I’ve summered in Sweden for ten years now, and there are things I still don’t understand about my second hem. When to say hej, hej hej and hejdä. Why they serve very long hot dogs on very small buns. How Swedes can blush at the idea of initiating small talk in public spaces with strangers but freely strip off their clothes at the sight of a sauna. Why they put baby shrimp and béarnaise sauce on pizza. I’ve wondered about the dynamic that occurs when they are wronged in a store but don’t speak up and instead suggest that the server must be going through a difficult time. How they can eat a bowl of candy while watching Netflix and never gain weight. And what’s up with the way they take care of both their most vulnerable disabled people by giving them free housing and paying people to take care of them, thus also relieving their unemployment issues? (Just kidding: I fully understand and am jealous of this.)
But one thing I do understand is the Nordic celebration of the start of summer known as ‘Midsommar.’ I don’t mean I understand every single custom and symbol, but I get the impulse behind it. It’s a holiday unencumbered by ties to “patriotism”, religion or someone’s birth. That gives midsommar a natural lightness, inherent of course in the fact that at least at this point in our climate, Scandinavians still have punishing winters and the first hint of sustained warmth brings exclamatory joy. When people ask me what the season of sunshine is like here in the land of the midnight sol, I always say it seems like one big summer camp. People dart about wearing brightly colored capri length shorts and straw hats, scampering out from local co-ops with picnic baskets on their way to vacation cottages. (And what vacations — somehow Swedish society functions even with people taking a minimum guaranteed five-week break.)
Which brings me to Ari Aster’s latest horror film, Midsommar. He is certainly not the first to see the potential in this June celebration for a movie setting. As my friend Roland tells me, “Most Swedish movies about midsommar are about people getting drunk and stealing kisses, silly comedies.” The hook of Aster’s film is to seize on a holiday about summer solstice, with roots in ancient (aka “pagan”) culture, as a way to make a horror film without the usual tropes of boogeyman shadows and dark rainy nights. In other words, can you scare people in the broadest of daylights? I can’t deny it, it’s quite a hook. Though life’s real tragedies have made me wary of the pornographic violence in most modern horror films, when I saw the trailer for Midsommar, the twelve-year old boy inside of me said “I’ve gotta see that!” (Though this was tempered by the recollection of the mesmerizing but unpleasant sustained dread in Aster’s previous film “Hereditary.”)
It’s Aster’s proficiency at creating such a state of prolonged apprehension that I tried to explain to my Swedish movie-going companions, Erik and Per. Both are avid filmgoers, and any warning I gave in advance only seemed to pique their interest further. Perhaps we’re all connected enough in this anxious world to hope that an anxious film will prove cathartic.
More on whether this worked or not later. First, a candy run, of course, and then we entered the theater salong. After getting through the usual flurry of ads before the film started (I’ve begun to look forward to the latest version of the Swedish government’s public service video warning about chlamydia that runs before each screening), the theater’s beautiful velour curtains closed and opened again, a theater custom Swedish film auditoriums should always keep.
Midsommar throws us in the deep end quickly. Grad students Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are engaged in a relationship volley of he-said, she-said conversations with that effectively makes clear they should both move on, but neither has the gumption. Dani soon experiences a horrific loss involving her family that Aster lays out with swift and grotesque particularity. Locked anew by Dani’s understandable grief, Christian seems trapped. Against nearly everyone’s better instincts, Dani accepts his ambivalent invitation to join friends Josh, Mark and Swedish colleague Pelle on a trip to Pelle’s home community. Some discussion of doing “research” is mentioned, but what sticks is Mark is hoping the crew will sleep their way through Scandinavia. This scene has some nuance; we can tell Dani and Christian aren’t exactly keen to travel together, but neither can assert themselves enough; they’re bound by misunderstanding and the social restrictions of trying to look like the “good boyfriend/girlfriend.”
In many ways, you can say that’s one of the ideas dancing around in “Midsommar”; that our sense of polite duty and inability to assert ourselves can ultimately have soul (and body) killing effects. It’s an underlying attraction of many horror movies; we are encouraged to feel superior to the characters because if it we were the ones faced with going in the haunted house or getting back in the car, we’re pretty sure we’d be smart enough to leave. The characters become our avatars to play out a surprisingly conventional moral lesson: when in doubt, don’t do it — no matter how the rest of the cast tempts you, forget the peer pressure and go!
Thus, when these newly arrived Americans drive past the verdant forests and yellow grass fields of rural Sverige and gentle Pelle tells them to stop before reaching the commune itself, the crew soon finds themselves invited by some of the younger locals to enjoy some shrooms. You know, enjoy a psychedelic trip before meeting Mamma och Pappa. Here’s one of the film’s first logic breakers. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve flown eleven hours on SAS, then driven another three from Arlanda airport, I’ve tripped enough, and the only thing I want is a shower, a warm kanelbulle and a pillow.
