Midsommar delivers compelling, genre-defying narrative

By JAE CHOI | August 7, 2019

Midsommar, a newly released folk-horror film from director Ari Aster, follows his highly acclaimed debut film Hereditary, which was released only a year ago. After relishing in the delightfully gruesome premise and fantastic acting of Hereditary, my expectations for Midsommar were high. 

The film follows Dani, a college student who is emotionally recovering from her sister’s murder-suicide with her parents. During the grieving process, she relies on her boyfriend Christian, who only reluctantly takes care of her out of a sense of obligation. 

Dani eventually finds out that Christian and his grad school friends had been planning a short vacation in Sweden without her and confronts him about it, straining their relationship even further. To make up for his mistake, Christian decides to invite her along on the trip. The rest of the film follows Dani, Christian and his friends as they become embedded in the rural community of a Swedish cult performing a rare, once-in-a-lifetime ritual. 

Like Hereditary, Midsommar dabbles in themes such as religious cultism and the difficulty of managing interpersonal relationships. However, Midsommar’s cinematography and the way in which it presents and answers questions about the nature of these themes are entirely unique. 

One unusual aspect of Midsommar is that it is set almost entirely during the daytime. In the imaginary patch of Swedish countryside in which the movie is set, the sun hardly ever sets. The colors used in the film are bright and desaturated, making the cinematography visually appealing and easy on the eyes. Midsommar thus serves as a visual complement to Hereditary’s exceedingly dark color palette. 

However, this doesn’t make Midsommar any easier to watch. Ironically, the brightness and vibrancy of the scenes makes the shocking moments so much more startling and the gore so much more difficult to stomach. While watching the movie at The Charles Theatre, I saw several audience members get out of their seats and leave, especially when the film depicts an elderly couple jumping off a cliff as part of the religious ritual. It only gets more gruesome – though the wife smashes her head against a large boulder at the foot of the cliff, dying on impact, the husband crushes his legs but survives. Several cult members, armed with wooden hammers, then proceed to pummel his head into the ground until his body becomes completely lifeless. It is at this point in the film when the characters are transported to an unfamiliar world full of strange, unrecognizable people and customs. 

Surprisingly, Midsommar also spends a lot of time focusing on the emotional distance between Dani and Christian. For all of its commercial promotion as a hip, new folk horror film set in the remote countryside, many scenes in the movie felt like they were suited to a romantic drama. While their friends are mysteriously disappearing or being skinned alive, Dani and Christian grow apart and begin nurturing romantic interests in villagers that are part of the cult. 

Although I usually try to keep the details of horror movies from seeming too relatable to my own life (for obvious reasons), there were many moments in the movie that could be related to the difficulties involved in nurturing romantic relationships. I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that Aster meant the film to be relatable to audiences.

In an interview with Variety, Aster stated that Midsommar was inspired by a failed relationship. 

“I’d wanted to write [a breakup movie] before, but I could never find an angle that felt interesting and didn’t feel like a mopey, kitchen sink drama,” he said.

“But then I was approached by a Swedish production company that read ‘Hereditary,’ and they said that they wanted me to write a folk horror film set in Sweden. We found that the framework of the folk horror movie was kind of perfect for a story about a relationship ending.”

What I like about the horror genre is that it doesn’t always end films in a way that is happy or emotionally cathartic. It leaves room for unhappy endings and models emotional trauma and shock in a way that is reflective of lived experience. I believe that is what Aster meant when he thought that the folk horror movie genre was fitting as a medium for a story about a failed relationship. This is also what made Midsommar so much more captivating for me.

Interestingly, Midsommar features many parallels to Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which involves fairies and gods who control the affections of mortals by concocting magical potions. One of the reasons Christian falls in love with a villager is due to love potions brought to him during meals. Like Lysander, Christian blindly falls in love while the other villagers gleefully sing and dance in the background, not unlike the fairies who dance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The use of psychedelic, reality-warping substances by other characters is also heavily featured throughout the film, further contributing to the allusion. 

For all its merits, however, there were times when I wished that the acting was better. Although Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor – in the roles of Dani and Christian respectively – gave powerful, emotional performances without feeling forced, some of the supporting cast’s acting was often unconvincing. In addition, the jokes sprinkled throughout the movie interfered with the build-up of spiritual dread that was so well-developed in Hereditary

In the end, Midsommar is a compelling film that brings together elements of folk-horror, splatter film and drama to deliver a startling picture of the emotional travails of falling in and out of love. It’s also the reason why I probably won’t be traveling to Sweden anytime soon. 

 

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