Ain’t no cure for the Sommartime Blues.
MIDSOMMAR will break you.
Five college kids travel to Sweden for a midsummer festival. Oops! It’s a pagan cult. A good way to get yourself killed. Or to break up with your boyfriend.
– – – – S P O I L E R S – – – – –
You have been warned – no, not about the spoilers, about breaking your mind.
“Purple Haze all in my brain,
Lately things don’t seem the same…”
— “Purple Haze,” Jimi Hendrix
In a dark henhouse, a naked man is strung up, face down, arms and legs held akimbo by hooks through skin and bone. His back skin is open wide like sails behind him. His ribcage is broken from behind and his lungs extracted and hooked outwards like wings – yet still connected and functioning – and they are slowly inflating…. deflating… inflating… deflating… still ALIVE! His eyes have been replaced by flowers; he makes no sound, past all screaming, past all concept of nerve endings transmitting pain back to his brain. A hen flits down from his back – they are living around his open back cavity and probably laying eggs in there!
This late scene in the movie is a recreation of a Viking ritualized execution. [imdb trivia]: “The victim would supposedly be alive and conscious through the process…” How does the brain grasp what has happened to its body? Circulatory shock, organ failures, NO intravenous drips, NO comfort for the victim, NO measures for the victim’s recovery. Brains perceive phantom limbs, but does the brain perceive phantom internal organs after they have been wrenched from the body while conscious?
I’m about to faint…
If you’re still here, come step into morbid. Dani (Florence Pugh) is calling her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor, doing Chris Pratt Lite), while he is out with The Boys. Some heavy family drama is affecting her (Pugh in a spectacular performance, on the edge of tears, yet trying to be the fun gal that might prompt her guy to swing by later), and she senses Christian is as distant as Pluto.
Meanwhile, Christian’s posse, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Swedish Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) and Mark (Will Poulter) sit around a pub table laughing at Christian being pussy-whipped, urging him to break it off with dull Dani, which he lacks the nerve to do. They’ve planned a trip to Pelle’s village in Sweden, for a midsummer festival, reminding Christian that if he ends it with Dani before they leave, “think of all the fine Swedish women you can impregnate.”
Christian mumbles that he should ask Dani along, and she’ll probably decline. The Boys veto that noise, until…
… that family issue resolves itself… Dani’s bi-polar sister commits suicide by strapping a hose from the car exhaust onto her face, also pumping that sweet carbon monoxide into their sleeping parents’ bedroom. The visuals of this murder-suicide slam us like a baseball bat to the sternum. Dani’s disconsolate wail in Christian’s uncaring arms is disturbing on many levels.
Can Christian and The Boys really say no to Dani tagging along now?
And thus writer-director Ari Aster sets up his MIDSOMMAR road trip with the surface goal of tourist fun, underlying it with the discomfort of a couple that has drifted apart and refuse to acknowledge it.
When the gang arrives in the blue-skied fields of Pelle’s grassy village, with all its rune-decorated rustic cottages, pagan murals, overly-friendly denizens and a maypole, it hits us like a WICKER MAN.
“Purple Haze all in my eyes,
Don’t know if it’s day or night…”
Amidst the ear-splitting drone of discordant violins (eerie, disturbing sound design by The Haxan Cloak), we feel alienation from the moment we meet Pelle’s people. In bright sunlight, every custom, every “explanation,” every mysterious cloudy drink and mashed foodstuff, every hallucinatory drug willingly given, is designed to disorient, tilt us into wariness. The kids accept the strangeness because they have Pelle introducing them to Stepford smiles and overlong hugs, and take it for granted the weirdness is simply their parochialism.
But the dread is relentless. Even the sun staying out past the point it should be set, creates an unbalance in our inner ears.
Ari Aster’s last movie (HEREDITARY) was about a cult, slyly revealing itself in the third act. But here the cult is out in the open. Way out in the open daylight. So way out that if you saw these people congregating in a field in their all-white natural fabrics and fear-blond hair – RUN. Because you know there’ll be goat intestines involved. And a virgin.
And when someone stands on a really high cliff after dipping their hands in blood, amidst a nightmare drone of Celtic strings, just take it for granted — they’re gonna jump!
Jump they do. Two of the oldest people in the village embracing a suicide fall; the lady first, smashing her face to pulp on the rock below, while the man only succeeds in demolishing his leg, which prompts the mallet-wielders to smash smash SMASH his face into the earth… As the man lay whimpering in bone-shattering pain, the crowd took up his moans, an empathetic device to indicate sharing his pain. They would use this snake-charm on Dani later… The gratuitous body-horror leaves us as shell-shocked as the kids, but it’s to drive home a point. No matter how much the villagers rationalize “having control over death,” director Aster almost sarcastically shows us that for all the potions the old man ingested, and for all the prayers recited before the fall, he still suffered as much agony as any un-chosen, un-holy outsider.
Many scenes are framed with the action seen in reflections – maybe Aster is constantly reminding us of this duality of perception.
We can see that all the youngsters in the village are indoctrinated to this way of death. The concept of destroying the old is not what irks me – it’s the ritual that is attached to it, the charade that it is a sacrifice for crops or to please a god, when on a purely evolutionary, survivalist level, it is to ensure resources for the young, so that they may healthily spawn more of the species. The old are using up resources if they are past their breeding age.
