This week, Trista K. Robichaud returns to collaborate on a film review. It’s a brand new piece in the spirit of our old Alamo Cinema Massacre column. Welcome back, Trista!
Synopsis: Psychology PhD student Dani (Florence Pugh) has relationship problems – she has needy bipolar sister Terri (Klaudia Csányi) and an uncommunicative boyfriend (Jack Reynor) who’s tired of being supportive all the time. Christian’s PhD-student friends make fun of Christian’s manly faults (no sex, no thesis topic, no will to dump Dani). Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a visiting Swedish student, invites housemates Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Christian to Sweden for Midsummer revels. Josh the anthropology student is excited to go – it’s perfect for his thesis work on comparative Midsummer celebrations. Mark wants to do lots of drugs and hook up with hot Swedish girls, and Christian shyly admits he’d like to go.
Unfortunately for both Christian and Dani, Terri commits suicide after murdering Dani’s parents on the winter solstice. Dani crashes and burns, screaming her grief in Christian’s awkward embrace.
We next see Dani in high summer, hiding on her bed from the world. Christian announces he’s going to check in at a house party. Dani screws up the courage to go along and finds out that Christian has a ticket to a six-week European vacation, which is oh leaving in two weeks (sorry, not sorry about that)! Understandably enough, Dani grapples with her anger that Christian hasn’t told her about this vacation, while Christian tries to avoid thinking about his growing ennui about still dating Dani. He compromises, however, inviting Dani along to the Swedish revels, dashing Mark’s hopes of a bachelor bar crawl across Europe.
Pelle, however, appears genuinely glad Dani is coming, and offers sympathy to her for her loss. He is also an orphan and he looks forward to introducing Dani to the pageantry his found family enjoys every year (and this year is a 90th anniversary special event), but she’s not quite ready to hear it. We then cut to the five travelers in plane and car as they go to a beautiful, isolated land drenched in almost total daylight. Only Pelle seems happy; the rest are lost in their own worlds.
Upon reaching Halsingland the townfolk seem friendly and welcoming, sharing food, alcohol and hallucinogens freely. Everyone is dressed in embroidered ceremonial garb of white linen, and pagan iconography decorates the buildings. Could these people be glad to greet guests for a more sinister reason than hospitality? As the nine day feast commences, Ari Aster fills his frame with strangeness and subtle tensions that build with each passing day. What is the secret of MIDSOMMAR (2019)?
Folk horror is a curious genre, often acting as the obverse to fish-out-of-water comedies. It highlights our fear of the unknown as well as our awkwardness with foreign societies. MIDSOMMAR proudly continues the tradition started with WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) and especially THE WICKER MAN (1973) of societies foreign to our protagonists that seem benign but become all too predatory. Writer-Director Ari Aster (HEREDITARY, 2018) combines societal horror, pagan ritual, and heartbreaking beauty to tell a strange and compelling story where relationships die and are reborn.
I would add a few other titles to the list. First up is the classic documentary HAXAN (1922) tackled the topic of witchcraft through the ages and offered the sinister forces at work in pastoral settings. Further, I would toss on Neil Jordan’s take on Angela Carter’s revisionist fairy stories, A COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984), as well as Fritz Bohm’s thoroughly enjoyable tale of dark secrets and self-discovery, WILDLING (2018), Robert Eggars’ eerie fable THE VVITCH (2015)—the lattermost of these also came from A24 productions, the company responsible for MIDSOMMER. The focus on this breed of story is folklore, the intersection of cautionary faerie tales with occult forces. The line between the honestly supernatural and the masked mundane is rather thin in this style of dark tale telling. I have to say I love stories that grapple with unknowable traditions practiced in remote locations.
Let me say: It’s good to be a fan of art house horrors these days. We have a wealth of material to look at, and while not all of it sparks a deep and lasting connection with me, there is a great supply of interesting fright flicks.
MIDSOMMER’s approach to its material is surprisingly languid on the surface. The pacing is pretty leisurely at first, taking its time to get things rolling. Oh, there are some gripping scenes viewing the aftermath of Terri’s crime, which I found impossible to look away from. However, establishing the films five traveling characters is given the opportunity to be slow, allowing the awkwardness to flourish in uncomfortable silences. There is an effort to demonstrate just how little these friends actually say to one another. They can bitch about people who are not present, they can complain about big events (well, classes and PhD theses), and they can plan for a trip. However, they don’t really talk to one another. Even before they end up in Sweden I would argue they are fully vested in their private worlds, presenting easy to understand facades to one another.
