Director: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia
Words – Carly Stevenson
Set amidst a solstice festival that occurs every 90 years, Midsommar follows a group of anthropology students as they embark upon a ‘research trip’ to rural Sweden at the invitation of Pelle, a fellow postgrad and native of the clandestine Hårga community. What was supposed to be a ‘boys only’ excursion is interrupted when Dani, traumatised by a recent family tragedy, decides to tag along, much to the dismay of her emotionally unavailable boyfriend and his ‘friends’.
Upon arriving at the commune, the locals warmly welcome Pelle and his friends by offering them psychedelics, which causes Dani to hallucinate about her dead sister. Unfazed by Dani’s anxiety, Christian, Mark and Josh begin to enjoy the pageantry. The idyll soon curdles into a nightmare when the group witness an unsettling ceremony that culminates with the ritual senicide of two villagers. From this point on, Midsommar descends into a fully-fledged folk horror.
This film produces two distinct forms of terror: firstly, an immediate, physical compulsion to recoil from the graphic violence (exacerbated by disorientating, trippy visuals and over-saturated lighting) and secondly, a lingering sense of unease that stems from Aster’s ability to blend the comic and the disturbing.
This carnivalesque quality reminds us not to take Midsommar too seriously. The paraphernalia of occultism is mostly ornamental; the main concerns of the film are dysfunctional relationships and the effects of grief. Aster himself affirmed this in interviews by stating that the film was inspired by a bad breakup. Indeed, what is most frightening about Midsommar is not the grisly deaths or unnerving rituals, but the ordinary ways in which toxic relationships (romantic and platonic) can chip away at one’s identity.
In contrast with Hereditary (2018), Midsommar foregoes supernatural shocks and instead delivers an entirely predictable ending. However, this is not a criticism; on the contrary, the cathartic power of this film is down to Aster’s use of convention. The only disappointing thing about Aster’s engagement with horror traditions is the way he posits the disabled body as a site of horror.
As Emma Madden’s article in The Guardian argues: ‘How can a new wave of horror truly surface when the same damaging tropes are still being used?’ (10 July 2019). Aster’s problematic depiction of disability in Midsommar does not diminish his achievements; however, it is worth asking why it was necessary to include a character like Ruben – whose deformity is the result of inbreeding – in the first place, if not for shock value.
Reviews of Midsommar have been quick to point out its resemblance to The Wicker Man, but few have discussed the ways in which the former is in dialogue with the latter. Jordan Peele’s audacious claim that Midsommar ‘usurps’ The Wicker Man is legitimate, in that the debt Aster owes to Robin Hardy’s classic is substantial, but so are the ways in which Midsommar departs from and moves beyond its iconic predecessor.
The academic rivalry between Christian and Josh is significant in this respect, as their dispute over who gets to write their thesis on the Hårga community raises interesting questions about originality. Aster may riff on the imagery and themes associated with The Wicker Man (and indeed other films in the genre, such as Blood on Satan’s Claw) but he does so with refreshing self-awareness.