Squad Talk: Midsommar, Folk Horror and Controversial Endings

Following up on his spectacular debut Hereditary, horror break-out Ari Aster returns with Midsommar, another gripping meditation on grief. This time he’s taken the action abroad to Sweden where a remote folk community indulges in a unique cultural practice every 90 years. 

In this spoiler-filled free-for-all, the AOAS Squad breaks down the film…

Overall Impressions

GINA: I was somewhat disappointed. I thought it started off strong, loved the intro sequencevery sickening, stirring, very dark. And that animalistic cry that Florence Pugh unleashes? Oof. I appreciate the discomfort that the film creates from the dissolving relationship at the core of the narrative, just another layer contributing to the unsettling feeling of the filmAster clearly enjoys pulling out all the stops to ensure audiences are shifting in their seats and weighed down with dread. 

But overall, the narrative formula is just too similar to that of Hereditarythe heavy grief theme, the family drama/trauma dynamic, the pacing, even the points of shocking sudden violence. It feels like there were some missed opportunities, too (one example: introducing the oracle character, but only as a spectaclesomething more interesting could have come from that, in my opinion). And, there were too many moments that distanced me, logically-speaking (i.e. characters still choosing to drink mysterious psychedelic tea when it’s handed to them, even when it’s overwhelmingly clear that ominous things are afoot; Christian’s submission to the impregnation ritual). I think I was hoping for something just as different as Hereditary has been from other films, but in its own way. Great entry into the folk horror genre, though.

VALESKA: I, on the other hand, loved Midsommar. Joe, Gina, and I were able to see it at a press screening a little while ago, but I went to see it again last night and may wind up catching it a third time on the big screen before stalking its Amazon page to pre-order the blu-ray. I thought the film had the perfect balance of creeping dread, absurdity, shock, and levity. 

At the press screening, Aster compared the codependent relationship between Dani and Christian with the codependent relationship that the Hårga have with the outside world (they require ‘new blood’ to maintain their community without violating the incest taboo), and also compared the dysfunctional codependency between the couple with the functional codependency of the commune itself. I loved the sharp contrast between Christian’s total inability to connect with Dani on a deeper level and the Hårga community’s radical empathy—when one member is in pain, experiencing trauma, or going through an intense, transformative experience, they feel it together. 

Maybe it says something about my own psychology—perhaps I’m particularly susceptible to the lure of a cult—but I found so much of the pagan commune’s ethos to be beautiful and compelling. I guess it’s good for my personal safety that I’m only able to live in that world for 147 minutes at a time!

Midsommar

JOE: I’m somewhere in between Gina and Valeska. I mostly liked the film, particularly the first half and especially that opening pre-title sequence, which is so effective that it could have stood on its own as a dramatic short. It’s some of the character beats in the latter half of the film that loses me a touch; particularly when the focus is removed from Dani and Christian so that we can spend time with “comic relief” Mark or absolutely anything to do with the inert drama of Josh’s Thesis beef with Christian (WHO COULD CARE?). 

Still, the complaints that I have about some of Aster’s storytelling decisions are completely assuaged by the technical marvels of the film, particularly the set design, the costumes and Pugh’s revelatory performance.  

CC: First off, I’m a sucker for anything ritualistic or centered around folklore – so I definitely really enjoyed this. I was actually rather hesitant going into this, as I did really like Hereditary, but it struck some all too personal chords that have kept me from subsequent viewings.

I can definitely understand Gina’s point that it seems a bit too similar to Aster’s first opus, but I think he’s really aiming to focus on the nuance of human emotion and how it’s boiled down into the same similar situations until we’re ready to really feel them (which we, as humans, have to learn the hard way.) 

Moreover, I really appreciated the comic relief and how the focus shifts from Dani and Christian to their friends and the Hårga community – not only does it give the audience room to breath and (fleeting) moments to process the larger and more intense situations, it grounds the film in reality. Yes, the two of them may be headed toward an inevitable breakup, but the world doesn’t revolve around them and there are much larger issues at hand. On the other hand, it shows that the reach of Dani and Christian’s relationship – it affects those around them, even those in remote isolated cults.

Midsommar

Performances 

GINA: When I saw Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth, I knew we’d see more good things from her, and I’m certainly not disappointed with her performance. Her grief and displacement is potent here, even when she is increasingly numb to the events around her. There’ve been comparisons to the Wizard of Oz, with Pugh standing in as the Dorothy figure, so it’s not a stretch that I also saw Pugh as an ‘Alice’ figure, carried around by these unusual characters as she is taken on a ride through the looking glass. 

The movie as a whole is quite surreal, and we’re effectively brought into this foreign space alongside Dani, Christian, and the latter’s friends, all of whom are just as caught off guard. Jack Reynor and Will Poulter accomplish what they’re meant toI can’t stand either of them so, in that way, they are successful in their roles. Lol. 