These aren’t really people, which is a shame in a 2.5 hour movie. They’re archetypes or caricatures of people. I found it hard to have sympathy for any of the main characters, even though MIDSOMMAR relies on us being sympathetic with Dani at least. I admit I’m not twenty anymore, but it’s a shame when you’re waiting for the cast to buy it.
Yeah . . .
Case in point: Mark is a dick. When we meet him, he is wearing one of those dickish expressions, halfway between disgust and a sneer. He speaks his mind, but what he speaks is bile. He hates on needy women (declaring them frigid, though we have no real notion that he’s speaking from an informed opinion or just a chauvinist assumption), and he refers to a pretty waitress as a target for impregnating. However, in a later scene, when the group are all high on mushrooms a bit of depth seeps out, showing him as insecure as a child, demanding his friends do like he’s doing (“Lay down, okay?” he implores Josh and Christian. “Just lay down with me!)
The trip to Sweden is a journey of self-discovery for each of the travelers. They are already wrapped up in personal mysteries, unable to understand who they are or what they want, or ultimately what they are supposed to do with their griefs, their yearnings, their desires, their inadequacies, and their psychological baggage. Exposure to this small commune and their ritualistic mysteries will help them find some answers though few of those answers are comfortable ones.
One of the things I liked about MIDSOMMAR is that Aster knows how to create convincing rituals. An important aspect of ritual is to get the participants to step outside their little worlds for a while and be open to experience. Aster uses the specific costumes, strange art, endless daylight, dances and drugs to put his characters off-balance and try to wake them from self-absorption. Alas, our touring group doesn’t use this opportunity to address themselves, communicate, and grow. This doesn’t argue well for their survival.
Another thing I really liked was the lush backdrop contrasting our Americans. The crafter in me really appreciated the embroidered costumes and the painted iconography on the walls. The sun-archway into the town was incredible, and the landscape just adds to the beauty and isolation of everything. The last time I saw such detailed and compelling set design in a horror movie was 2016’s THE LOVE WITCH.
This is not only true in Sweden, but in Dani’s apartment. The walls there feature several colorful artworks that seem to tell the whole story we are about to see. There’s a female figure with a massive gown, something she seems almost lost in. There is a piece showing a powerful bear in a striking pose. There is a moon cycle piece as well, that suggests both the lunar cycle and the quality of fertility. Each of these has echoes (some of them direct) through the feature. A first time through we might not know what the portents mean, but they are priming our heads for what we are about to see, foreshadowing what is to come.
Throughout the picture I was blowing kisses to Pawel Pogorzelski, who worked with Ari Aster on HEREDITARY (2018). I really love how he fills a frame in this movie. There’s so much to look at in terms of art, setting, buildings, and costume – and Pawel paints in the corners to let us see the beauty the crew has created. Another cool thing Pawel does is that he will often establish an actor in the foreground, so that the editors can then seem to only change the background as a cut to a new location and time. Other cuts include passing through doors (another important ritual!) or strange washes of color.
I don’t remember, DANIEL. Were there similar cuts in HEREDITARY?
Hmm. A good question! I cannot recall these camera and editing tricks from that feature. In HEREDITARY, the cuts between scenes were a bit harsher, moving from wide angles to something close up in frame—take the shift of the family’s house exterior when the mother discovers an unpleasant surprise in her car to the close up reveal of a decapitated head bathed in warm, morning sunshine swarming with hungry ants. The shift is jarring, unexpected, shocking. The linger on that head, for example, invites us to indulge a complex series of emotions. Revulsion, pity, empathy for the survivors, anger at the person responsible, perhaps even a bit of confusion.
Actually, come to think of it, that framing of a character in such a manner in two unrelated sequences which are later spliced together does occur in HEREDITARY. The mother is plagued by bouts of sleepwalking, and I can recall at least one item where she is presented in a nightmarish place only to snap to awareness in her children’s room. There may have been others, as well.
I wonder how much of MIDSOMMAR is intended to rely on shock and newness; I was a willing participant but I’m familiar with the genre. There are powerful moments in store here that I don’t want to spoil. All the visitors but Dani (our final girl?) transgress against the new society they find themselves in and are punished for their transgressions in classic European horror style. Unfortunately, these powerful moments were undercut by random nervous laughter in my theater showing. Perhaps more attention could be paid to intentionally giving the audience more controlled comic scenes to act as tension valves?
