THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
Midsommar is the second film from the director of breakout hit Hereditary (2018), Ari Aster. It follows a group of American friends embarking on a summer research trip.
The protagonist Dani, portrayed by Florence Pugh, is the odd-one-out. She’s tagging along on her partner Christian’s (Jack Reynor) “boys’ trip” with his friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper). They’re accompanying their Swedish classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to the isolated rural commune where he grew up, with the intention of participating in the community’s summer solstice traditions.
I’d been anticipating this film for a number of weeks; the trailer drew me in immediately. It promised a wacky fever dream played out in broad daylight – still an unusual and exciting choice for a horror film – and it ticked the folk horror box for me. I love horror films that centre on cults or rituals (The Wicker Man (1973) is a firm favourite of mine – we’ll dig into the inevitable comparisons between these two movies in a mo) but I particularly appreciated that this movie took an anthropological view of them. The friends are all postgraduates (or graduate students, if you’re in the States): one of them, Josh, is writing his thesis specifically about Midsummer traditions in Europe. We really get to delve into the beliefs in the commune and the way their society functions, and it provides some food for thought regarding cultural relativism.
Firstly, I’d like to chat about the visuals, because this film is stunning. Even the gruesome scenes are somehow so visually arresting that I couldn’t look away. I loved the juxtaposition of the gore with the pastel-painted buildings, idyllic countryside and beautiful costumes (I deliberately bought some embroidered skirts to capture the vibe, LOL). The interiors of the buildings are elaborately decorated with painted scenes of Midsommar traditions. After a bit of research, I found that highly decorative farmhouses are a part of the cultural heritage of Hälsingland, where the film takes place.
Midsommar exceeded my expectations of its weirdness. Despite repeat viewings of the teasers and extended trailer, I didn’t have any inkling as to how big a role drug use would play in the narrative and the visuals. Every instance of drug use is accompanied by undulating effects, with trees and flowers appearing to breathe. However, even before they start indulging in illicit substances, it’s very trippy – as the protagonists are driving into the commune, there’s an especially cool (and nauseating) upside-down shot that slowly turns the right way up when they pass under the overhead banner. It stood out to me, mainly because it made my stomach churn.
I also wasn’t expecting this to be quite such a black comedy. Confession: I haven’t seen Hereditary yet, but I’ve been told that it also has scenes and visuals that could be classed as gallows humour. There were some moments – amid my gasps of shock and my outbursts of disgust – that made me laugh out loud, as did everyone else in the audience. There’s a really unsettling “sex scene” in which Christian is chosen to “mate” (ewww) with Maja, a young woman who has come of age. An older woman pushes Christian’s bum and guides his thrusts, which I admit to (childishly) finding hysterically funny. Other women in the village encircle them and imitate Maja’s moans. The motif of imitation – not mocking but empathetic – recurs throughout the film and manages to be creepy, amusing and moving. The collective moaning/screaming/cries of pain are jarring but OTT. It’s kind of… campy? It was an odd choice and I definitely liked it.
On the topic of empathy: I was intrigued by how the film played with both our feelings of empathy as an audience towards the characters and between the characters themselves. I found myself questioning who exactly I was supposed to care about and agree with. The film suggests that the commune is cultist and amoral, but they aren’t necessarily bloodthirsty – this is their way of life. By the end of the film, they fully embrace Dani and she finally has a family who value and respect her feelings. Dani witnesses the sex ritual and has a panic attack, fleeing to the communal sleeping quarters to weep. The other young women gather around her, wailing alongside her and accompanying her through her grief over the final collapse of her relationship with Christian.
I enjoyed watching the exploration of empathy because I really identified with Dani. I think Florence Pugh’s performance is stellar. From the moment we are first introduced to Christian, it’s apparent that he is a toxic influence in her life. He never validates her feelings, he doesn’t pay real attention to what’s going on in her life and he seems to see her personal problems as a burden rather than something he can support her through. I found him to be infuriating beyond belief, which is a testament to Jack Reynor’s acting (even if I don’t necessarily agree with his thoughts about the character).
The characterisation is my main argument against the obvious comparison to The Wicker Man. The burning temple at the end of the film is very evocative of the iconic closing moments of Wicker Man, but I’d argue that that is where the similarities end. Midsommar is much more of a sociological piece than Wicker Man, which makes more use of religion as a subject. Midsommar is by no means secular; however, it’s less about the gods and more about the interpersonal relationships.
The other point of divergence between The Wicker Man and Midsommar for me – you might disagree – was my response to the ending. I was gutted by the finale of the former; I think Howie is a great horror protagonist and the final moments of the film are some of the most evocative and eerie in all of cinema.
I had the opposite reaction to Midsommar‘s ending. The film culminates with a ritual burning; every 90 years, the Hårga sacrifice nine people as an offering at the summer solstice. Six of the sacrifices are already dead, but two members of the cult offer themselves up to be burned alive.
The final sacrifice is chosen by Dani – her reward for winning the title of May Queen earlier in the film. Surprise, surprise: she selects Christian. She doesn’t speak during the film’s closing scenes, so we can only guess at her motivations: I felt that her panicked response to witnessing the sex ritual was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It broke the seal on all the feelings of resentment that she had pushed down. Florence Pugh and Ari Aster have differing opinions on the ending. Pugh suggested in an interview with Salon that Dani is “…completely gone now. She doesn’t realize what’s going on, and she’s just really happy the fire is going up… I don’t think I would’ve supported Dani as much if she knew that he was in there. I don’t think anybody is that sinister.” Aster argued that, while he hoped that the character’s deteriorating mental state came across to viewers, Dani definitely knew what was happening. I’m tempted to agree with his assessment. I think it makes Dani a much more complicated – and therefore more interesting – character if she is motivated not by madness but by the taste of freedom. The ending is far creepier if we imagine that her mind was unclouded throughout and she simply wanted rid of her arsehole boyfriend. Freaky.
I also noted that, earlier in the film, Pelle asks Dani if she feels “held” by Christian and if he feels like home to her. They seem to be kindred spirits; there’s a subtle link between the two of them surrounding the cleansing power of fire. Pelle’s parents burned to death, but he had a broader family all around him to carry him through his grief. Dani purges herself of the negative element in her life – her last link to the outside world which has left her to wallow in her trauma – by sacrificing Christian via immolation.
Although it’s a brutal conclusion to the film, I couldn’t bring myself to hate Dani. I know what it’s like to be manipulated and gaslit, and to have the perceptions of a group of narcissists projected onto me. So, for better or for worse, I was very into the weird revenge fantasy of Midsommar. Sorry ’bout it.
The final shots of Florence Pugh’s face reminded me strongly of Thomasin (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) at the end of The Witch (2015). Both films end with young women liberated by acts of violence. You could argue both women are going from the frying pan into the fire – Dani escapes her relationship with a narcissist by effectively handing him over to a cult, Thomasin escapes the cage of her Puritan upbringing by signing her soul over to Satan. Ultimately, I think I enjoyed the two films so much because the protagonists are young women and they are both complex in very disturbing ways. There’s still something revolutionary to me about seeing a narrative play out in which a woman is allowed to be unsettling and to make us uncomfortable with her choices and behaviour, without being punished for it within the story.