MIDSOMMAR (2019, Director Ari Aster)

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

Ari Aster’s Midsommar is a brooding, oneiric bit of folk horror that uses its treatment of ages-old Swedish folk customs to comment on a range of very contemporary issues. It’s also a very effective bit of filmmaking that makes excellent use of cinematography, music, and some stellar performances to produce an air of dread, leading to some gruesome events, and an oddly ambivalent conclusion. Aster’s followup to the equally effective Hereditary (2018), Midsommar is, on the surface, the story of a group of young British and American graduate-student types who are lured into the backwoods of Sweden to serve as the sacrificial victims of a horrifying savage ritual that is stipulated to occur only once every ninety years. However, it uses this scenario to comment on the politics of graduate research, the impact of trauma, the relationship between modernity and tradition, the rise of neo-fascism in Europe, and the politics of relationships within a patriarchal world.

Midsommar begins with a brief prologue set in a modern American college town. In just a few short minutes, this prologue introduces us to all of the major American characters, including psychology student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), cultural anthropology grad students Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), their oafish friend Mark (Will Poulter), and their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). (Mark and Pelle are probably also anthropology grad students, though the film doesn’t actually say that.) Dani and Christian have been involved in an intimate relationship for nearly four years, but it is a relationship in trouble, largely because Dani is in great need of emotional support, while the self-centered Christian is not exactly the supportive type. Dani becomes even more emotionally vulnerable when her bipolar sister commits suicide, taking their parents with her. Then, just as Dani needs him most, Christian agrees (without telling Dani) to go with Josh and Mark to Sweden to observe a unique, once-in-a-lifetime folk festival there, at the invitation of Pelle. Dani discovers the plan and manages to extract a grudging invitation from Christian to join them, which sets up the events of the rest of the film.

By the time they arrive in Sweden, we have already gotten to know the American characters to some extent. Dani’s fragility and Christian’s emotional inaccessibility have been made clear. Josh is a bit more of an enigma; most of what we know about him has to do with his academic status. He speaks in a somewhat stilted way, as if working on his future persona as a professor. One also initially wonders if, as a black man, he feels a special obligation to perform this academic persona, as if to prove that he fits in. As the film proceeds, however, his race never becomes an obvious issue within the film. We know even less about Mark (it is not even clear that he is also a graduate student), but his crassness and vulgarity have established him as a sort of Ugly American[1] type, which does not seem to bode well as he goes abroad. Meanwhile, we learn that Pelle’s “brother” Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg) has also been abroad, and has returned with his own guests, Connie and Simon (Ellora Torchia and Archie Madekwe), an engaged, brown-skinned British couple.

On their arrival in Sweden, the Americans are greeted cordially by members of Pelle’s community, the Hårga, which has something of the vibe of a 1960s hippie commune (including a heavy use of psychedelic drugs), except that it soon becomes clear that the community practices a sharply enclosed culture, cut off from the modern world and its values.[2] The exact nature of this culture is not initially clear, though it does seem to center on respect (even reverence) for the community’s traditions, as well as for nature, with which the community strives to live in harmony. All of this seems quite harmless, though odd bits and pieces of information—as well as ominous musical and visual cues—gradually accumulate to create an air of uneasiness. For example, as the group drives north toward their destination in Sweden, there is one segment in which the picture is turned upside down, accompanied by eerie music that seems to suggest they are driving toward their doom.

An upside-down shot of the drive to northern Sweden suggests strange events to come.

The group arrives in northern Sweden just in time for a midsummer festival, which is related to the summer solstice, a location and a time that dictate that it is daylight nearly around the clock, setting the stage for a brilliantly-lit film that seems, on the surface, far removed from the darkness typically associated with the horror genre. But this around-the-clock daylight also gives an unreal and disorienting quality to the setting, as one day merges into another with virtually no night to separate them. Some of the information we pick up along the way foreshadows specific elements of the plot, as when we learn that the Hårga separate life into four eighteen-year segments, but remain ominously vague about what happens after age seventy-two. (Pelle suggests that they are killed, but by making a throat-cutting gesture that seems at the time to be a joke.) We also see unexplained sights like a large bear in a cage and a number of rather interesting-looking works of folk art. In addition, we learn early on that the community sometimes has to acquire outside DNA to prevent negative results from in-breeding. Some of the information we gather is atmospheric, as when Dani has a bad trip when taking mushrooms with her friends when they first arrive in Sweden. Then again, some of the bothersome details we learn (such as the information that Sweden has a “tick problem”) don’t actually contribute to the film’s plot, though even this tick reference adds to the atmosphere, subtly suggesting that the nature so revered by the community may have a sinister side, something that folk horror often suggests.

