white, with most of the women wearing flowers. It’s here that we get a truly fantastic trope subversion in the form of Josh, a black anthropology major, studying a “primitive” white culture: he wants to write his thesis on Hårga, and is excited to take notes on the midsummer festivities, which – we soon learn – are particularly special this year, involving rituals that happen only once every 90 years.

As Pelle – and, by extension, the cinematography – show us around the village, several unsettling things stand out. In one area, a large bear sits in a small cage, its presence deliberately unexplained; in another, the camera takes a slow pan across a tapestry which shows, in successive steps, how a woman can bewitch a man into her bed by carving a rune, feeding him a meal containing her pubic hair, and then making him drink a certain potion. It’s significant that this depiction goes chronologically from right-to-left, which would ordinarily be backwards: it’s a subtle visual cue that the expected narrative for the visitors is being upended, while the tapestry itself is a clue to later events. The same is also true of a dance on the lawn, which Pelle explains is called Skinning the Fool; and it’s here, as she dances past Christian and kicks him to get his attention, that we start to notice the interest Maja, one of Pelle’s “sisters,” has for him.

That evening, sleeping in an open, communal building whose interior walls are covered with storytelling pictures, Pelle explains that tomorrow, they’ll witness an ättestupaOnly Josh recognises the term and is stunned; Christian, despite also being an anthropology major, tries to Google the term, but misspells it and gets no results. The next day, the group participates in a solemn lunch where an older man and woman are seated at the head of a series of tables shaped to form a giant Odal rune: Josh asks Pelle if these are the ones, which Pelle confirms, but neither cues the others in to what’s happening. What follows is a shocking, gruesome scene where, after great ceremony, first the woman and then the man jump to their deaths from a cliff onto a flat rock below. While the woman dies instantly, the man survives with his legs smashed, and is effectively euthenased by three members of the community, who take turns smashing his head with a giant wooden mallet.

Prior to being killed, when the man with the smashed legs starts moaning in pain, all the Hårgans start wailing and screaming along with him, though only the horrified Connie and Simon actually try and help. This communal outpouring of emotion is repeated several times throughout the film, becoming more comprehensible in purpose – to the viewer, at least – as time goes on; but in this first instance, it feels alien and frightening, as though the man’s failure to die on impact means something has gone wrong and the Hårgans are lamenting. Instead, as we can later intuit, this is a way of showing that his pain is shared by the community: he hurts, so everyone screams as if they are hurt, too. Taken in this context, the fact that Christian lets a shaken Dani go off to grieve and process her trauma alone in the aftermath of the ritual shows a fundamental disconnect between Dani’s isolated experience of pain compared to how pain is treated in Hårga. His unconcern for her is also highlighted by the fact that, whereas he forgot her birthday the previous day and only remembered at Pelle’s prompting, Pelle drew Dani a portrait of her wearing a May Queen crown, having noticed her appreciating pictures of May Queens past.

That evening, despite being shaken by the ritual, Christian not only convinces Dani of the need to stay, but informs Josh that he’s going to do his thesis on the Hårga, too, effectively forcing Josh to split his research. That night, Dani has disturbing nightmares about Christian and the others leaving her in Hårga that intertwine with images of her dead family and the dead elders. The next morning, Josh observes Maja putting a carved rune under Christian’s bed and asks Pelle about it; Pelle replies that Maja has evidently set her sights on Christian, but is unconcerned by the implications.

It’s at this point that a true sense of unease begins to settle over the group: as their existing conflicts start to morph into bigger fractures, Dani is also aware of the fact that, according to the elders, Simon has incongruously left without Connie – a claim that Connie doesn’t believe. Dani tries to raise this with Christian, but he’s preoccupied “researching” by asking the Hårgans about their customs. Pointedly, both he and Josh ask different questions of different villagers that relate to incest: where Christian baldly asks if inbreeding is a problem in such a small community and is told no, but that interbreeding with outsiders is sometimes necessary, Josh is told by an elder that the community’s oracle, a deformed, disabled boy named Reuben, is a deliberate product of inbreeding – as are all their oracles. He also takes the time to point out one of their runes, called an affekt, which stands for grief. Later, as Dani is helping the other women in the kitchen, a scream rings out in the distance, but nobody reacts to it.

