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16. Midsommar (2019), dir. Ari Aster

As this is a recent release still screening in some places, I will cut the bulk of this review. That's not to say it's a film that would seriously be ruined by knowing a bit about what happens in it, though. In fact, once the major parameters are established, it proceeds with dreadful inevitability towards its end-point, and that's a lot of how it generates its sense of horror. So if you're sure you'll like it and would prefer to see it unspoiled, go ahead - it's great. But if you're not sure and would like to use this review to help you decide, you won't really lose anything by reading it. And if you've already seen it and want to share views, come hit me up in the comments!

So, yes, this film is great. The team who made it had very definitely seen The Wicker Man and probably A Field in England, though I'm less able to judge on the latter as I haven't seen it myself. They'd certainly taken a few hallucinogenic drugs in their time, though. They may well have seen The Wicker Tree or read Cowboys for Christ (the novel it's based on) too, given that Midsommar involves both bringing in an outsider to impregnate a local woman and drugging people to paralyse them before sacrificing them. It's very much a fresh and self-assured response to all such forerunners, though. Like, I was just settling into the pleasure of how the opening shots of natural landscapes overlaid with unaccompanied traditional voice music reminded me of the opening sea-plane shots in the short version of The Wicker Man when the whole thing was interrupted and subverted by the brash and very modern sound of a phone ringing - heralding what turns out to be a key element of the plot. And it is also fair to say that the whole thing unfolds along rather more violent and disturbing lines than The Wicker Man, which reflect the way horror as a genre has evolved in the intervening period. It kind of takes The Wicker Man to its logical, unsentimental extreme.

That phone-call establishes the central narrative arc for Dani, our main point-of-view character. Some six months before she joins her boyfriend, Christian, and his college mates on their journey to witness the pagan festivities of the Swedish Hårga commune, she has suffered a truly horrific personal tragedy of her own: her sister has killed herself and their sleeping parents using exhaust fumes piped into the family home. We also learn that Christian had been actively discussing dumping her with his mates just before this happened - but of course once it does he can't be the guy who dumps his traumatically-bereaved girlfriend. So our central character is already heavily traumatised and knows full well that her relationship is under strain before she gets to Sweden, and that all interplays with what happens to her there, repeatedly resurfacing in flash-backs triggered by new traumas.

By the end of the film, she has really been through the ringer. She's been coerced into trips she didn't want to take, seen two people deliberately jump off a cliff to violent messy deaths, watched half their friends disappear and caught her boyfriend ritually fucking one of the local women. Then, multiply-traumatised, confused and disoriented, she is coerced yet again into a ritual dance which culminates with her becoming the May Queen, and she is asked to choose which of two potential victims will make up the ninth person in the Hårga's festive sacrifice - another member of the commune, or Christian? One clever touch here is that we don't see her choosing directly. Rather, we see the outcome of her choice unfolding, and are left to realise what she must have done. The same principle applies throughout the film, and does a lot to sustain the feeling of mounting, inevitable horror - e.g. we're never told directly that the meat pies the Hårga make after Simon (an English visitor) disappears are made out of him. He just vanishes, and then they're making pies, and later on we see Christian discover his body, partially cut up in a barn. Anyway, Dani as May Queen, weighed down with flowers and still partially-drugged seems traumatised afresh as she watches the results of her decision unfold, until this pivotal shot which is more or less the end of the film:

Dani Midsommar.gif

As with most of the movie, we're left to interpret that for ourselves. It could just be an utterly traumatised woman pushed over the edge into a kind of maniacal hysteria. But another possibility is that she has finally embraced the darkness of everything she has been through and taken control of her own trauma. Up to that point she has spent the whole film accommodating herself to other people's needs - worrying even before the deaths of her family that she is 'overwhelming' Christian, taking mushroom tea she doesn't want in order to fit in with him and his college mates, trying desperately to respect all the Hårga's weird customs and rituals. Now, she has been offered one single choice of her own, and I think in many ways her smile reflects satisfaction at taking it. It's no happy ending - she still remains utterly in the control of the Hårga, and she is shown to have reached this place through having embraced their ways (e.g. their women wailing along with her when she discover's Christian's infidelity). It is bleak and dark - but weirdly powerful too.

Meanwhile, around Dani's narrative the folk horror story is also spliced quite satisfyingly with a classic pick-off-the-annoying-teens modern American horror narrative. Obviously there's always going to be lots of fun to get out of putting four American college kids (plus two less-developed English characters) into a highly ritualised enclosed community, and sometimes that is quite deliberately played for dark humour. It was a nice touch to make them anthropology students, with one of them in particular (William Jackson Harper = Chidi from The Good Place playing young) asking lots of intellectual questions about the Hårga's rituals. That allows for some useful exposition, but also provides cues for culture clashes when he misunderstands things or becomes tempted into transgressions for the sake of his research. Indeed, all of the foreign visitors other than Dani transgress in one way or another: Connie and Simon by going batshit in response to the cliff-jumping, Mark by pissing on the ancestor tree, Josh by photographing the Hårga's sacred book and Christian by bolting from the sex ritual. But while watching that good old rule unfold is fun for the knowing horror fan to watch, it also runs up hard against the different and rather more brutal logic of the cult at the centre of the movie. Once we learn in the final scenes that the outsiders were lured to the commune by Pelle explicitly for the purpose of sacrificing them, we realise that they were always going to die anyway, no matter how well they might have behaved.

Finally, all this is conveyed and achieved through some immensely impressive technical cinematography. A quick Google search for stills shows how great the photography is, but that's also paired with a very clever soundscape. The music, singing and wailing of Hårga alternate effectively with silence, while of course the Swedish setting offers plenty of opportunities for deliberately disorientating (for most Anglophone viewers) use of a foreign language. That in itself is then also cleverly used to set up the moment when Dani, hallucinating thanks to a heady combination of drugs and maypole dancing, can suddenly communicate perfectly easily with the dancer next to her, despite their language barrier. And all sorts of clever camera techniques are used to develop the same sense of disorientation as the Swedish language, like the camera rotating 180° as the college kids drive to the Hårga commune, so that the road turns entirely upside-down.

All in all very well-constructed and thought-provoking without ever becoming weighed down by thinkiness or losing its sense of self-referential dark humour. Highly recommended


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  • 24 Nov 2020, 09:10
    Ciao caro.
    Ho ascoltato la canzone Domine Salvum Fac su youtube. Ripete la parola Domine due volte dopo che segue Salvum Fac e non capisco oltre. Ma mi sembra che il testo non corrisponda del tutto…
  • 8 Nov 2020, 13:25
    I think just 'not being Trump' proved to be enough!
  • 8 Nov 2020, 12:29
    Yes, that's it. Just having someone in charge who isn't actively making things worse for the world is a big relief.
  • 8 Nov 2020, 11:34
    There are many, many doubts and worries. But still, there is an enormous rock of anguish that has been weighting on my soul since the first days after that monster's election which has now lifted.
  • 8 Nov 2020, 11:32
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