Hårga folk art foreshadows Christian’s participation in the mating ritual.

Folk horror—the classic case would be the original version of The Wicker Man (1973)—quite often involves a modern individual or group of individuals who unwittingly wander into an enclave from the traditional past, where cultish groups remain immersed in cultural practices that date back far before modern times. These practices often include seemingly harmless communal dancing and singing and a general sense of respect for and harmony with nature, but they also often include gruesome and violent practices such as human sacrifice. The visitors from the modern world then typically fall victim to these violent practices—thus introducing the elements that make such narratives a subgenre of horror.

At the same time, both “folk” and “horror” are quite complex terms, and their combination is even more so. As a result, this paradigmatic scenario hardly captures the full range of narratives that might be encompassed by the term “folk horror.” It might also be noted that folk horror has typically been more prominent in Britain than in the United States, presumably because echoes of the traditional past remain stronger in the former than in the latter, which was born in a declared moment of late-eighteenth-century historical disjunction that involved an intentional severing of ties with the past and full-scale endorsement of the official values of the Enlightenment.[3]

In short, folk horror typically involves an inherent conflict between modern and traditional cultures of a kind that is somewhat foreign to American culture, where perhaps the closest analog to this sort of conflict would be the “hillbilly horror” genre of films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), in which protagonists from the modern world wander off the beaten path and into the savage cultures of often in-bred and degenerate individuals who have been separated from the flow of modernity in their rural enclaves. Midsommar, however, takes part in a classic European folk horror scenario, despite having been written and directed by the American Aster. It is, however, a joint American-Swedish production, with the Swedish production company B-Reel Films playing a major role in the making of the film. And this Swedish participation is crucial given that folk traditions remain much stronger in Sweden than in the United States. It is thus perhaps not all that surprising that Midsommar takes full advantage of the possibilities for historical allegory (via the conflict between modernity and tradition) offered by the folk horror subgenre. Where Aster’s film moves beyond most folk horror, though, is in the focus on the personal story of Dani, her family trauma, and her troubled relationship with Christian, introducing a new dimension, though this dimension itself goes far beyond the personal story of Dani and Christian to comment in significant ways on certain political issues in the modern world.

The vague sense of looming danger that has been building in the early part of the film culminates when the Hårga conduct an ättestupa ceremony, in which an old man and old woman (presumably both having reached the age of seventy-two), leap to their deaths from a cliff (though the man survives the initial fall and has to be ritually bludgeoned to death with a ceremonial mallet that was already on hand, suggesting that this happens fairly frequently). This ceremony was, according to legend, actually practiced in Nordic prehistoric times, though it certainly seems horrifying to the modern visitors. The practices of the Hårga are thus linked to ones that are quite ancient. Simon and Connie, denizens of the modern world, are so disturbed by these deaths that they demand to be taken back to a nearby train station so that they can return home. The Hårga seemingly agree, but both Simon and Connie ultimately disappear under suspicious circumstances, leaving us to wonder whether they have really been taken to the station.

Of the Americans, Dani seems most strongly affected, as one might expect, given the still-recent fate of her family. In fact, she, too, decides to leave, though Pelle convinces her to stay. Meanwhile, she experiences a nightmare that links the ättestupa to the deaths of her family, indicating that the ceremony has served as a sort of trigger for her trauma. Josh seems shaken as well, though he had apparently understood the nature of the ritual beforehand. In fact, he heads immediately back to the barracks where they are staying and starts typing away at this laptop—presumably to record details of the ättestupa, which he apparently now sees merely as a positive contribution to his research. Meanwhile, Christian follows him back that there and chooses this moment to tell Josh that he has decided to write his own thesis on the Hårga, meaning that his research will overlap with Josh’s, which had initially focused on midsummer festivals in general, though Josh has now decided to focus specifically on the Hårga. Josh reacts angrily, feeling that his territory has been infringed upon. Christian then resents Josh’s resentment, especially after Josh rebuffs his offer to collaborate. It is clear that from this encounter that Christian is merely being his usual insensitive self, something that also comes through clearly when he later tries to calm Dani by giving her an essentially rote speech on cultural relativism and on how they should not judge the Hårga by modern Western standards. This speech, however, is more significant than it might first appear, because it raises questions that are crucial to our understanding of this entire film.

