An essay exploring the storytelling treasures of the arthouse horror film by Ari Aster

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Opening mural from Midsommar

Fans of Ari Aster will be familiar with his divisive and provocative work as a filmmaker. He dives deep into cultural taboos in his short films Munchausen and The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. It should not shock anyone who has seen this work that his feature length films would embody his unique style of storytelling into immersive, expansive stories. The cultish depths of Aster’s film Midsommar (2019) let the filmmaker explore societal anxieties surrounding death and grief in compelling and disturbing clarity. One of the more impressive qualities Aster delivers in this summer horror film is the sheer quantity of rich details which empower eagle-eyed audience members to fill in the gaps. Here is a filmmaker who wants the audience to ask questions.

The story opens with an introduction to Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) on the worst winter night of her life: her bipolar sister Teri commits murder-suicide by running garden hoses to pump car exhaust into their parents’ room while they peacefully drift into final sleep. The grisly scene shifts to Dani’s apartment where her evidently-distant boyfriend Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor) helplessly tries to comfort the aggrieved woman who is now orphaned in the world. Pugh’s performance in these beginning scenes offers a bang of grief, showing that Aster for the second time in as many films has cast a strong female lead with a wide-ranging array of emotional capabilities. Because this is the opening act, the effect on the viewer is quite chilling. This is not a film that will avoid looking at death and its consequences on Dani’s life.

About six months after her family’s death, Dani joins Christian on a trip to Sweden with his fellow anthropology graduate students Josh and Pelle along with Mark, the film’s comic relief. The group is set to visit Pelle’s village home, Hårga, set in the Swedish countryside of Hälsingland. The pretext for this special trip is for Josh and Christian to observe European midsummer traditions, something the Hårgans celebrate. Although Pelle says this particular festival happens only once every 90 years, it seems impossible to definitively determine which parts of the ceremonies are actually this rare. Regardless, careful observers will notice Pelle’s subtle influence in driving wedges in the social fabric of the touring group as they are one-by-one killed in sacrificial slayings until Dani remains to be ingratiated into the family.

The opening mural of the film tells Pelle’s version of the fairy tale that plays out for Dani as she survives these death rituals. The five panels represent the acts of the screenplay, all moving from a wintery skull moon of death to a bright scorching and omniscient sun. It’s curious how the panels parallel the film the audience is about to see. The first panel is the nightmarish beginning, depicting Dani’s separation from her family as the bonds between them are cut loose by a skeleton omen. In the second panel, Pelle observes Dani and Christian while drawing from the bough of a tree. Viewers are not likely to really take in the characters, except perhaps to recognize them from the trailer. The third panel brings our four American travelers to the village with Pelle leading them as a pied piper. Here, the clothes Mark is wearing are those of a court jester or a joker. The penultimate fourth panel is the arrival and welcome of the guests to Hårga, with some of the village’s buildings behind a feast table. The final panel features the Maypole, encircled by the dance competition after which Dani is crowned the victorious May Queen and given a place of honor in the ever-progressing story of the Hårgans. Another table is prepared for the celebration, but Josh, Mark, and Christian are nowhere to be seen. This fable, shown to the audience before a single character has appeared on screen, is Pelle’s creative reframing of the film so that Dani is protagonist. Pelle views himself as the historian, offering a perspective into the narrative by selectively omitting the grim realities behind the fates of their traveling companions.

There are other murals and conversations in the film through which the audience gets insight into Pelle’s crafting of this narrative. What’s more curious is the absence of many elements in the film’s progression in this introductory mural. It turns out that this is actually a clever telegraph: Aster knows the audience is looking for clues, so he’s showing them where they can look. It’s a tacit agreement between director and viewer that what you’re seeing is meant to build out a world with a set of rules.

In an extended scene in the director’s cut, Dani comments on Pelle’s influence over his friends by how he’s brainwashed them. Not denying the characterization, he confesses that “Josh was already brainwashed when I found him.” Pelle chose each of his friends carefully and for reasons known only to him to bring as offerings for the midsummer ceremonies. It is clear that he understands the psychosocial tendencies of the group as he’s able to manipulate Christian’s dysfunctional relationship with Dani to satisfy his goal of adding her to the village through the familial bonding of grief and celebration. The group’s dynamics are used against them to make the usual awkwardness of cultural differences seem just as usual despite the sinister machinations of the Hårgan traditions.

The muted joyfulness Pelle generally shows his companions raises many questions of his attitude toward their deaths. Did Pelle harbor any hate for them, believing them to be deserving of death for being wicked? There is a mythology within the Hårgan culture which acknowledges the spectrum of human behavior through affekts, things which represent emotions ranging from most holy to most unholy. The only one specifically named by a character is one which represents grief, but the many rituals throughout the film reveal the embrace of all of these emotions as realities to be dealt with by choice. This is where the Hårgan worldview seems to come in to sharp contrast with the Americans. Pelle must be remarkably empathetic, able to understand the deep feelings created by grief. He may love his friends, and he seems to enjoy their company, but their lack of emotional depth is at times insulting to him. Perhaps he sees them as lost souls, worthy to be damned. He brought them to his ancestral home knowing what fate awaited them because he believed they did not deserve their free will. Dani was the only one who could understand Pelle, whose parents died in a fire early in his childhood. And so he used his friends’ deaths to prepare a story for her, one that she could understand and take ownership over, ultimately leading her to be able to choose her own end.

