Midsommar

I meant to watch this yesterday to celebrate Summer solstice, but I wasn't in the mood for it so I decided to postpone that to today. As it turns out, I didn't miss much.

I believe that there is only one issue at the core of all of the problems with Midsommar's narrative: the fundamental disconnection between its two "plots," i.e. everything revolving around Dani's unhealthy relationship and everything revolving around the pagan horror motif. It feels as if Ari Aster wanted to make a film about a failing relationship from a woman's perspective and a Wicker Man-inspired film about a scary pagan cult, but couldn't quite find a way of putting the two together. It is very telling that the first half-hour of the film essentially surmounts to a long, expository sequence meant for the script to find a way through its many narrative contrivances.

Let's start with the first of such contrivances. The reason why Dani and her boyfriend Christian are going to Sweden is that he is an anthropology PhD student, whose group of colleagues gets invited by a Swedish friend to visit his commune so that one of them may write about their rites as part of his thesis. My issue isn't with this premise per se, but with the way Aster ties it with the film's other focus, that is Dani and Christian's relationship. A lot of this tries to play as a critique of toxic masculinity, which means that Christian "needs" to be surrounded by a bunch of misogynistic dudebros. And, for his love of caricatures and stereotypes, Aster couldn't find a better fit than... a group of PhD students? I'll throw a different idea in the hat: a pagan rock band. It's easier to frame as hypermasculine, neckbeardy and as something could very well stem from an ignorant fetishisation of pagan cultures. But I understand why he went with them being students, as it gives the characters an excuse to ask a lot of questions to the members of the commune and deliver yet more exposition. As I said, my issue is not with the group’s profession, but with the fact that it doesn't influence their character in any way. At one point Josh, who is literally writing a thesis on Scandinavian cultures, says: "The Vikings grabbed all the best babes from other countries and dragged them over." And sure, the line could be framed as a bad joke or "locker room talk," but then why not give it to the one Swedish character in the group, as a more evident form of self-mockery? I was originally also going to complain about Mark's utter disrespect for the culture ("He pissed on our ancestral tree!" – "So what?"), but there is no mention of him being an anthropology student like the others, so I'll let that one slide. Obviously, I don't mean to say that educated people can't fall into the trap of toxic masculinity or behave like ignorant goofs, only that there are better ways of writing it that don't involve them behaving like high school jocks all the time. I guess that my pedanticism on this particular issue comes from the fact that I see it as a way for the film to lazily write Dani and Christian into the plot. Because at least The Wicker Man has a thematic reason to confront its protagonist with a pagan cult: he is a devout Christian, whose views on religion and sexuality get dismantled by his encounter with a religious other and a differently archaic mentality. Midsommar is not interested in any of this, it cares much more about constantly torturing its protagonist and offering cheap shock value to the viewers.

Before I get to that, let me explore some of the ways in which Midsommar could have linked the "Dani plot" to the "cult plot" a bit more nicely. Her reason for staying with Christian and using him as an emotional pillow could have been rooted in some deep religious values, which then get dismantled a la Wicker Man by her experience in the Swedish commune. She could be looking for shelter inside the commune by way of replacing her lost family. She could have come into contact with the antiquated gender values of the commune (i.e. its strict division between "men and women's activities"; the ritualisation of the loss of women's virginity) and used them as a way to examine her own, gendered role in her relationship. I'm not saying that the second theme is completely absent from Midsommar, but to find them you need to read into the film a lot more than the text itself asks you to. And there is some hint of a critique of gender dynamics, what with the reversal (compared to most exploitation horrors) of who gets to suffer. But, then again, the film is no Wicker Man, as it provides no commentary, only shock. As for the religious theme, well, there might be a reason why Dani's boyfriend is called "Christian" and that is never shortened to "Chris," but I hope that this is just me desperately looking for any form of thematic depth in this film because, if it were true, that would be awful.

Midsommar does not put Dani in the commune so that she can find herself, grow as a character or surpass her trauma. It puts her there so that she may relive her trauma, constantly suffer, until suddenly she is not suffering anymore but, by that point, the film is over. This is because, throughout the entire film, she absolutely has no agency. I thought (well, hoped) that, at least by the time that Dani finds Christian having sex with another woman, the film would turn into somewhat of a revenge fantasy, Dani using her power over the commune to enact Christian's punishment. Part of me would have hated that, since Christian is actually being raped (seriously, this is the one act for which Aster punishes him?!), but I would have understood Dani not knowing that from her point of view. However, instead of any of this, Aster uses that scene as an excuse to let Dani howl in despair for the fourth time and vomit, then do some "cool" cross-cutting between a group of women crying and another group of women moaning. By the time her revenge comes to fruition, it is left entirely out of her hands, as she is literally frozen in place while being forced to watch Christian burn alive. And while her smile at the end does provide some form of character growth, it is the only such instance in the entire film and comes at exactly ten seconds before the end. And for a film that is so intent in portraying male (physical) suffering by way of contrasting the common horror trope of women's victimisation, it could have crafted a female protagonist who exists for some other purpose than relentless, psychological suffering.

The film is not entirely without merit. Florence Pugh's performance is excellent, in spite of the character that she has to play. Aster has an incredible talent in creating "uncomfortable sounds," both using sound effects and non-diegetic music. I just wish that the sounds, together with all the other stylistic flourishes of the film, were used for some purpose other than flashiness or shock value. At the end of the first ten minutes, there is a stylistic rehash of "that scene" of Hereditary, which I won't spoil for those who haven't seen Aster's previous film, but suffice to say that it involves a loud, ominous note being played over a montage of something horrific happening to the main characters. Only, this time, it feels like more of a gimmick than anything else. It is used to wrap up a ten-minute long expository sequence and get rid of a group of characters who we knew nothing about and whose sole narrative purpose is to offer a dose of trauma to the protagonist. Throughout the film, there are many such instances of sound and images being used to shock the viewer but offering no other purpose, the most egregious of which being the constant exploitation of a character with a facial deformity. To those that laud Aster for having been able to single-handedly revive the horror genre, I ask you this: how is any of this any better than a lazy jumpscare, other than the fact that there is some more craftsmanship involved?

This rant went on way longer than I hoped, but it does tend to be like that for the films that frustrate me. It's a nice way to let off steam, writing a nitpicky review. Watching this also made me retroactively think about Hereditary, which I guess made more of an effort to link its thematic focus on dysfunctional families with its genre gimmick of satanic cults. This, in turn, made me notice a pattern in Aster's filmography, where he likes to link a common, psychologically difficult situation with cult horror, for better (Hereditary) or worse (Midsommar).

Now that we had dysfunctional families and satanism, as well as unhealthy relationships and druidic paganism, what's next? Statutory rape and bacchanals? Messy roommates and Scientology? Leave some ideas in the comments!

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