Josh, meanwhile, comes off even worse than Christian, identified as a scholar who is more interested in his own personal gain than in contributing to the fund of knowledge in his specialty, more interested in bettering his fellow students than in collaborating with them. Indeed, he turns out to be even more unscrupulous than that. Denied permission to photograph the Rubi Radr, the sacred book of the Hårga, he attempts to photograph the book secretly. However, he is discovered and, in a key turning point in the film, is weirdly approached by a man, naked from the waist down, whom he mistakes for Mark, but who is apparently a Hårga wearing Mark’s face, Leatherface-style. Then Josh is clubbed from behind with one of the ceremonial mallets used to finish off the old man in the ättestupa. We will not see Josh or Mark alive again in the film.

Mark, meanwhile, had disrespected the traditions of the Hårga in a more down-to-earth way when he thoughtlessly peed on their sacred tree, causing quite an uproar. Soon afterward, he is mysteriously led away from a communal meal by Inga (Julia Ragnarsson), a young Hårga woman in whom Mark had already shown sexual interest. Eventually, it will become clear that Simon, Connie, Mark, and Josh have all been killed and that their killings, while seemingly triggered by their own conduct in one way or another, were essentially planned in advance and that they had been lured to the Hårga site in order to serve as sacrificial victims.

Christian will also become a sacrificial victim, though in a more elaborate way. In another building subplot, Josh had discovered a “love rune,” an object intended to cast a love spell, under Christian’s bed, while Christian himself had found a pubic hair in his food, all of which eventually leads to another key moment in the film when a drugged Christian is induced to participate in a ritual mating with the young Hårga woman Maja (Isabelle Grill) in a clear fulfillment of the foreshadowing that occurred earlier in the discussion of in-breeding. It’s an interesting moment of gender-reversal, in which Christian is thrust into the vulnerable and e=sexually-exploited role so often occupied by women in horror films.

For her part, Dani has now become the community’s May Queen by virtue of winning a drug-fueled dancing stamina competition. May Queens are figures of springtime and thus of vitality and fertility. While they often appear in modern May Day celebrations in a purely ceremonial form, they played a more important role as the personification of the properties of springtime in many traditional European cultures. The Hårga, of course, take their May Queen seriously in this latter fashion, so that Dani now emerges as an important, even sacred, figure among them. She is so important, in fact, that she is given the task of choosing the final sacrificial victim for the culmination of this event. One of the candidates is Christian, whom she has just witnessed mating with Maja. Dani recoils with horror, though it is not entirely clear whether this is because she thinks Christian is participating in this ritual willingly. In any case, the sight adds one more item to the list of traumatic experiences she has had in the film. It’s the final straw, and Dani, as May Queen, subsequently designates Christian as the film’s final sacrifice, leading to the climactic scene in which Christian, inserted in the disemboweled body of that caged bear we saw earlier, joins two of the Hårga as live sacrifices to a ceremonial fire, surrounded by the bodies of the other outsiders, which have been decorated in a variety of ways that (like Christian’s insertion in the body of the bear) seem designed to express the Hårgas’ respect for and harmony with nature.[4] This scene also offers one last important communal moment: one of the sacrificed Hårga, though supposedly drugged to feel no pain, starts to scream in agony as he burns inside the strange yellow triangular sacrificial temple. All of the other Hårga, gathered outside, begin to scream and gyrate in sympathy, though also seeming to experience an odd sort of euphoria.

Christian, drugged and sown inside a bear, awakes sacrificial death by fire.

This final scene provides a perfect encapsulation of the central complication of this film: viewed from a purely modern point of view, many of the practices of the Hårga are horrifying and barbaric. But the Hårga do not see things from a modern point of view; from their perspective, their cultural traditions are elegant, beautiful, and productive, helping their community to thrive and persist. Midsommar, then, is a film that, in this sense, centers on the question of cultural relativism—on the way in which cultural practices can appear quite different when judged from the perspectives of different cultures.

Cultural relativism has been a particularly important topic in the recent evolution of both feminism and postcolonialism, though the idea was introduced by anthropologist Franz Boas as early as 1887. Indeed, cultural relativism provides, among other things, a crucial area of overlap between feminism and postcolonialism, both of which turn out to be highly relevant to Midsommar. In the case of postcolonialism, there has been much discussion of the ways in which the Western colonial powers confronted their colonized subjects from an ethnocentric position of cultural superiority, justifying their conquest of so much of the rest of the globe on the basis of the fact that they were bringing a superior and more advanced culture to the more benighted places of the earth. As a result, any indigenous practices that seemed different from Western practices tended to be automatically judged as inferior to those Western values (seen as universally applicable)—quite often to the point of being seen as savage and primitive. Such judgements have particularly often been applied to the treatment of women in precolonial societies, where practices such as polygamy or female circumcision have been seen, through Western feminist eyes, as inherently oppressive to women. But those more conscious and respectful of the differences between cultures have sometimes argued that such practices, viewed within the societies in which they arose, might appear quite logical—and possibly even beneficial to women.