Suicide is a way of life for the Hårgans. It is their exclusive method of death, barring illness or incident. The ritual suicide of two elder members of the village during a ceremony called attestupan is the first display of death the outsiders experience. This ceremony begins with the couple’s final feast, the tables arranged in a runic shape. They spend some time speaking in tongues, obviously experiencing a complex set of emotions, before they’re respectfully taken in a litter to the top of a cliff. At the base of the cliff the priestess Siv reads from the Rubi Radr, the scripture written by the elders and the oracle.

The villagers stand with arms spread and palms facing out, the outsiders in bemused expectation, waiting for the elder members to arrive at the precipice above. Josh is the only outsider who is aware of what is about to happen. One after the other, the woman and the man leap from their high place to land on a large rock below. Two English outsiders named Connie and Simon are the only ones to react with revulsion and protest watching the two people jump to their deaths. Christian and Josh hold back their disgust and make no attempt to intervene. It is Dani whose experience the audience feels as the world warps around her into a blurry, numb roaring of silence and shock. She has just witnessed people make the same final, unchangeable decision her sister did. Siv casts an eye at Dani while she explains the significance of the ceremony to calm Connie and Simon down, concluding, “It does no good dying––lashing back at the inevitable.”

Attending the attestupan is a transformative experience for Dani. It raises many red flags she tries to call to Christian’s attention, but he dismisses her concern as a difference of culture. He sees the invitation to view the ceremony as rare and valuable. Dani sees it for the horror movie trope that it is: this group of people is a death cult and we need to get out of here. Simon and Connie’s protests and sudden departure following these events silences the only problematic outsiders in the village and Dani’s fears are quieted as she is dejected after fighting with Christian. Among the people visiting the commune, Dani appears alone in understanding the consequences of Hårgan beliefs and yet seems powerless to escape.

Simon and Connie are the first outside offerings to be killed. The fact they are killed only after the attestupan might imply that the Hårgans have some method when exposing new people to the ways of the commune, but it is also interesting how the village hides their disappearance in plain sight. Simon is reportedly taken to a train station in a rush, then Connie is taken, too. Mark is killed next, though he seems to have hastened his death by ignorantly urinating on a tree which represents all the village’s dead. He’s invited by a woman suggesting a tryst and is not seen again. Josh is caught in the temple trying to exfiltrate the secret scriptures of the Rubi Radr and then an elder declares the next day that the holy book is missing. Eager and opportunistic as he is, Christian quickly acknowledges the optics of Josh and the scriptures going missing on the same night. Each death represents some particular affekt. The whole village seems to understand everything, including that Dani will eventually discover the full truth in the most tragic way for Christian. Each successive death leads to the question: who lives and who dies? Christian numbers in the final deaths of the film, but he is placed in that predicament instead of one of the Hårgans — despite the remarkably questionable complex situation regarding consent — at the decision of Dani.

The deaths of all the outsiders draws a huge conspiracy. The elders seem to pull the strings, choosing who gets to slaughter whom, who gets to copulate with one or many, and who may be queen. It is not the elders own wit, though. The oracle they look toward is Rubin, an inbred child and a decisive product of incest who has the attribute of “unclouded cognition.” Rubin never actively participates in the activities of the festival but he is always watching. As subtle subtext, Pelle may have preceded Rubin as the village oracle, since he is rewarded on the day of the temple burning for the same “unclouded” intuition. Perhaps the oracles are as many in number as the elders. The role of the oracle in relation to the Hårgan elders is one of emotional narration. The oracle draws, creates, and imagines, then the elders interpret and execute. It is almost a system of government which actively includes emotions in the process. The rationality of such authority is obviously suspect, but telling a story like this is the magic opportunity of cinema.

Recall the opening mural. The end of Pelle’s fable doesn’t match the end of Midsommar, at least not in a factual sense. Emotionally, both versions mean exactly the same thing to Dani: she is now happy, regardless if she’s gone mad. The fairy tale ending of the mural focuses on Dani’s ascension as May Queen, but the film ends with Christian burned alive, drugged and sewn into a bearskin, alongside two other Hårgans who have offered their own bodies to meet the ceremonial requirements of the temple burning. Aster allows the disparities to create their own complexities as the audience tries to grapple with their understanding of Dani’s mental state.

On a personal level, this film bothered me in ways I didn’t expect. The fact this was possible in spite of Aster telegraphing the inevitability of the story is why I believe Ari Aster is fucked up but smart. There are events displayed on screen that I cannot imagine were comfortable to film on set. Still, I would have enjoyed being able to walk through the flowered fields of Hungary to experience the atmosphere Aster and crew put together. Midsommar is challenging. And though it shouldn’t be viewed as inaccessible, it is not the happy ending it pretends to be.

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