There is something special about the air when the sky is blue. It is fresh, clean, and as you feel it fill your lungs, it is almost as if you’re breathing for the very first time. Now imagine a golden field of flowers around you and sense the green grass you tickle your feet.
You are dressed in thinly woven white clothes that dance with the wind, letting a slight breeze touch your bare skin underneath. You hear children laughing, and watch girls dancing with flowers braided in their hair. Closing your eyes and turning your face towards the sun, you feel it’s warm gaze engulf you.
Happy. Safe. Loved.A24: Midsommar
Last year, writer-director Ari Aster returned from his success with his twisted and claustrophobic debut Hereditary(2018) – but this time he was going to take us on a very different journey. ‘Midsommar’ (2019) is one of those movies that melt between genres. Some call it a thriller fairytale, folk horror, Aster himself calls it a break-up movie.
‘Midsommar’ doesn’t aim to fulfil traditional horror tropes and cliches – even if it incorporates classic elements in new and profound ways. And just like Hereditary, it certainly doesn’t aim to please the general mainstream audience.
When Dani (played by Florence Pugh) loses her family to a murder-suicide, she falls into a dark well of grief. Her boyfriend, Christian (played by Jack Reynor) had planned to break their relationship off, but stayed with her out of guilt and not wanting to put more stuff on her plate. But he has already mentally left her and tries to isolate her as much as he can from social events or any emotional consultation.
Dani realises the true extent of their disconnection when she tags along to a party and Christian’s friends bring up their upcoming trip to Sweden – a trip he had bought a ticket to, yet not even mentioned to Dani. But after some augmenting, Christian ends up telling her that the only reason he hadn’t said anything to her was that he wanted to surprise her with the trip (lies); she apologises profusely for ruining his (not real) surprise.A24: Midsommar
This Scandinavian vacation is not like your usual backpacking adventure. Christian and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper; Chidi in The Good Place) and Mark (Will Poulter; Colin in Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch) are all cultural anthropology students.
Their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) has invited them to attend a special midsummer celebration at his ancestral commune Hårga which only takes place once every 90 years. But the surface level idyllic commune will soon be revealed to be something much more sinister as violent and sacrificial rituals start coming to fruition.
One of the things about Midsommar that makes it so different from your regular horror movie is the mise-en-scene. Typically, horror relies on shadows and darkness and disable your sight and let you fall into fear and paranoia.A24: Midsommar
But in Hårga, the sun doesn’t go down, and everything is out in the open. The white clothes and the flower crowns, innocence and purity, establishes a false sense of security and makes the selective violence all the more mesmerising. It is the brightest horror movie, and it is guaranteed to blind you in more ways than one.
For the majority of this 150-minute movie, you aren’t bombarded with violence, gore, and jumpscares. For the majority, you are out on bright open fields; dancing, eating, taking shots of hallucinogenics. Many of the scenes are entirely innocent—and even cinematically beautiful—on their own.
But paired with our knowledge of this being a horror movie and with Bobby Krlic’s phenomenal soundscore, there is an underlying unease that very gradually creeps up under your skin as you wait and watch the characters meet their fate.A24: Midsommar
Let us just briefly look at our three main characters. Dani is still actively going through her grief and working through her trauma. From the very start, she has lost her family and has no support system around her – except for Christian who doesn’t actually want to be with her and groans at the thought of hanging out with her. He is distant and keeps secrets from her; whenever he does something that makes her feel invalid, she ends up apologizing for being ‘a mess’.
He doesn’t console her or encourage her to open up to him; he shames her into isolation while he thinks of ‘all the beautiful Swedish girls’ he is going to meet in Hårga. And then there’s Pelle, the sweet and caring man who looks at Dani the way Christian is supposed to.
Pelle is observant of Dani’s emotions and tries to comfort her when she is upset—he relates his own parents’ death to her’s in order to establish an empathetic bond between the two. When Christian forgets Dani’s birthday, Pelle has drawn her a beautiful picture of herself. He looks her in the eyes – he sees her. Or at least, he makes her feel that way.A24: Midsommar
Throughout this summer, Dani is starting to come to terms with the grief of her family and the death of her relationship. Although the rituals scare her, Pelle manages to get her to stay on grounds of being open-minded. The women of the commune start to embrace her, getting her to cook with them and take part in a ceremonial dance which she eventually wins and is crowned the May Queen. They shower her with love and admiration—maybe family doesn’t have to be bound by blood, she starts to think.
Under the influence of hallucinogenics and the love-bombing that is finally making her feel worthy, Dani starts to follow along with Hårga’s plans. While a group of women take her on a stroll perform some ancestral blessings, another group drugs Christian and lures him into a sexual (assault) ritual in which they make him impregnate a young girl.
Dani hears the moaning and sees Christian naked with the girl through a keyhole. This is the breaking point. This is what we have been waiting for – what we needed. Hyperventilating, she runs to one of the barns where her group of women follow her and starts to imitate her cries and their breath becomes one.A24: Midsommar
And so we reach the final ritual—the final sacrifice. Here the May Queen must pick one person of the commune to serve as the honourable lamb; there is no doubt about who this will be.
Christian is taken (still drugged) to be prepared for the sacrifice, and thus the last scene comes over the screen. Set on fire alongside the bodies of the previous victims, we watch as Christian burns. Clad in her May Queen attire, Dani, for maybe the first time in the film, genuinely looks happy.
I remember exiting the cinema and feeling immensely cathartic. Throughout the entire film, a lingering deterioration had been cast upon the characters and us, the audience.A24: Midsommar
First, they preyed on our loneliness and trauma. Then they assaulted us with love and validation. Then they isolated us by making us question our original friends and surroundings, only to realise that they [the commune] could give us the sense of belonging that we so longed for. Throughout it all they pull is through mental torment, making us faint and fatigued. to the point where we surrender to their ideology just so that we can finally rest.
The thing that makes Midsommar one of the scariest movie of all time is not its stylish juxtaposition of flower fields and bloody bodies, nor is it the cultish rituals or slasher killings.
It is the fact that it makes us feel safe.