In such cases, as Terry Eagleton puts it, “The necessary and proper universalism of the judgement that the oppression of women in any form is always morally wrong, and that no appeal to cultural tradition can constitute a defence of such conduct, runs into headlong conflict with a cultural relativism which is reluctant to appear ‘ethnocentric’ in its outlook. We should seek to understand the headhunters, not to change them” (385). Of course, this is not a simple polar opposition, and it is certainly possible to approach this problem dialectically, noting that some practices might simply and absolutely be wrong from almost any enlightened and humane perspective, while also noting that the question of “right” and “wrong” is quite often not an absolute one, but one that depends upon one’s point of view.

On the other hand, the very Aryan-looking Hårga seem less representative, both physiologically and geographically, of colonized peoples than of the right-wing neo-Nazis who have recently become such a problem in Europe, including Sweden itself. Such groups tend to be xenophobic in their attitude toward outsiders, and it should be noted that three of the four four outsiders to be sacrificed by the Hårga in this film are people of color, while the other (Mark) has grossly violated Hårga traditions. Christian and Dani, meanwhile, might well have been selected for more extensive interaction with the Hårga (including breeding) on the basis of their light-colored hair, eyes, and skin. And, of course, the practices of the Hårga might appear in one light when applied only to themselves, but then might appear quite different when we realize that they have literally sent agents such as Pelle out into the world to bring back unsuspecting outsiders to serve as sacrificial victims.

The Hårga are presented to us as an entirely communal society. There seem to be no disputes or disagreements among them. As a result, their culture, though highly regimented and regulated, is apparently not perceived by them as coercive or oppressive, because all of them seem to have consented willingly to abide by the rules and traditions of the community. But this universal agreement contains its own horrors from the point of view of Western Enlightenment liberalism, with its strong emphasis on respect for individual variations and its sense that any society that does not allow for different individuals to have different views is inherently oppressive and inhumane. Indeed, once the possible connection with neo-fascism has been suggested, the Hårga culture begins to seem less communal and harmonious and more repressive and authoritarian.[5]

Of course, Western individualism has its own drawbacks, especially in its tendency to create a population of individuals who have been so immersed in the doctrine of unlimited individual potential that they tend to feel they have somehow failed because they have not accomplished unlimited achievements. Dani herself is a victim of this phenomenon. As a character, she most obviously illustrates another flaw in the rhetoric of individual liberty and equality—the fact that, in Western liberal societies, some people are more free and equal than others. We know very little about the details of Dani’s background, though we can surmise from her sister’s mental illness and from Dani’s own obvious psychological frailty that she grew up in a problematic family environment. As a graduate student, she is a young woman with some ability, accomplishment, and ambition, but it is also clear that she suffers from anxiety and low self-esteem. She feels that she needs a great deal of emotional support from Christian, then feels that she is somehow at fault for needing this support, a situation that is made significantly worse by the fact that Christian so clearly resents having to provide this support. She also tends to apologize for him and to try to explain away his shortcomings, as when she claims that it was her fault that Christian forgot her birthday soon after arriving in Sweden.

In addition, most of the film (including all of the segments in Sweden) takes place after the tragic deaths of Dani’s sister and parents, something with which she has clearly not entirely come to terms. Yet the numb emotional state in which Dani walks, almost zombie-like, through most of the film, seems as related as much to her bad relationship with Christian as to the deaths of her sister and parents. Indeed, director Aster has been quoted as saying that, for him, “the film is incidentally a folk horror film. If anything, this is my attempt at making a big operatic breakup movie that feels the way a breakup feels” (qtd. in Olsen). From this point of view, the film’s final shot, in which Dani smiles contentedly to herself as Christian burns to death at her behest, takes on a special significance. This moment represents her liberation, however problematic, from her co-dependence on Christian, a liberation that also frees her finally to deal properly with the loss of her family.

Dani’s final smile.

