How ‘Midsommar’ Turns A Breakup Into A Wicked Fairy Tale

Director Ari Aster follows up his debut smash, "Hereditary," with a very different horror movie. This time, things go bump in the light.
Florence Pugh in "Midsommar."
Florence Pugh in "Midsommar."

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Midsommar” is an eerie elegy. The director, Ari Aster, who emerged a promising new talent thanks to last year’s indie sensation “Hereditary,” has crafted a perverse blend of terror and pitch-black comedy that lulls its characters — and us — into a daze. The pagan death carnival where most of the movie takes place seems like one long trance with a warped sense of time and space. The sun never sets, and it’s at once airy and claustrophobic. But sudden violent bursts jolt our senses, building steadily toward cathartic delirium. Sometimes you have to go numb so you can feel everything.

Dani, a grad student played by gifted British actress Florence Pugh (“Lady Macbeth,” “Fighting with My Family”) learns that lesson firsthand. Reeling from the sudden deaths of her sister and parents, Dani accompanies her emotionally distant boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and his two pals (William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter) to a Swedish commune for research about a summer solstice festival that occurs once every 90 years.

The blond-haired hosts live together in an agrarian village known as Hårga, their lives prescribed by ancient customs that somehow don’t preclude “Austin Powers” screenings. As Dani and the others slowly transition from observers to participants, things go bump in the light: psychotropic excess, gruesome suicide dives, rustic sex rites. It’s all too much for a decaying relationship to bear.

“I love the horror genre,” Aster said, dispelling any notion that he might be distancing himself from a categorization that rouses passionate diehards. “But I also feel that, if people come in wanting a horror film and expecting ‘Midsommar’ to conform to those mechanics, they’re going to be disappointed. The film is designed to be a macabre fairy tale. If it works, it’ll work on those terms. There are horrific elements. It is bleak. At the same time, I think there’s a much stronger commitment to dramatic irony in this film than there was in ‘Hereditary.’”

William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor in "Midsommar."
William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor in "Midsommar."

Those who saw “Hereditary” might expect some seismic twist that never comes. If “Midsommar” has one principal surprise, it’s the story’s forthrightness. Aster’s sophomore feature is, in his own words, a “breakup movie” about a bad boyfriend. Not a disgraceful monster, just a workaday bad boyfriend. You know the type: aloof but decent enough to obscure it.

Horror has a history of casual misogyny, but “Midsommar” presents a female-empowerment counternarrative without veering into polemics — and perhaps without even intending to, as Aster didn’t set out to construct a feminist parable. “Midsommar” is all the better for achieving something meaningful without needing to preach a message.

“There’s nothing to politicize there,” he said. “It just felt right. I put a lot of myself into Dani. She was the receptacle of a lot of things I was feeling and experiencing at the time of writing it, and it felt right for the protagonist to be a woman. There was never any question that that’s what the movie needed.”

The 32-year-old filmmaker wrote the script four years ago, right as the decade’s horror renaissance was crystallizing with female-fronted hits like “The Babadook,” “The Conjuring” and “The Witch.” Executives at a Swedish production company who had admired Aster’s then-unproduced “Hereditary” screenplay approached him with a pitch about tourists getting killed off at a Scandinavian midsummer festival. At first, he wasn’t interested in writing something he hadn’t originated. But Aster was going through a tough split of his own and needed to channel the anguish into something creative. He decided he could personalize the conceit by way of a relationship that isn’t meant to be.

“The impetus for this was me wanting to write my way out of a crisis and then write my way out of an emotional corner,” he said. “And I am somebody who loves genre. I have genre in my bones, and then at the same time, I’m very bored by these templates. But they are so built into my system that there’s a joy in being in dialogue with them in a way that, for me, feels reinvigorating. There’s that strategic side of this, and then there’s the extremely personal side.”

Ari Aster at the Los Angeles premiere of "Midsommar" on June 24.
Ari Aster at the Los Angeles premiere of "Midsommar" on June 24.
Frazer Harrison via Getty Images

It’s refreshing to see a male director pour himself so thoroughly into his female protagonist, and to see him land somewhere that interrogates the dynamics of modern heterosexual courtship. When Dani and her beau, Christian, arrive in Sweden following the operatic prelude that opens the film, she’s going above and beyond to excuse his minor insensitivities. He hadn’t even told her about the trip until the last minute, but she’s so desperate to avoid any more worries in her life that she winds up offering her own apology instead of demanding his.