In the background of events, we see that the dead elders whose bodies were burned the night before – in one earlier shot, their pyre fades out over a shot of Dani sitting on the grass – have had their ashes poured into the roots of a fallen tree. Oblivious to this, Mark chooses this tree to piss on, and is yelled at for his disrespect to the community’s ancestors. During lunch, Dani tries once more to make Christian care about Simon’s disappearance, muttering that she could believe such a departure of him, but not Simon. Annoyed, Christian takes an early bite of his pie and finds a pubic hair in it, which Mark laughs about until a girl he’s been eyeing comes and leads him away. This same day, Pelle confronts Dani about Christian’s thoughtless treatment of her, saying that, out of everyone who came with him to Hårga, he was most excited for her to be there, because the Hårgans became his family after he was orphaned and he thinks she deserves that same sense of family and support in her life, too.

By nighttime, Mark still hasn’t reappeared from his tryst. Assuming he’s still with the girl, the others all go to sleep – all except Josh, who sneaks back out to take photographs of the Hårgan’s religious text after being forbidden to do so earlier. As he wields his camera in the dark, Josh is approached by a half-naked man he thinks at first is Mark; but as a hidden assailant smashes Josh over the head with the same sort of mallet used in the ättestupa ritual, we see that this isn’t Mark at all, but an unknown Hårgan wearing Mark’s skinned face as a mask. This is our second callback to early foreshadowing: just as Maja is steadily enacting the ritual shown on the tapestry to try and bewitch Christian, so has the dance called Skinning the Fool become literal, with hapless Mark the victim.

The next morning, the elders announce that their sacred text has been stolen, and point to the supposed overnight disappearance of Josh and Mark as proof that the pair are culprits. Dani is sceptical, but also increasingly distant from Christian, who eagerly tries to blame Josh for the crime while trying to ingratiate himself with the elders, the better to continue his research. Thus divided, when the Hårgans announce that Dani will go with the women for the day, she makes no protest, and it’s only when Christian is steered towards speaking to one of the female elders instead that he begins to sense that something is off. Even so, he continues down his assigned path, meeting with the elder in a building whose walls are covered with drawings, one of which in particular – that of bear on fire – catches his eye. While Christian sits uncomfortably, the elder informs him that he’s been approved to mate with Maja, as they are a perfect astrological match.

Meanwhile, Dani prepares to participate in the May Queen celebrations, where all the women take a psychedelic tea, then dance until they fall down, with the final woman standing to be crowned queen. Dani doesn’t understand these rules but participates regardless, and during the opening to the dance, she once more sees herself merging with nature, her feet growing roots in the grass. As the dance goes on, Dani temporarily appears able to speak and understand Swedish, conversing happily with her new friend. Pelle and Christian watch from nearby; Christian is offered a special tea by one of the girls, clearly on Maja’s behalf, and while he briefly tries to refuse, he irritably gives in and drinks it. When only eight girls are left, including Dani – a number of penultimate significance within the film, as the midsummer festivities are meant to last nine days – everyone seated cheers for those remaining; everyone except Christian, who ignores Dani’s participation completely. She sees this and is upset by it, but keeps on dancing and ends up being crowned May Queen.

As all the Hårgans cheer for Dani, she is swept up in a crowd of wellwishers while Christian stands on the outside, excluded and unhappy. Pelle, however, rushes forward and kisses Dani happily – she appears dazed but pleased by this – and in a brief moment of confusion, she thinks that one of the older women walking past her is her mother, only for the stranger to vanish back into the crowd. She is then given a massive crown of flowers, carried aloft on a wooden platform and taken to sit at the head of the table during lunch, a shot that mimics the position of honour held by the now-dead elders before their suicide. Christian appears sick and confused during the meal, while Dani sits resplendent on a throne of flowers. As the greenery pulses both in her vision and to the viewer, we see a single yellow flower irising open and shut in her headdress, as though indicating the presence of a third eye. She is then told that, as the May Queen, it is her job to bless the crops and livestock for the year to come. This involves being separated from Christian again, and while she asks if he can come with her, when she’s told no, she doesn’t protest.

