Midsommar

Midsommar (2019) was an unexpected delight. I’d heard that the director’s earlier Hereditary (2018) was also good, though I have not yet seen it, so I took a chance on his latest with a few friends. I do not typically read reviews beforehand, so I went in cold, and was not disappointed. There are no spoilers in this review, just a load of comparisons, as any summary would fail to capture most of what is good about this film.

The opening exposition is rather ponderous and I found the acting mediocre in the early stages, but this improved from the time they arrived in Sweden, with sweeping drive up somewhat reminiscent of The Shining. It was interesting to see an actor I liked from something similar—Will Poulter, who was in Black Mirror’s interactive Bandersnatch—alongside an actor from something very different—William Jackson Harper, who plays another academic in the The Good Place, which is excellent but as a comedy is pretty much the polar opposite of Midsommar. But from the start the cinematography was powerful, whcih was encouraging.

I found the Swedish accents and mannerisms to be humorously played up—most young Swedes I know have hardly any accent at all, and it would be difficult to imagine them as particularly exotic compared to Anglo-Saxons, at least compared with the rest of the world. The fact that the Americans are always dressed terribly inappropriately in the film struck me (an American who is terribly dressed) as quite funny throughout.

The contrast to the expectations set by traditional Swedish drama, like Strindberg and Bergman, was also pointed and amusing. Theirs are insular dramas, with characters relentlessly spouting unspeakable truths to one another in dark and claustrophobic rooms. Midsommar‘s drama (and comedy) is blindingly bright, the characters rarely speak and mostly lie, and it takes place in idyllic natural beauty and wide-open spaces. And yet with Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) it shares a sexual power reversal, and with The Dance of Death I (1900) a deadly serious romantic resentment. It is reminiscent of Bergman’s Persona (1966) in its confusion (and loss) of its protagonists’ identities, and Shame (1968) in its treatment of how outside threats can pervert a relationship. And there is a character who, like Bergman, is named Ingmar (not a particularly common name as far as I’m aware), and they repeat the name several times.

Many non-Swedish sources come to mind too. With the aforementioned Bandersnatch (2018) and Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013), Midsommar is psychological horror whose depiction becomes unreliable thanks to the effects of psychedelic drugs—and for that matter, Performance (1970) might be something of a spiritual forebear to all three. I was also struck by how the characters’ whiteness becomes a source of horror, as opposed to much earlier (and problematic) films like King Kong (1933) or I Walked with a Zombie (1943), which made blackness a source of threat or tension. These characters are stunningly white, and this is foregrounded sufficiently that it seems to be in some sort of dialogue with the older films. For that matter, whether or not their characters are this pasty, very few horror films take place in such beautiful light, with the obvious antecedent in this regard (and a few others) being The Wicker Man (1973). Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) and The Blair Witch Project (1999), though obviously darker, still share its pagan/folk horror sensibility of that film.

The film’s sunlight and its wide-open countryside prevent the use of two horror commonplaces: being trapped in a confined space, and being lost in the dark (and, naturally often the case, both at once). This leads to an the interesting use of social pressure as a primary restraint, causing most of the characters to choose to remain, even when it seems plausible that they might simply drive away. The dynamics here are persuasive and interesting, coming closer to something like Sophie Scholl – The Final Days (2005) or any of the many films investigating the passivity of people witnessing atrocities, than most films in the traditional horror genre, in which the options tend to be far more constrained. And the film even manages to present something genuinely comforting about the prospect about ending life in its prime, and chillingly true about modernity’s lack of respect for natural cycles of life and death, even in the short number of lines it devotes to these topics.

Though it does a reasonably good job with these dynamics, as well as of capturing the sense of social anxiety surrounding the drugs—is everyone high? is anyone high?—overall, it comes across as a cautionary tale, so antithetical to the current state of research on psychedelics as to seem almost reactionary. See, for contrast, my review of Michael Pollan’s latest book on the matter here. In spite of this seemingly straightforward moral panic, which would be simplistic and off-putting in a lesser film, Midsommar somehow manages to retain its nuance, beauty, and uncertainty.

At certain points, the stark contrast between the beauty of the cinematography and the sudden violence of the film reminded me a bit of Ran (1985). If it’s not obvious by the comparisons I’ve made, I really enjoyed this film, and highly recommend it to any fan of psychological or folk horror. Ari Aster clearly knows his film, and I look forward to catching up on his back catalogue.

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