There’s some self-preservation chemical in our brains that abhors the taking of our own lives, or the lives of others in our species without some rationalization. Even this cult feels the need to rationalize “control” in order to die, or – as we see later – rationalize “sacrifice for crops” in order to kill.
MIDSOMMAR would win 5 Fangoria Awards in 2020, including Best Director, Best Screenplay and…Best Kill. (Who are the sickos again?)
“Am I happy or in misery?
Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me.”
Josh is there to complete his thesis on wacky cults, and he’ll disrespect any ancient texts to get his story; Pelle is there because he is returning home – but also bringing fresh meat; and Mark is, surprisingly, comic relief. He’s on a mission for pussy, and Aster somehow injects odd, tension-breaking moments with Mark’s singular passion…
And Christian? Bro might look like Chris Pratt, but he ain’t no Star-Lord. This movie’s throughline is actually built around his callousness toward Dani. He is passionless, completely detached. When they walk together, it is 5 feet apart; when he holds her hand, he is discussing incest with an elder; when he tries to surprise her with a birthday cupcake, the moment goes awry. He wants to break up, but does not do the honorable thing of being honest with her; instead, mopes around hoping she’ll get the message. Also, toward his own friend Josh, Christian first copycats Josh’s thesis idea (against Josh’s wishes), then dishonorably disavows that Josh is his friend after Josh is accused of questionable behavior, in a scene that is so Peter-Denying-Jesus, I could almost hear Ted Neeley singing Gethsemane.
Christian’s comeuppance is a weird twisting of morality. He is forced to copulate with one of the village virgins who “chooses” him (some of her foreplay methods are hideous), to bring new genes into this insular community (harkening back to that incest talk). Some, like Mark, would consider it a score! Yet Christian is rufied by the villagers to perform, which he does while in a priapic daze, within a circle of naked village women. (Now this is the part of cults I like!) In essence, Christian is raped! (Harkening back to Pelle’s joke, “think of all the fine Swedish women you can impregnate.”)
You Swedish people! I know you gave us ABBA – but Jesus Fucking Christ!
Dani’s throughline is her search for belonging. After her family is wiped out, she turns to Christian for comfort. Ultimately realizing there is none there, bereft of all hope, she steps into the waiting embrace of the cultists, who offer her empathy and an unconditional family. While Christian is horizontal-dancing, Dani is maypole-dancing to win the title of May Queen, the villagers bestowing upon her the power over life and death. Her discovery of Christian in the fuck-circle drives her to offer him as a sacrifice (even though it was a rape, which she would never discover).
Throughout the movie, we never see Dani fully smile. She does the ‘social smile’ (those fake smiles that say ‘I’m interested in what you are saying’) but most of the time she mopes around worse than Christian, and is often just bawling unbidden. As the flames engulf the sacrifices, as her paralyzed lover burns in a bear skin, a beatific smile like sunshine arcs its way across Dani’s cheeks; once again, testament to Pugh’s incredible acting ability in making it REAL.
Aster’s fantastic directorial vision comes to fruition when Dani smiles. The fatal blow to our temples. It stands as tall as any enigmatic final-smile in classic cinema: THE GRADUATE, STRAW DOGS, COOL HAND LUKE, PSYCHO, et al. I can imagine a young teen watching this movie in horror, and then believing that final smile is because Dani got revenge on her boyfriend. But that smile is so much more. It is not for Christian’s death, but for Dani being accepted into a new family.
Wisecrack (on YouTube) surmises that MIDSOMMAR re-introduces ‘ritual and religiosity as a good thing’ because the cult saved Dani’s life, allowing her to face the future. It’s a thoughtful summation, but only half right. Yes, though mankind now generally considers religious rituals archaic and ungodly (in cults/sects/religions that are not yours), this film seemingly endorses ritualistic religiosity to “build community and a sense of belonging” – but the other side of that equation is: religions/cults only draw in people who are at their LOWEST EBB. Religion/cult appeals to people who need that kind of false affirmation to continue existing. Note that Dani was drawn in because – as the Joker might put it – she was having her One Bad Day that was driving her to madness. She needed a lifeline – this cult provided that. But religion/cult is only a placebo that sweeps REAL problems under the psychological carpet.
Consider: Dani was manipulated by the cult into thinking she could order the death of her boyfriend. They further brainwashed her into believing THEY had the authority to carry out this execution. If you don’t think there are deeper problems here than needing a family, you need to call Scientology today on 1-800-BRAINWASH.
Dani needed empathy and probably therapy as well. If she found that in a caring new boyfriend and/or a reputed therapist, she would not have succumbed to these pagan wackos.
As Dani smiles, with some viewers subliminally feeling ‘ritual is good,’ this same scene contains the opposite message, in blackest humor. In the horrific moments where the dead or dying visitors (Christian, Josh, Mark and others) are propped inside the sacrificial temple, two village volunteers also await their self-sacrifice, and are offered a potion by an elder, “Drink of the yew tree, so you feel no pain,” and “Drink of the yew tree so you feel no fear.” As soon as the flames start, the ‘no fear’ guy looks at the other guy with stark raving terror on his face, and the ‘no pain’ guy starts screaming like a gutted animal as the flames engulf his legs. Like the old man jumping from the cliff, Aster once again illustrates these people are full of shit. Outside the burning wicker man—I mean sacrificial temple, a woman with an excited smile on her face leads the empathetic screams to echo the victims inside. Washing reality under the psychological carpet for those easily brainwashed…
“Actin’ funny but I don’t know why
‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.”