Is it scary? – Dani
To live is to suffer. Life is a series of painful events, followed by how we as humans react to said events. Where we place our trauma says a lot about us. Ari Aster’s Midsommar is many things: it’s a mode of environmental activism; an investigation into cultural relativism between spiritual eastern tradition and materialistic western customs; the wrath of women scorned by those they love. The anchor, however, to this well-rounded story is the process of grief.
If one were to have seen Hereditary one time, go live under a rock for the next ten years, then reemerge to watch Midsommar, it would still be obvious to one that both films were crafted by the vision of Ari Aster. Like its predecessor, Midsommar is broodingly atmospheric. A terrific score combined with a warm hyper-exposure in the green Swedish fields – not to mention a reality-bending mushroom trip – fuel the dread that haunts Dani as she wanders through life after a devastating suicide-murder that wipes out her family. The only type of family she has left is her aloof boyfriend Christian, who was on the brink of breaking up with Dani just before her family died. There are beats in the film that feel somewhat more lighthearted than Hereditary, and it does not rely as much on jump scares. The real fear, as with most excellent horror films, is that of misplacement. There is obviously more than meets the eye to the commune Dani and friends are visiting. Mixing together the spoiled, entitled American attitudes of all the men that tag along with the storied culture of the commune, the audience is already at the mercy of the film’s decision-making.
The central focus of the film being the relationship of Dani and Christian feels somewhat flimsy and unrealized. This feels particularly true for Christian’s character, never developing beyond his attempts to white-man his way through any and everything. Figuratively, and almost quite literally, many of the choices he makes feel as if they’re being made for him. Before he is imprisoned to a drug-fueled haze that reduces him to a deep frown, Christian feels directionless. Uncertain in his relationship, his thesis, so on and so forth. This sets up for the audience to dislike him but doesn’t make him interesting. Not even when he confronts his anthropological friend Josh, the very reason they’re there to begin with, to tell him he is stealing his thesis. The character lacks personality. His relationship with Dani as a whole lacks validity as to why anyone would want to be with him. There are no moments in the film that show any mutual connection between them. And, yes, that could quite possibly be the point. People all over the world are in situations that they are second-guessing. It just would’ve done justice to why these two wanted to be in their relationship in the first place.
What should also be appreciated about the film is the authenticity that radiates from the Swedish community and the residents within. The culture of the isolated community shines brightly through song and dance; magnificent murals that are worthy of their own examination. All in celebration of the community’s “midsommar” which happens every 90 years, the timing of which is never fully explained in the film. Something that also gets swept under the rug is the role of the deformed child that is deemed “unclouded,” granting her the right to be the one that adds onto the community’s holy text. This mostly feels like nitpicking, especially when the film spirals towards its very culture-centric finale. The feel of the environment always rings true.
The true revelation of the film, however, is the guarded performance of Florence Pugh as Dani. If there’s one common theme in Aster’s early career, it’s the strong female lead performances that tie everything together. The painful wails of the leading women in his films are used like sad songs, reaching into the depths of the audience’s stomach and stirring. Pugh is magnificent in the way she carries herself as Dani, balancing life and the gut-wrenching pain of losing her family. When her pain swelters to its boiling point, she isolates herself. Anyone going through grief feels like they’re enduring the journey alone. The beats where she dissects Christian with her eyes as she makes the realization that they are utterly disconnected cut like a knife, and she knows she is the furthest thing on his mind. What is drawing Dani into the community is the way they share pain. Any time one of their own is in great pain, the entire commune is in pain. Full-blown, maddening pain, leading everyone to wail. This is them facing their pain together, the way a family would.
As the number of films based on cults continues to spike, Misommar stands as an example of how one should be designed. With careful precision toward the community the story is set, and how one would be drawn to said community. Midsommar serves as a meditation on grief, family, and relationships, in dreadful fashion, all while serving as a cautionary tale for patriarchy.
Yes, Dani; it is scary.