To be more precis, if you know anything about Swedish culture since the 60s, you find out they are extremely anti-drug. I come from legal-cannabis California, where it can seem like it’s 4:20 twenty-four-seven and skunk regularly wafts in with the west coast breeze. You’ll certainly find the smell of coffee grounds in the Swedish wind (one study says they drink more coffee per capita than any other country in the world), but anything else is förbjuden. I’ve had conversations with people here that took a startling turn when they conveyed their childhood school lessons about the “evils” of marijuana with fist-banging-on-the-table passion (nearly knocking over their fifth Absolut and tonic in the process.) So Swedes offering drinks yes, but psychedelics? Hmmm. Every movie gets a logic pass, and we use pass one rather quickly. We’re meant to understand these Euro-pastoral, millennial hippies are people who honor the magical gifts of the field.
Here again, when the annoyingly juvenile Mark rolls his eyes at Dani’s understandable reluctance (anti-depressants and tranquilizers in your system should indeed give one pause before adding hallucinogens), she accepts them not out of will but social obligation. She doesn’t want to be that girl. When her trip inevitably turns into a panic attack, we experience it through Florence Pugh’s considerable talent. In fact, if you’ve ever had a panic attack, I’m sure you’ll recognize the guttural “no, no, no” that pours out of Dani. Just as in “Hereditary”, where Toni Collette was required to sustain a performance of near-constant hysteria, Aster requires his female lead here to stay raw and exposed for the duration. You could make the case that Midsommar is worth seeing for the performances, and Pugh, with her appealingly raspy voice and hyper-vigilant eyes, is chief among them.
To say more of the plot is to really enter into spoiler territory, but suffice to say, the film significantly, but willingly, parts with the screenwriter credo that the audience will give you one logic pass in a movie, but asking for two is a real gamble. And director Aster is nothing if not an aesthetic gambler.
What I can say is that the ‘precipitating event’ in the film (and that term is seldom as apt as it is here) is so extreme and explicit, the relatively nonchalant way the characters react to it may nag at you for the entire next reel. After a warm welcome by the entire commune, every Swede in the commune’s greeting committee seems a parody, blindingly white from hair to folksy linen wear. Dani, Christian, Josh, Mark (and two other young pilgrims, Connie and Simon, who appear out of nowhere) accept the invitation to join this bucolic, gentle group for what they are told are the rarest of midsommar rituals. Anthropology students Josh and Christian think they’ve hit the doctoral thesis mother lode, and we’re meant to think their ambition causes them to override what any sensible person would do. (That these guys are suddenly Margaret Mead is yet another ‘huh?’ your inner horror critic may latch onto.)
Rune stones, sexually explicit folk art, a random bear in a cage — these are all set-design elements that scream forebodingly when these young adults first enter this otherwise sunlit eden, but they note them with a strange passivity. When the first grisly turn of events occurs, the characters discuss it as though it’s merely a cultural difference, like whether you prefer ABBA or Robyn. It’s a risky jump-the-shark moment, and not everyone in the Filmstaden went along with it. I’ve seldom seen the artistically open-minded Swedish moviegoer walk out of a film, but several did at this moment.
(I should mention here that Aster hits on a small point that connects with my own limited experiences — Swedes don’t seem to be much for socially engaging with strangers, but once you have been introduced by someone they love, like the returning Pelle, they are remarkably tender. But is such a warm embrace by the village elders supposed to make credible that these newcomers would outstay a monstrous shock?)
Here’s where the considerable craft of the cast, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, composer Bobby Krlic, production designer Henrik Svensson and more — serving Aster’s floridly hypnotic vision — carry the reticent viewer into ever more brightly lit, hallucinatory territory. You can’t help but notice that Aster has an eye, with symmetrical overhead and upside-down shots and tinges of horror infusing an outdoor feast like blood in summer punch. As the film moves towards subverting even the customary maypole dance into a loony circle of female frenzy, I found myself tottering between being compelled to see the film through or to head out for a fika. Sometimes it was Aster’s imagination that kept me in my seat, but more often, I felt keenly drawn by the charismatic Pugh.
This is a nearly two-and-a half-hour film where your internal clock starts ticking with the realization you’ve been here a while and we’re nowhere near the bottom of the second act, much less any hint of climax. (Speaking of which, kudos, I guess, to Jack Reynor, who may remind you of Chris Pratt, fully committing to the nudity and bizarre orgasm of the film’s major sex scene. And yet the frontal male nudity, which is supposed to be brave and laudatory, may not entirely distract you from the exasperation you may have about why (minor spoiler) the same scene’s womenfolk needed to be naked.)
Midsommar is a film that’s already divisive, and in a way, it’s tailor-made for our binge-watching times, where a show like “Stranger Things” provokes online forums and fan “theories” that try to outdo each other in their perception. You can imagine the Reddit threads. The character names must be significant! Dani is Dani Ardor (give me love, give me passion); bad-boyfriend ‘Christian’ could hint at the type of religiosity that is appears pleasant but is repeatedly hypocritical. Horny Mark is ugly-Americanism looking to make an impact; Josh is a deceptor; considerate Pelle, who invited them all, is a variation on ‘foundation’ or rock.