As Dani goes to fulfil her duties as May Queen, an increasingly uneasy Christian is led along a path of petals to a barn, where a naked Maja – surrounded by a group of equally naked, singing women – is waiting for him on a bed of flowers. Though alarmed by this pageantry, Christian lies down to have sex with her, and continues to do so despite becoming more and more unnerved by the way the singing women mimic both Maja’s moans and his own laboured breathing. This is another example of the community’s shared expression of feeling: Maja feels pleasure, so they express pleasure, too. It’s also yet another callback to early foreshadowing, as it becomes clear that Christian is being used as breeding stock – an inverted, perverse fulfilment of the joke Mark made in America about impregnating Swedish milkmaids.

Returning from her May Queen duties, Dani hears the singing and moaning coming from the barn and, despite being cautioned not to stay away, goes to investigate. Peeping through the keyhole, she sees everything and spirals into a panic attack, much like the ones she’s experienced multiple times throughout the film. But whereas she’s previously been left to grieve alone on every occasion, this time her May Queen attendants come with her, mirroring her screams and cries while offering physical comfort. This creates a scene of simultaneous wildness and catharsis, the women offering a sympathetic expression of pain that echoes what happened during the suicide ritual: the Hårgans may have helped facilitate Christian’s betrayal of Dani, but they also offer her comfort in the aftermath.

Unaware of having been spied on, Christian finishes with Maja and reels back as she holds her knees to her chest, trying to aid conception. Naked and frightened, he runs from the barn, looking for someplace to go, but is put off by the screaming coming from Dani and her attendants in one direction and scared by the presence of Hårgans in the other. It’s then that he sees Josh’s severed leg sticking up from a garden patch, a rune carved on his foot. In panic, he runs into a chicken coop and finds Simon’s body displayed in a blood eagle for the hens to use as a perch, his eyes replaced with the same type of flower we just saw pulsing in Dani’s crown. Before he can run again, an elder appears and blows dust in Christian’s face, paralyzing him; he then closes Christian’s eyes with his thumb, which is shown as though he were smearing darkness over the camera, so that the audience is now encompassed by Christian’s point of view.

His eyes are opened again in the same fashion moments later, with a woman reaching in to thumb the camera clear. She tells Christian that he can’t move or speak, and as he – and the audience – watch, the final part of the ritual is described aloud to a crowd of onlookers by an elder. Along with four newcomers – Simon, Connie, Mark and Josh – who have been killed, four Hårgans will also die to ensure the prosperity of the community for the next 90 years: two of these latter are already dead, their bodies made into puppets with branches for arms, while one of the living two is Ingemar, who is acknowledged for bringing in two of the outsiders. Pelle, however, is praised for his insight in bringing not only a source of new blood – meaning Maja’s future child by Christian – but the May Queen, Dani, who is now considered a member of their community. All that remains is for the May Queen to choose whether the ninth and final victim will be Christian himself, or a Hårgan selected by lottery.

When Christian – and the viewer – now look at Dani, she is trapped in what is effectively a giant, triangular box-dress covered in flowers, so that only her face is visible beneath her crown. We do not see her make her choice, but we do see her gaze linger on Christian, and as Ingemar and the other live Hårgan sacrifice are taken into a ritual building – along with what remains of the bodies of the four dead outsiders and their two, pre-dead kinsfolk – the camera cuts to the body of the bear we earlier saw in a cage, now dead on a table, as an elder instructs a group of young boys on how to remove its intestines. Christian, still paralyzed, is then sewn into the body of the bear, his face peeking out while the rest of his limbs are hidden, concealing him in the skin just as Dani is concealed by flowers. He is then placed into the ritual room, and as the two other living sacrifices are given yew to stop their pain, an elder proclaims that the bear represents the greatest evil affekt, and that destroying it will cleanse the community.