I felt bad for Josh (William Jackson Harper) though, just as he’s becoming wise to the goings-on, he ‘disappears’. I wanted more for him. I was taken with the character Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), whose allure becomes more palpable the further in we go (obviously that’s the point). Most of the inhabitants of Hårga are fairly two-dimensional, but that’s to be expected given the one-track mentality of the members of this “gang gang cult shit” (a term I love that Anya Stanley coined).

VALESKA: Florence Pugh is absolutely phenomenal, of course, but I’m going to have to stick up for my man Will Poulter here. Yes, Mark comes off as an absolute trashbag of a human when he is bro-ing out but, as Poulter himself has said, there is more to him than meets the eye. In scenes where he is by himself, you catch glimpses of his insecurity and fearfulness. I thought Poulter did an amazing job and provided some fantastic comic relief.

Poulter

JOE: In my debrief of the film for my Horror Queers podcast, I likened Will to the unlikable protagonists of Hostel and I stand by that claim. Is Poulter doing a good job in the role? Absolutely, but I don’t think there’s any need for this character (or, if we’re being honest, for Josh), but my argument is about Aster’s script as opposed to the performances. 

Pugh is obviously the lynchpin of this film – without her, Midsommar doesn’t work and the fact that it works as well as it does is a credit to her. What’s impressive is that Dani is not always an easy character to like or sympathize with. As she’s written, Dani is the definition of co-dependent, passive, and even a little bit whiny (if you want to be cruel to someone who is obviously not in a good place mentally). As played by Pugh, however, these qualities are less standoffish, more easily relatable and as Dani becomes stronger, more emboldened, more powerful as the film progresses, Pugh allows us to witness that transformation in small, sly ways. It’s a completely revelatory performance from an actress I had only heard of, but not seen and it makes me want to seek out her other films.

Also: quick shout-out to Blomgren, who makes Pelle something more than the obvious honey trap for dumb American tourists with a carefully nuanced performance. We know that Pelle is luring these dumb dumbs to their doom while nursing something akin to an appreciation/crush on Dani from his very first scene, but he’s hardly a mustache-twirling villain.

CC: This was my first introduction to Florence Pugh and I was definitely in awe. Her performance was thoroughly the lynchpin, as Joe said, and I really can’t imagine liking the film as much if someone else was cast as Dani. Her performance really makes me curious about her audition. Did Aster just ask her to come in and immediately scream the most primal and deeply disturbing cry she could muster? Gina’s mention of her as an “Alice” figure is really poignant and I couldn’t agree more.

Also, Joe’s shout-out to Pelle is very spot on. I really appreciated the depth of his character. Even though it’s mostly alluded to, it takes a delicate hand to walk that line, and it is impressive. 

Lastly, as someone in academia (and focusing in ritual behavior) if someone stole my thesis idea, I’d probably want them dead too (Just kidding!). I do, however, wish we had seen more of Josh, especially outside of his role as a foil to solidify how much Christian sucks. 

Midsommar 3

Technical (Set, Lighting, Direction, Writing)

GINA: Aster does wonders with natural light in this movie. In contrast to the dark housings and structures in the fields, and in deep contrast to the darkness of Hereditary, but the setting and content necessitates it, of course. He favours fiery reds and yellows, in additional to general pastels, in the colour palette. Unusual, striking, gorgeousas hedonistic and psychedelic as the substances that everyone is hopped up on. I liked the occasional visual warping of details too, usually from Dani’s perspective; it’s a very nice touch that adds an otherworldly element to an already unusual place. 

VALESKA: This film captures the experience of being on psychedelic drugs better than 90% of films out there. I thought the visual effects were perfect. Totally agree with Gina about the lighting and palette. The set was perfect, the focus on natural features was beautiful and tied in so well with the theme of holistic ‘one-ness.’ 

For me, the costuming was the most striking and memorable element, particularly the May Queen’s final form (#fashiongoals). There are a couple of really interesting pieces out there explaining the level of detail that went into the costuming, from the colours used to the types of garments worn by different groups to the meanings of the embroidered runes. Visually, the film is absolute perfection.

I also really appreciated the attention to minute detail. As the group approaches the commune, there is a brief scene where Mark freaks out about the possibility of tick bites because his uncle suffers from Lyme disease. His fear is never mentioned again, but in later scenes his pants are tucked into his socks. I really appreciated that consistency. The state of Dani’s hair is also interesting. After the death of her family, she goes a while without touching up her dark roots. This makes sense, as a trip to the salon is likely the last thing on her mind while she is deeply grieving. It isn’t until she is preparing to head to Sweden that she freshens up her blonde colour. It’s a practical detail, but also a symbolic one. Blonde hair is associated with youth and innocence—but also with fertility. It’s a fitting colour for the soon-to-be May Queen of a pagan cult preoccupied with life cycles. 