Yeah, I saw it with a few loud audience members who did not appreciate the pacing or the imagery. I think they were expecting something akin to MA (2019), and not a film with something to say and no fear about taking its time to get to the punchline. Of course, that may have colored my own view of it.
When I left the theater, I did not particularly like MIDSOMMAR. On the walk through the mall and then the walk outside (where a late evening’s full moon gleamed behind passing clouds), I found myself poking at the picture’s weaknesses. There are quite a few.
The tourists to this colony are abrasive as hell. American or British, they don’t understand what’s going on and they don’t care. The scholars view this as a sociological and anthropological Petrie dish they can probe for answers, others see it as malicious and evil.
In fact, my sympathies lay with the community itself. My own tolerance for bad tourists is pretty low. These people’s rituals are established, they serve a purpose, and the performance may be shocking, but it’s the way these people have lived for at least one century and likely more. Americans have their own rotten rituals, as does the UK does, which are headscratching at best and offensive as hell at worst.
As you mentioned, Dani is the most sympathetically portrayed of the tourist characters, and I found myself torn over my own feelings over her. She is a fragile character in the mold of Annie (Toni Collette) from HEREDITARY, but I did not particularly like her the way I liked Annie. Maybe the problem is these people are all young, making young people’s stupid mistakes, and my tolerance for that is far lower since I am middle aged and have a greater sympathy for middle age people’s stupid mistakes.
In fact, I liked Josh the most, but only because I knew actor William Jackson Harper from THE GOOD PLACE. That character has me grinding my teeth early on, since he has an insider’s view into the proceedings (at least an academic insider’s view) and he does not share some important clues with his supposed friends. Then again, he loses his smarts and serves the plot in a rather foolish way later on, only to pay a gruesome price.
Perhaps my biggest disappointment with MIDSOMMAR is that this film is more of a plotted piece than a character driven one. Oh, there are character “decisions”, but half of them do not seem to arise from the individual performing them so much as the story requiring the characters to move this way or another. With a two-and-a-half hour runtime, I would have expected a better grounding in these people as actual characters instead of plot-puppets.
Sleeping on it, I find a lot more to appreciate about the movie. It’s visually engaging, does some neat things in the camera—the drug hallucinations are seldom out and out surreal, so much as things that should not be moving shifting or heaving in the corners—and though it does not have the same effectiveness for my money as, say, THE WICKER MAN, it is nevertheless an interesting piece of art house horror.
There are a couple of unexpected moments of shock that arrived suddenly. Those are truly breathtaking in their artistry and brutality.
On the IMDB web site Ari Aster comments over his MIDSOMMER trailer that he was also trying to make a ‘horror breakup movie’ similar to a teenage romantic comedy, while following the structure established by movies like THE WICKER MAN. This is certainly one way to stretch out an homage to Shirley Jackson’s THE LOTTERY to two and a half hours! J However, Dani has a terrible choice by the end; will she stay with Christian, or will she join the Harga people and build a new found family? I could honestly see her choosing either side at the decision point, yet I was happy with what she chose.
I see the movie as more of a metaphor. At one point soon after arriving in the commune’s outskirts, Dani races away from her group and winds up sleeping off a mushroom episode in the woods. Part of me wonders if the whole rest of the movie is the dreamquest she endures during that episode, which allows her the chance to grapple with all that baggage she is carrying. There’s not a lot to quite support that interpretation in the rest of the feaure, alas, but in my head it works out well and rubs away the rougher edges imposed by my annoyance at the plot driven character moves. Since Ari Aster is known for his keen portrayals of psychological horror, I doubt he would be disappointed with such a read.
I’m torn between wanting to own a copy of this movie and wanting a bunch of those embroidered linen shirts. Maybe Ari Aster can run a Kickstarter?
Or maybe give his blessings to one? All right creative people, let’s see a licensed MIDSOMMAR clothing line!
While we wait for that to happen, let’s get some more thoughtful, emotionally honest, and intriguing horror pictures in the theaters! MIDSOMMAR might not be a perfect film, but it’s an intriguing picture nevertheless. One worth seeing in theaters.
And while we’re at it, let’s invite the loudmouth audience members to participate in some bloody, ancient traditions in far-away lands . . .
MIDSOMMAR is currently in theaters. Preorder it in a DVD, Blu-ray, or streaming edition today!
“Movie Mondays: Midsommar” is copyright © 2019 by Trista K. and Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and image taken from IMDB.