As Dani and the other Hårgans watch, the building is then set alight. When one of the sacrificial Hårgans begins to scream in pain, the community – as at the suicide ritual (winter), the sex rite (spring) and during Dani’s grief (autumn) – all scream with him, including Dani herself. Unable to really run or move within the confines of her costume, we think at first that Dani is screaming in genuine fear and terror as she watches Christian and the others burn to death, but in the final shot of the film, we see her smiling. She has joined the Hårgans and been a willing participant in this final ritual, and with Christian’s death – the death of her grief, which the bear represented; foreshadowed by the affekt rune for grief, which the elder showed Josh – she is finally free.

And so the movie completes its seasonal, fulfilling what was promised by the kulning in the opening scenes: the herding call was to call Dani home, and in the end, she accepts. The painting hung over her bed in her apartment, showing a blonde girl extending a fiery lantern to a looming bear, not only presaged what was to come between her and Christian, but acknowledged the early imbalance in their roles: the girl was dwarfed by the beast. Yet at the end, Dani takes on the May Queen role and thus becomes representative of the greatest force for good in the Hårgan community, just as Christian is made representative of its greatest evil.

Why does Dani join the Hårgans? Because she’s grieving and vulnerable, mistreated by her partner, isolated from her friends and alone in the world after the recent death of her family – the perfect target, in other words, for recruitment to a cult, which the Hårgans undeniably are. The group may not have gone to Stockholm, as per Mark and Pelle’s early conversation, but Dani’s arc is ultimately one of Stockholm syndrome, a development aided, somewhat ironically, by the fact that Christian systematically ignores her early unease with what’s happening, causing her to accept the comfort of the very people she’s originally afraid of. This is paralleled in his early dismissal of her fears about her sister, who emails Dani about her intent to kill herself and their parents: though Dani is worried to tears, Christian insists that it’s just a ploy for attention and says Dani should ignore it, a misjudgement for which we never see him apologise.

And then there’s Pelle, who has clearly wanted Dani from the beginning. Though this intentions are never stated outright, it’s easy to speculate that he brought the pair along specifically so that Christian would die and Dani would then be available. This motive is paralleled by Ingemar’s unrequited feelings for Connie, who he brought along with Simon: whereas Ingemar, who ends up volunteering as a sacrifice in the wake of his failure, misjudged his targets and their feelings, causing both of them to reject the Hårgan setup and be killed instead, Pelle knew that Christian was disinterested and selfish, and that this made Dani vulnerable to an ideology which, despite its violence, would offer her the comfort and sense of belonging she craved.

And this is why it’s impossible to discuss Midsommar without running through the events of the film as a whole: though we don’t know it at the outset, the entire narrative is geared towards showing us how Dani comes to accept – and be accepted into – a cult. Over and over again, later occurrences are foreshadowed early on, and in keeping with the seasonal motif, they are often repeated in fours. The bear painting in Dani’s apartment, the live bear in the cage and the picture of the burning bear all herald the fourth and final reiteration where Christian burns in the bear-skin, just as the pictures of floral women in Dani’s apartment, the times she hallucinates the landscape of Hårga growing into her skin and Pelle’s drawing of her in a May Queen crown all presage her final capitulation.

Symbolically, Christian is tied to monstrousness while Dani is tied to growth, but while Dani ends the film accepting this imagery, the audience is aware that the two concepts are intertwined, doevetailing like the crux of the Odel rune: Christian is killed to facilitate the growth of the land, making his murderers monstrous, while Dani’s growth is dark and twisted, her final happiness growing out of blood. Likewise, Mark’s early worry about the group being on different trips becomes a different sort of prophecy: while Dani drinks one hallucinogenic tea prior to participating in the May Queen dance, Christian is separated and given a different drink at a later time, marking the point of irrevocable schism between them.

The whole film is superbly acted, scripted and shot, and will doubtless stand up to many successive viewings. I highly recommend Midsommar as both a horror film and as a superlative example of visual storytelling, and look forward to seeing what Aster does next.

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