There’s a moment in Roman Polanski‘s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) when Rosemary (Mia Farrow) realizes that her husband (John Cassavetes) has been in on everything from the start, and this moment occurs at the film’s conclusion as he boyishly cowers out of guilt away from the festivities around the birth of their firstborn. This kind of moment occurs much earlier in Ari Aster‘s Midsommar (2019), and yet the boyfriend to the film’s protagonist isn’t even necessarily in on anything… anything of significance, at least. While it could be said that there’s a lack of significance to the action of Midsommar, and that wouldn’t be far from the truth, it’s the experience of it all that is of value, and something that Aster conveys with great dedication. Where the film suffers is in Aster’s insistence that the culture represented in the film controls the trajectory of the film and not the characters. Like puppets, they move about and the audience moves along with them, but only because we must – for we can do no other.
Opening on a near moment of crisis for Dani (Florence Pugh) as she’s unable to get hold of her bipolar sister or her parents, she calls her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who tries to calm her down while dismissing the potential severity of the situation. Once Christian hangs up, our first moment as an audience of having more knowledge than a given character (in this case, Dani) occurs, as he reveals to his friends from his PhD program at a bar (notably featuring a blow-up of the famous photograph of Jayne Mansfield and Sophia Loren) that he’s been wanting to break up with Dani for at least the better part of a year. This plan changes when, a matter of minutes later, Dani calls Christian again to reveal that her sister has killed herself and her parents as well.
From there, the seasons change, and Dani and Christian are still together. Dani is, naturally, still fragile, but the chance to leave the country to go on a trip to Sweden with Christian and his friends is promising – ignoring that she wasn’t invited. Sufficiently guilted into letting her tag along, Christian’s friends reluctantly concede, but Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) expresses great enthusiasm that she’ll be joining them in their visit to the Swedish commune of the Hårga, where he grew up.
Among Christian’s friends is Josh (William Jackson Harper), who is studying anthropology and hoping to write his graduate thesis on a variety of isolated cultures, like the Hårga, throughout Europe. It’s through Christian and Josh’s anthropological interest and their friendship with Pelle that the film begins to move in two different paths simultaneously: the first being the continued emotional arc of Dani, and the second being the observance of the midsummer rituals of the Hårga.
All of the action prior to their arrival at the Hårga commune is particularly strong, in spite of Aster’s tendency to show off with the camera rather than have consistently motivated camera movements. The psychological motivation for having an upside-down “phantom ride” shot from the POV of a car is interesting to look at, but ultimately in bad taste. No one in the car is upside down, and yet we’re supposed to feel that their world is about to be turned upside down.
For those expecting a horror film, at least in the conventional sense, this film may disappoint, and one wonders whether Aster felt a need to add scares for the sake of scaring when the occasional dream sequence enters the fold. The visual cues signifying that we’re in a nightmare rather than the film’s reality are a little too pronounced even for these moments of forced fright, and they make one question Aster’s sincerity in regard to the representation of his protagonist’s psychological state following the death of her entire immediate family. Still, Midsommar has a sense of unease and dread, particularly in the moments set indoors from the expansive and sunny Swedish countryside. The claustrophobic presentation of interiors – in which the edge of the frame holds secrets from the audience – is unnerving, but such a feeling is often too obvious for a film with ambitions so bold.
Carefully presented, the anthropological side of Midsommar is quite rich. Supported by a very authentic mise-en-scène with uniquely shaped and colored wooden barns and lofts and some of the neatest looking interior wall paintings since Richie Tenenbaum’s bedroom in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), this commune feels plausible in its natural setting and the purity of the “hermaphrodite” wardrobe sported by the cult’s members. Josh’s frequent use of his iPhone camera to document the commune for his thesis is warranted, and Christian’s sudden desire to do his thesis on the Hårga as well (much to Josh’s dismay) is the first of many character shifts as individual selves are lost amidst the group.
Aster curates knowledge of what the Hårga midsummer rituals entail by negotiating reveals of the Hårga’s more disturbing festivities with various members of the ensemble cast of tourists present or absent. For example, a British couple that Dani and Christian’s friends meet upon arriving in Sweden is at one point pulled to the side to view a series of painted panels which presumably chronicle some of what everyone is in store for, and the audience is granted this early access to this knowledge while it is withheld from the rest of the group. Later, there’s a moment where Pelle uses a Swedish term for the next day’s ritual, and the term is presented unsubtitled. Josh understands the word and expresses curiosity about it while refusing to translate it for Dani and Christian – we’re all in the dark as the tension builds for what tomorrow may bring.
This is where the film begins to unravel as the festivities overtake the characters. Their emotional arcs devolve into fear and jealousy as the midsummer rituals run their course, and character motivations become less specific as mind-altering substances sneak their way in. While consistently strong, especially Florence Pugh’s Dani, the performances support the action and preserve our interest in the characters on screen even as they begin to relinquish control of their fates to the rituals.
Repetition, imitation, and following as a general principle for life rule the lives of the Hårga. Like condensed sequences from the avant-garde actor rehearsals in Jacques Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman‘s 13-hour work, Out 1, Noli me tangere (1971), the Hårga imitate sounds of passion. The scream of an elderly man in pain is echoed by all who witness his fall, the moans of one’s sexual pleasure are re-articulated by onlookers, and Dani’s heavy sobbing is matched breath for breath by a group of women. The self is lost in the collective, and the dramatic process of getting to that point is interesting in spite of its betrayal of the characters and their goals as individuals. Tribalism reigns!
Perhaps the strangest thing about Midsommar is the lack of interest in justice in the film’s conclusion. There’s no sense that Pelle, who knew the most about the Hårga because he is one, is held accountable as a predator. Dani has her out-of-body cathartic moment in her collapsing relationship with her boyfriend, but what happens after the ashes have settled? The finale leaves more questions than it does answers, as Dani is unwell and her trust was taken advantage of by Christian’s Hårga friend. Mind you, this isn’t a call for a “satisfying” ending, but rather a wish for rational thinking on the part of Dani. She’s a character lost in the fray, betrayed by friends and predestined by Ari Aster to suffer as she loses her way.
Midsommar is currently ranked 2,202/2,349 (6%) on my Flickchart.