Reviewer Tomris Laffly has summed up this final moment by noting that “the invigorating reward here is the ultimate sovereignty you will find in Dani, a surrogate for any woman who ever excused an inconsiderate male, rationalized his unkind words or thoughtless non-apologies. Pugh knows it in the film’s liberating final shot. And you will know it too, so intensely that her freedom might just feel like therapy.” In some ways, that smile signals the ultimate breakup moment, and indeed Beatrice Loayza has usefully suggested that Midsommar is best seen as a breakup film. Moreover, Loyza argues that horror as a genre is particularly well suited for exploring the breakup experience, citing a range of Midsommar’spredecessors in this sense.

That Dani is, through most of the stay in Sweden, still grieving and still suffering from trauma is perhaps what makes her particularly susceptible to the lures of the Hårga, whom she seems set to join as the film ends. Yet there are also signs that Dani was somehow fated in advance to be the May Queen all along. Her vulnerable emotional state might be one reason for this selection, but we also learn that her birthday falls during the festival—and thus corresponds roughly to the Summer Solstice, perhaps giving her a special status. In addition, there is a scene in which Pelle (who plays a key role in revealing to Dani that the Sweden trip has been planned) tells her that, of all the American guests, she was the one whom he felt all along was their most important visitor. There is even at least one hint that suggests that there might be a supernatural element in which Dani was fated to become the May Queen (and to sacrifice Christian) long before she knew anything about the trip to Sweden. For example, during the final stage of the dance contest, Dani suddenly discovers that she can speak Swedish. In addition, there is a shot of Dani’s American apartment at the beginning of the film, in which we see her lying on her bed, over which hangs a large painting of a bear bending over a woman wearing a crown. This painting (which so strongly foreshadows the ending of the film) was executed by John Bauer, an early-twentieth-century Swedish painter known primarily for his illustrations of Swedish folklore and fairy tales. Viewers cannot be expected to know this, of course, making the painting an illustration of the ways in which Midsommar presents us with a wide variety of interpretive clues, none of which actually solve the film’s mysteries (and some of which actually cause more uncertainty).

The bear painting in Dani’s American apartment.

Thus, in addition to raising potentially disturbing questions related to cultural relativism, Midsommar is also a complex and subtle film that leaves a number of other questions unanswered. We can debate whether Christian deserved his fate. We cannot know whether (or how) Dani was pre-selected to serve as the May Queen. It is not certain whether she will remain among the Hårga, perhaps as the mate of Pelle. And so on. This elegant, complex film seems more designed to raise questions than to provide answers. In addition, it must be read simultaneously on a number of different levels, with an understanding that the meaning generated by the film goes far beyond any straightforward interpretation of its literal events. As such, Midsommar is an excellent illustration of the possibilities offered by the horror film as a genre.

WORKS CITED

Laffly, Tomris. “Midsommar.” Roger Ebert.com (July 1, 2019). https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/midsommar-2019. Accessed March 12, 2020.

Lixfeld, Hannjost. Folklore and Fascism: The Reich Institute for German Volkskunde. Trans. and ed. James R. Dow. Indiana University Press, 1994.

Loayza, Beatrice. “Midsommar and the Legacy of Break-Up Horror Movies.” Roger Ebert.com (July 12, 2019). https://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/midsommar-and-the-horror-of-bad-breakups. Accessed March 12, 2020.

Olsen, Mark. Midsommar Explained: The Filmmakers Unpack the Sex, Rituals and Shocking Ending.” Los Angeles Times (July 3, 2019). https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-midsommar-spoilers-ari-aster-jack-reynor-20190703-story.html. Accessed March 14, 2020.

Scovell, Adam. Folk Horror: Hours of Dreadful and Things Strange. Leighton Buzzard: Auteur Publishing, 2017.

NOTES


[1] The phrase “Ugly American” has been widely applied to describe the notoriously rude and imperious behavior of certain Americans when traveling abroad. While the term was used ar least as early as 1948, it was popularized by the 1958 novel The Ugly American, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick.

[2] This is not to say that there is no contact. At one point, we are informed in the film that the Hårga children are currently watching “Austin Powers.”

[3] See Scovell for a general study of folk horror as a genre.

[4] This scene perhaps adds new meaning to Pelle’s revelation, earlier in the film, that his parents “burned up in a fire.”

[5] It should be noted that the German Nazis often drew upon German folk traditions to supplement their more modern forms of indoctrination and control. See, for example, Lixfeld. The Nazis also put a great deal of propagandistic emphasis on the concept of Volksgemeinschaft, or “people’s community.”