Midsommar

JOE: I’ll concur with both on you: the sets and the costumes were probably my favourite parts of the film. The attention to detail that Valeska outlines are spot-on. I was particularly taken with the unique features of each individual outfit, but the strongest visual element for me is the care taken in the set dressing. When Christian is pulled into the Head Woman’s office and seated in front of an elaborate tableaux of different (obviously symbolic) tiles, including one which memorably anticipates his own fate, it’s the kind of element that begs to be paused and studied.

Likewise the unusual, but regionally appropriate set design of the buildings, with their distinctive inverted V roofs and high ceilings. These compelling, but distinctive buildings fill audiences with wonder while simultaneously (subtly) reminding North Americans audiences that this is a foreign culture that we do not entirely understand. The openness of the buildings, and indeed, the entirety of Hårga, run counter to our expectations of horror films that use tight, enclosed spaces to generate terror. Here everything is laid out and clear as day…and yet no one is able to anticipate or avoid their deadly fate. 

With that said, there is one big faux pas that I inwardly groaned about: I recognize the symbolic nature (and Aster’s honesty about not trying to dupe his audience), but I could have done without the upside down camerawork during the car ride. It’s far too obvious.

CC: Look, Aster knows his stuff when it comes to writing ritualistic paganism and you have to appreciate that. Yes, some of the actual rituals are combined or cherry picked to make his point (the combination of Liltha/Midsummer rituals, the Maypole, runes, etc), but there’s an intention behind all of that is reflected throughout the writing, the set design, the costuming and even the score to create a fully encapsulated experience. I personally would have loved more focus on that, but maybe Aster figured he’d go a little easier on us after his debut romp with hellish demons.

Midsommar

Memorable Setpieces & Scares

GINA: This film is packed with excellent, feverish imagery: Dani’s sister’s body, propped up and connected to the carbon monoxide hose; the starkness of the yellow triangular chapel set in the field at Hårga; that first hammer blow against the elderly sacrifice’s head (much less shocking than Charlie’s demise in Hereditary, though); the blood eagle form that Simon takes, the freshly made bear-suited Christian… 

All of this is memorable much in the way that the imagery of NBC’s Hannibal is, down to the floral crowns. Brutal and incredible.

VALESKA: Oh my god, Aster is a genius when it comes to setpieces and imagery. That opening sequence, the Ättestupa, the May Queen dance, that incredibly unsexy but visually stunning sex scene … the whole film is basically a feast for the eyes. The scene where the women of Hårga mirror Dani’s pain after she discovers Christian’s “betrayal” (I put this in quotes because his level of agency in this act is a little ambiguous) is one of the most powerful and moving scenes in the film, for me. 

Midsommar

JOE: I’m unsurprised that the popular audience reaction to the film is a tepid C Cinemascore. Midsommar doesn’t traffick in the same kind of overwhelming dread that so many people responded to in Hereditary and the setpieces are fewer and farer between. Still, there’s something to be said for how Aster brings the pain and gore when he commits to killing his characters.

The stand-out to me is probably the most obvious: the suicide scene that Gina briefly references when two elderly members sacrifice themselves for the good of the community. The impact when the first woman’s body hits the rock at the bottom of the cliff was so palpable, it was like an electric shock went through our theatre. Great gore and great sound effects to boot.

While I appreciate the opinions of several other critics who passionately argue that Midsommar is less interested in death and gore, I was genuinely frustrated by the number of offscreen deaths, particularly when SO much time is spent with unlikable or mildly off-putting characters (Josh, Mark, and even to a lesser extent Redshirts Connie and Simon). I appreciate that the point was not to see a variety of murders, but the swiftness and/or secrecy with which these supporting characters were dispatched is frustrating considering we, the audience, know exactly what is happening since Aster never truly attempts to hide the cult’s intentions. 

Don’t tease me. Gimme that blood.

(And yes, Gina, to the Hannibal reference, especially when Christian discovers Simon’s body hung from the roof like an angel. Aster practically owes Bryan Fuller a settlement for stealing that visual.)

CC: Aster’s ability to create visuals out of visceral human emotion is awe inspiring. The setting of the Swedish countryside, overexposed in its pastel palette, alongside the folk iconography makes the art history nerd in me giddy with excitement. The starkness is handled with such baroque deftness that the whole thing is just unsettling and hard to really pin down, which I feel is the whole point. 

And while I want to appreciate the Hannibal homage, the whole scene with Simon’s body feels very out of place for me – it seems that the Hårga are rooted in more earthly paganism and the angel reference seems too much like an actual homage rather than a reference to their beliefs. 

I would back Joe’s “gimme all of that blood and gore”, but I think I’m a bit ‘once bitten, twice shy’ after Hereditary. I’m hesitant to tell Aster to bring on the onscreen gore, haha. 