Or is the film really about the dangers of conformity and the trap of maintaining a social veneer? That’s a familiar critique you sometimes hear even Swedes say of themselves, with cultural terms for people who dare to stick their necks above the crowd. Is it about the ruthlessness of academic competition? This element of the plot seems shoehorned.
Is it “all a dream”— the whole thing Dani’s mushroom trip? After all, doesn’t the lens flip over as they enter the underworld? If so, the ‘through the looking glass’ device is disappointingly banal, and the film depends on a certain uncomfortable exoticization of the Swedes as window dressing for a familiar “then there were none” plot. There’s also internal logic questions. If Pelle has been basically a recruiting agent, sent out to bring virile young men in to populate the tribe, was Josh, who’s African-American, ever going to stand a chance with this intensely all-white (and I do mean white) tribe? That also gets into thematically queasy areas.
The common chat is that Midsommar is about “the grieving process.” This is what Aster has hinted at in interviews, and the closing images suggest that only when the stricken experience radical empathy can they find some measure of peace. But even then — at the cost of one’s conscience and external freedom?
Midsommar will be a lightning rod film because in terms of horror, it makes some people giggle while others recoil, and more acutely, because, as seen from the questions above, it seems to have a lot of ideas. I would argue the film has not so much ideas as stabs at ideas, or as critic Pauline Kael used to say, it’s “deep on the surface.” It’s one thing to take leaps of even intrinsic logic…that’s the horror genre’s moneymaker — but if your film is on the way towards three hours, it should cohere satisfyingly. I think of Philip Kaufman’s remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, or Pedro Almodovar’s or Brian DePalma’s best films. “Carrie” also felt like an audacious, blackly comic dream, but it’s a dream that hangs together, a vision of another anxious young woman which also culminates in a type of ritualistic ecstasy, yet DePalma leaves the audience with more pleasure than dread, and the audience tends to laugh together, not at each other. Jordan Peele has praised Midsommar, but frankly “Get Out” illustrates the ultimate failure of Aster’s throw-everything-at-the-screen approach. You can look at “Get Out” or “Us” from any angle, and even with multiple thematic concerns, they still work.
As for the much-mentioned element of “daylight horror” in Midsommar, I’m reminded of director Robert Mulligan’s under-appreciated version of Thomas Tryon’s novel “The Other”, which also experimented with terror in sunlight (if you’ve never read that book, it’s worth looking up — it has one of the biggest twists I’ve ever experienced in a novel.) For that matter, Midsommar may crib a bit from another Tryon’s work, “Harvest Home”, which became the mini-series “The Dark Secret of Harvest Home” and which also featured characters brought unwittingly into bucolic fertility rites. (I’ll leave the “Children of the Corn” and “The Village” comparisons to someone else.)
I can’t deny Ari Aster’s boldness, and I marvel that so many talented people enlisted in his vision. He’s certainly a filmmaker to watch, although one you may have to approach with caution. There are disturbing images from “Hereditary” I don’t think I’ll ever get out of my head, and the same is true for his latest. Unless I’m seeing something that isn’t just audacious, but aesthetically coherent (and not punishing), I might tend to guard what I let last in my memory’s precious storage.
What stayed with me most from the film — what gave me good old moviegoing pleasure — is a small joke early on delivered perfectly. One of the only sane characters in the film is rightly trying to escape, and a Swedish cult leader explains that patience is needed as they await a vehicle. Swedes, he says, “don’t break traffic laws.” The audience was unified in their nodding laughter. (This is indeed a nation where it is mandatory to take a tricky driving test on simulated icy roads. It’s also one where rule-following is a virtue because it conveys cultural consideration.) There’s also a moment which visiting Americans may laugh at more than locals; Dani is put on the spot to swallow a herring whole, and she can’t say no. Come on, Dani! When very odiferous, very odiferous herring was offered to me, I had to take a hard pass.
My Swedish companions also laughed knowingly at a few of these jokes, but didn’t have too much patience for the film as we left. An usher asked one Swedish couple how they liked the film, and they quite loudly complained that Midsommar was a big waste of their Fredag kväll! Erik may not have felt as strongly, but he said he felt like the film was made by someone who’d taken mushrooms himself. Per seemed conflicted, but was sure the length of the film was not worth his subsequent hip pain. Yours truly wanted only a tall pour of Falcon. The friends we met for this beer later asked us to describe the film; every outrageous or confounding thing we cited only made them want to see it more.
On our way back, it was late at night, though the July sky wasn’t really a night sky, it was night sky-esque. Some young women dressed and drunk and loud seemed to be taking their life cue from one of the many Bravo shows we export over here, brooking no disruption to their path, daring us to get out of the way. Immigrant kids made a ruckus, drawing consternating stares from longtime citizens. Tourists could be overheard swapping stories of the Euro heatwaves, wondering if this weather pattern was here for good. Bros on the prowl wore corporate logo shirts. A newspaper sticking out of the trashcan had a story about the rise of fascism around the world. In a nation known for its tolerance and safety nets, there are impatient cracks in the seams.
In the face of real-life horror, a lingering shiver ran up my spine.