Midsommar (2019)

Ari Aster | 2hr 20min

At the heart of Midsommar there are two monsters in direct opposition to each other, fighting it out over the soul of a woman searching for meaningful stability. Traumatic grief haunts psychology student Dani following the murder-suicide that killed her entire family in one swift burst of depressive violence. The prospect of recovering from such a life-shattering tragedy seems impossible, and this is only backed up by the crushing visual darkness that dominates the first act of the film where the origins of her agony unfold. The opening minute lands us in chilly snowscapes sinking into a bleak gloominess, chilling us with the frosty isolation that defines Dani’s desolate world, and not long after, the flashing red lights of fire engines dimly illuminate a group of rescuers following a pipe leading from a carbon monoxide-filled garage into the bedrooms upstairs. The strings in Bobby Krlic’s agitated score wail like human cries, matching the awful, guttural sobs that erupt deep from within Florence Pugh’s chest. Nothing but the curious tapestry that lingers in the film’s very first shot hints at any sort of potential escape from the suffocating darkness, with each of its four panels painting out separate acts of Dani’s imminent journey, as if transcribed and prophesied in Hårga mythology.

Solid form set right from the opening shot, setting the tone of the murals and foreshadowing Dani’s journey inscribed into Hårga mythology.
Frosty scenery in America, setting the tone of Dani’s desolate world.
Devastating tragedy revealed in long tracking shots and dissolves, the red flashing lights of the emergency vehicles ominously illuminating the darkness.

And indeed, there is a light beyond this frightening shadow, bright and dazzling in its psychedelic radiance, and therein lies the second monster of Midsommar, welcoming Dani into its open arms. The Swedish commune that she is invited to visit with her emotionally distant boyfriend, Christian, and his friends could not be more culturally distinct from the cold, dark America she is familiar with, where Ari Aster’s staging is always keenly in tune with his characters’ frigidity. Dani’s relationships are frequently fragmented through mirrors and reflective surfaces that split characters into individual frames, and eye contact is scarcely found. Awkward silences and attempts to cover them up with excuses distinguish the nervous pacing of these scenes set in America, and it is especially notable that the only person offering any kind of emotional support is Swedish exchange student Pelle.

Dani and Christian’s reflections behind the rest of the group back in America, fracturing their relationships.
A bold move from Aster in tracking his camera along this road and flipping it upside down, bringing us into the upside-down reversal of everything we are familiar with – dark to light, disconnection to unity, modernity to tradition.
The camera pans and wanders through this seemingly utopian village, basking in its picturesque scenery – green with lush grass and white with linen clothing.

From the moment Aster tilts his camera upside down in an elegant tracking shot transporting us into the world of the Hårga though, a shift takes place on virtually every stylistic level. Our first impressions of this community suggest a fantastical utopia, as the camera pans and wanders in long takes through green landscapes dotted by villagers dressed in white linen, pastel flowers, and rustic, wooden buildings, and these visuals are accompanied by a small troupe of musicians playing gentle melodies on recorders. The silences shared between members of the commune are not grating, but rather linger in lovingly affectionate hugs, and Aster’s blocking takes a hard turn from icy division towards robust, collective unity. When the Hårga dance, they hold hands and gleefully run in concentric circles around a maypole, and even the camera joins in their wild jubilation. When they are still, Aster will often stage up to a hundred extras in rigid formations, seating them along lengthy feast tables symmetrically assembled in the shape of ancient runes, or arranging them through layers of the shot as they collectively shriek and yell, sharing each other’s pain.

Recurring overhead shots paint out a unity in the patterns these crowds form.
Rigidly staged ensembles from Aster creating gorgeous symmetries and visual composition, topping his already stunning debut in Hereditary.
Dazzling white light shone across this daunting set piece.

And of course all through this quaint commune of ancient rituals and modest living, Aster rarely lets his bright, shimmering light fade, piercing every shadow and bouncing it off pure white surfaces to diffuse it into a blinding atmospheric glare. In this part of Sweden and at this time of year, the sun stays up for 22 hours a day, barely dipping below the horizon, and simply this key fact of the environment sets up a strong formal relationship with Dani’s past which is conversely soaked in darkness.

Such all-consuming brightness is integral to Aster’s ravishing imagery that refuses to shy away from the more grotesque customs performed by the Hårga, including the ritualistic senicide and the gruesome blood eagle execution that manifests as a sort of body horror art. Even beyond its grisly atrocities though, Midsommar does not so much play on the terror of the unknown as it does on the subtly unnerving distortion of the familiar, pulling its characters into psychedelic trips that let flowers breathe with life and out-of-focus backgrounds subtly liquefy like a rippling lake.