The opening sequence of Dani’s family is gut wrenching and so strained that it is beyond unsettling to see unfold. You have to give Aster credit: in a time where we are constantly provided with distractions to ignore our emotions and these kind of unsettling moments, his films leave you with absolutely zero room to look way. 

Finally, I’m with Valeska: the breath work that’s shown during the grieving scene with Dani is truly one of the film’s most stunning moments. It is so raw, primal and ritualistic. It definitely stays with you.

Midsommer

The Ending / Explanation

GINA: The ending just felt a little too easy and neat to me. Christian is the obvious choice to don the bearskin and be Dani’s sacrifice. He was a directionless figure and was annoying, ineffectual, indifferent, and indecisive. Why not make him just another log on this crazy-assed fire? This ending doesn’t really feel satisfying to me though, because Dani’s not really sacrificing anything through Christian by that point, and she’s just lost once again to another co-dependent relationship.

I did, however, appreciate the symmetry of the ending as a reassertion of family and sense of community, where Dani is revered and prized, rather than troubled, sullen, or ‘burdensome’. Clearly, it’s what she seems to need, and she’s happy to have it. I could see she and Pelle continuing on together in the imagined ongoing of Hårga’s future. Ultimately though, Dani hasn’t achieved or accomplished anything eithershe was chosen, so all of this very contrived. There are greater forces at work. But that just feeds back into the powerlessness in grief that hangs over the film, and in the underlying nihilism that Aster’s work seems to demonstrate to date.

VALESKA: I was surprised and dismayed to discover that googling the film results in dozens of returns for “Midsommar Ending Explained”—I found the ending to be incredibly straightforward. I also found it really cathartic, though I agree with Gina that it is the obvious outcome. 

When that smile slowly spreads across Dani’s face at the end, I involuntarily mirror it every time. I just find the whole thing so satisfying, even in its unspeakable, Grimm-esque horror. 

Midsommar

JOE: I, too, was dismayed to learn that anything about this ending needs explaining, though it is fascinating to read/hear that some people were surprised when Dani elects to toss Christian into the fire like a human build-a-bear; her decision was a foregone conclusion to me the moment that it became available to her.

Ultimately my biggest gripe with the film is that I wanted more attention paid to Dani and Christian. This is very publicly a “break-up” movie according to Aster and the film’s strength lies in two mutually inclusive realms for me: Hårga’s every 90 year ceremony, which is endlessly fascinating, and Dani vs Christian. The rest feels like padding that is required so that the community’s intentions and their rules are spelled out to the folks at the back of the theatre who are only paying half attention. 

By the time the May Queen dance-off begins and the sex ritual is underway, all of those (to me: unnecessary) extras have been excised and the film is focused on what it is truly interested in. My preference would have been to shave ~10-15 mins off the runtime; without those extra characters and subplots, Midsommar would have been more streamlined/focused and, in my mind, more enjoyable film. 

Seriously, consider the necessity of that Thesis subplot: what does it actually bring to the film that we don’t already know? Christian is already a prick, so it’s literally just additional exposition that he and Josh collect to better inform what is to come. Very frustrating, indeed.

CC: I thought that the attention flickering between the deteriorating relationship and the community is actually handled really well and I would have really loved to see more of the religious aspects of the Hårga. Sure the thesis subplot is a very heavy handed plot device to explain the religious aspects to those not really paying attention, but I also thought that it doesn’t come across as elementary, but subverted with comedy to serve a dual purpose. 

I can’t say that I’m mad or surprised that Christian is selected by Dani for the sacrifice, but I see it as something more than revenge or retaliation. I can totally see Gina’s point that Dani is a pawn in a larger scheme of some omnipotent being. The Hårga see individuals choosing to be part of a whole as something to be honored above all. The Hårga choose to be one large family, choose to end their life cycle as a sacrifice to back to the spirit, and though Dani does end up being the May Queen, she isn’t chosen for that. It is earned; a reward for her stamina (the stamina of carrying the emotional weight.) Though she is goaded into the dance competition, she was never meant to be at the festival to begin with – Christian invited her out of pity and prayed that she wouldn’t actually go.

Throughout thee entire movie we see Dani as this weight – she’s the weight that holds her family together despite her sister’s instability; she’s the accused weight that’s holding Christian back from his thesis and the fun that he used to have with his friends; and she’s the extra weight that Christian brings along on a trip planned for him and his friends. It’s only when she’s offered the acceptance of a family (as Pelle explains) and is given the space to offload that weight that she really gains her own agency. The end, therefore, is Dani consciously choosing to rid herself of the weight she’s carrying (a relationship that is actually weighing her down as a reminder of her grief and dependency) and offer it – as a sacrifice and to belong – to her new family.

Who would turn that down given the chance?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s