No higher and no hotter.
It must have been one helluva break-up since no run-of-the-mill, mutual uncoupling could inspire someone to pull a complete reversal like writer/director Ari Aster did. He initially turned down an idea that some Swedish producers brought him to bring to life. He didn’t see the purpose in creating some random slasher set in their Scandinavian nation simply because they were offering the money to do so. Aster only circled back when the messiness of his relationship’s demise provided a reason to get some characters there and let the carnage in. But it wasn’t enough to just place these troubled souls on shaky communal ground amidst a pagan cult of smiling Swedes. He needed to inflict pain by hating them as much as they hated each other.
I get it. That makes sense because he was hurting and probably hated himself for hurting his significant other as much as her for hurting him. He’s probably therefore created a powerful means of personal catharsis with Midsommar. He confronts what went wrong and acknowledges his fault by rendering Christian (Jack Reynor) as a coward more worried about regretting a potential break-up because he might decide he wants her back than because of her feelings. He’s a gaslighter who talks circles until a conversation that demands his apology becomes one where she must say she’s sorry just to keep him in the room. And what does Aster do to Dani (Florence Pugh) to make her “needy” enough to become this albatross around Christian’s neck? Kill her entire family.
Now if that doesn’t explain Aster’s state of mind, I don’t know what would. Because that’s what ultimately stops Christian from taking his friends’ (selfish) advice to kick her to the curb. Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) see him gritting his teeth whenever she calls and tell him to end it (while she constantly worries about whether she’s pushing him away and should thus repress her emotions to be more like what they believe a woman should). And maybe he had mustered the strength to do so before tragedy guilted him into begrudgingly staying despite retaining secrets and refusing to grow-up enough to stop seeing her pain as an excuse to keep him close. Rather than love, it’s resentment making him stay.
So when talk arises about the boys taking a trip to Pelle’s Swedish hometown for a rare once-in-ninety-years celebration, it confirms how inherently duplicitous Christian is—being nothing more than an arm to cry on out of necessity and fear rather than an actual decent human being who cares about her well-being. Dani is then invited for placation purposes and she accepts because the distraction from what she endured could prove a welcome gift. Once they’re out of their element, pushed against the proverbial wall to start separating at the seams, and systematically ushered onto disparate paths for the Hårga’s (Pelle’s people) own purposes, however, she realizes they’ve been living a lie. Wanting him to be her savior so badly, she couldn’t see how he was actually a burden.
The central theme at Midsommar‘s core becomes family and how the one we have and the ones we build aren’t always the ones for us. How Dani’s sister and parents perish becomes less important than the fact that she was excluded from it. They simultaneously left her alone and left her out. So now all she has is Christian and his supposed love to keep her safe, but his mind is elsewhere and never on what it should (her or his impending graduate anthropology thesis). It’s as though those closest to her are simply going through the motions and thus pointing out subliminally that she’s the problem. Dani is the x-factor that doesn’t belong. She’s the type of lost soul the Hårga love to welcome into their flock.
And despite the weirdness that comes along with this cult of crazies drinking hallucinatory tea and inbreeding their oracles to finger-paint messages they can interpret any way they want, their bond is inspiring. When one feels pain, the entire group also writhes in identical discomfort. The same is true for happiness wherein the good of one becomes the good of all (see motherhood). Soon we witness that while most of the outsiders met on a sort of Rumspringa pilgrimage into the modernity of damned civilizations by those like Pelle and his “brother” Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg) get recruited to be sacrificed (where one disappears, many follow), others are meant to remain. In the Hårga’s warm matriarchal embrace is a utilitarian sense of inclusion that cleanses them of man’s evil.
Again, this is all well and good. Much like the followers of Paimon in Hereditary, Aster has crafted an intricate mythology about a far-off community that probably shouldn’t be extended a blind eye where its cultural autonomy built upon murder is concerned. Whereas the former was a carefully hidden inevitability biding time before pouncing, however, the latter is always right in front of our faces. In doing so it becomes less formidable and more laughable. Between the generically stereotypical plays at machismo by Mark wanting to screw anything that moves or Josh and Christian willingly ruining their friendship to get a leg up on what they believe is a topic that should guarantee their Ph.D., Aster has injected a comedic strain that mocks rather than augments.
The Hårga aren’t therefore drawn as frightening, but intentionally silly. They’re a community steeped in archaic traditions that are revealed more for their effect on Dani and the boys than their place within this celebration. Much of what Aster delivers is similar: disturbing pathways pushing the plot forward rather than authentic events unfolding as they would regardless of who was involved. Why does Dani’s family die? To make it so Christian invites her along (and perhaps to wreak psychological revenge on the girlfriend Aster lost). Why are Christian and Josh on the clock for their theses? Because it has the potential to drive a wedge between them. Why is Mark the worst human being on Earth? So he can be the first to willingly walk into the fire.
Midsommar‘s blueprint is very tidy and yet the pieces within are too messy to hide their artificiality. The imagery born from that messiness is effectively unsettling and Aster’s crew (from production design to costuming to Pawel Pogorzelski‘s cinematography) excels at bringing it to life, but too much of it feels inconsequential to the whole. And that’s something we haven’t really seen in Aster’s work (features or shorts). Usually every single detail becomes a crucial cog within a meticulously constructed machine that’s proven airtight and thus able to divert attention from the strings being pulled. This one is just a collection of those strings and a frustrating experience to sit through when every brilliant moment is forgotten for the next until it’s all shown to add up to nothing.