Body horror art and thoroughly researched ancient practices in the blood eagle execution.

It is also in these hallucinogenic highs that Aster complements Dani’s arc of acceptance into the Hårga with a lush, visual metamorphosis. Not long after she arrives and ingests mushrooms with her fellow travellers, Aster staggers their bodies on the side of a hill in a Kurosawa-like composition, and idly pushes his camera forward until it settles on a delirious close-up of her hand becoming one with the grass. Later, a similar illusion of her feet sprouting greenery emerges amid communal celebrations, as if absorbing her into the earth, though the evidence of her assimilation is not just confined to these visions. The flower crowns that adorn the head of the Hårga and its visitors establish a powerful connection to the natural world, and one that singles Dani out as being unusually susceptible to its influences. As Midsommar winds towards its disturbing finish, she keeps taking on larger, more elaborate floral embellishments, until she has effectively become a green, flowered monstrosity, consumed by her new identity as May Queen.

A Kurosawa-like composition in the blocking of bodies as parallel lines in the mise-en-scène, with the camera skilfully tracking forward to rest on Dani’s hallucination.
A metamorphosis leading from mere hallucinations into this floral monstrosity as Dani is consumed by the Hårga, equally reflected in Florence Pugh’s anguished performance.

The clash between the disrespect of the foreigners and the traditions of the Hårga is not one Dani engages with to any major extent, though it is this tension which defines her steady slide away from her old loyalties towards her new ones. While two visiting Londoners react with noisy disgust at the ritual suicides of the village elders, Aster disappears inside Dani’s dazed mind that instinctively disconnects her from her surroundings, horrified but not entirely resistant to the way the commune willingly accepts death as part of its customs. Later, one of Christian’s friends urinates on an ancestral tree, and another takes photos of an artefact he is specifically instructed not to. If there was any remaining doubt to Aster’s distinction between the foreigners and the Hårga, he even names Dani’s boyfriend Christian in direct opposition to their paganism.

There is no such thing as sanctity in the society these Americans hail from, and as such there is an inherent mismatch between their insensitivity and the Hårga whose entire culture revolves around natural cycles and displays of collective compassion, whether those be the metaphorical seasons used to distinguish the stages of a human life or the rhythmic howling that accompanies Dani mid-panic attack. Even in smaller formal choices, Aster is building out a world thick with tradition, with the villagers giving short, sharp exhalations as an adrenaline boost. Most curious of all though is the way he lingers on painted murals of ancient symbols, procedures, and stories much like the one in the opening shot, evoking Krzysztof Kieslowski’s own iconographic cutaways that carry symbolic significance and foreshadow narrative developments.

The camera lingering on the painted iconography in this Sistine Chapel shot, gliding past its rafters.
Foreshadowing in the Hårga tapestries, lacing clues through the rest of the film of a strange love potion in the making.

The pulsating rhythms Aster weaves through Midsommar are so intoxicatingly enigmatic that it is hard not to think of the Hårga’s practices when one woman offers Christian a drugged drink which she explains “breaks down the defences and opens you to the influences.” Being a lost woman in search of human connection, there are few emotional barriers keep Dani from being fully swayed by their hypnotic thrall, and while we might find ourselves conflicted over the glorious final minutes of Midsommar, we too find ourselves swept away by the majestic destruction of her toxic relationship.

Even a conscious recognition that cults operate on false displays of empathy and promises of unending happiness is not enough to counteract the resplendent effect of Krlic’s ethereal strings and tinkling percussion, harmonising with the villagers’ chants and screams to rise to a shimmering crescendo. Never mind that the Hårga are indefensibly responsible for traumatising Dani a second time in forcing a mating ritual upon her boyfriend, or that they joyfully engage in some truly horrific practices. Finally, she is smiling for what seems like the first time in the entire film, and as Aster dissolves a close-up of her face over the sight of the ugly pieces of her old life going up in flames, he delivers one final, sinister set piece of spiritual catharsis, celebrating the liberation found in the disturbing confines of the only true community she has ever known.

One of the great endings of the decade, not unlike that of Hereditary though with a gorgeous long dissolve layering Dani’s face over the sacrificial offering of her past.

Midsommar is currently streaming on Netflix and Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.

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