Christian’s friends don’t want Dani tagging along, and it’s clear they aren’t going to shield one another from the frights awaiting them in this small community that wears all white and distributes hallucinogens like they’re hors d’oeuvres. The parallel reality the group encounters is the perfect petri dish for a doomed romance. When there’s nowhere to hide, there’s nothing that can be concealed.

Amid the relentless sunshine, Aster confirms his mastery. In elegant long takes, the camera whirls around the village as greenskeepers hypnotically walk backward, a huge bear inexplicably sits in a cage and sacred temples housing grisly illustrations outline the perimeter. Only some of the traditions receive explanations, but we can count on Christian’s buddies to muck things up like the quintessential American rubberneckers they are. (Whatever you do, don’t urinate on the ancestral tree.) After they’re punished, Dani dances in a euphoric contest that will crown the May Queen, whose biggest perk is ensuring she doesn’t become one of the festival’s human casualties. In fact, she’ll get to choose its final victim.

In this climax, “Midsommar” finds its heft. Dying, for these Swedes, is a joy; their entire lives are ordered around the idea that they will off themselves in a sort of exuberant sacrifice at age 72. They’re murderers and deathmongers who smile a lot and talk a good game about “community.”

After Dani shimmies for sovereignty, Christian becomes an object to be used by the matriarchs — an inversion of horror tropes that more commonly find evil men desecrating feminine bodies or driving women mad. Lured by a flirtatious villager, strong opiates and a love spell, Christian enters a temple where, stark naked, he climbs atop a woman ready to carry a child. The Hårgans need to repopulate, and he provides a good way to do so without resorting to incest. A dozen nude women hover above him, chanting and fondling themselves in a ritualistic quasi-orgy designed around female power — a reverse “Eyes Wide Shut” in stark daylight.

Christian never gave Dani the attention she deserves, and now these women are essentially forcing him to make up for it. When Dani spies this happening, right before the dance contest begins, Christian’s destiny is sealed.

Jack Reynor and Florence Pugh in "Midsommar."
Jack Reynor and Florence Pugh in "Midsommar."

Aster based a lot of “Midsommar” on real traditions — European history, Norse mythology, James George Frazer’s “The Golden Bough: Studies in Comparative Religion,” runic alphabets — but the carnal sacrament is his own shocking creation. “It just felt like the way it had to happen,” he half-joked. Reynor, for his part, said he “advocated” for as much full-frontal nudity as possible, no matter how “vulnerable” it left him.

“Given the current climate, I saw it as an opportunity to develop what became this archetypical, toxic, alpha-male character who, at the same time, is someone who exhibits characteristics that we can all relate to,” the 27-year-old Irish actor explained. “We’ve all been guilty of insensitivity and lacking emotional accessibility for a partner or a friend or a family member in a time of need. We all have the capacity to be that person. At the same time, this is a character who is representative of a toxic male culture. Throughout the course of the film, all of the structures that allow him to be that are stripped away, literally, to the point where he’s completely naked and basically suffers this drawn-out and humiliating fate.”

Christian stumbles away after presumably impregnating a stranger, at which point Dani has won May Queen. Having put up with enough and finally finding something resembling a family, no matter how demented that family may be, she selects Christian as the final sacrifice. Flames envelop him, and for perhaps the first time, we see Dani smile. She cries and laughs at the same time, both horrified and relieved to see him go — much like any breakup.

It’s not the explicit feel-good ending that a more tepid storyteller would have chosen for Dani. In Hårga, she’s finally found a support system, the thing she lacked at home. But she’s also adopted the community’s dark ways, and that mixed blessing rings truer than the oppressively optimistic conclusions many films insist upon.

“There is plenty of information that’s strewn into the fabric of the film that is pointing you directly to the ending and where we end up, so that by the time we end up there, it’s meant to feel satisfying while at the same time being exactly where we’ve always known it was going to go,” Aster said. “You’re getting the thing you wanted the whole time, the thing you’ve been kind of hoping for, but then it comes and tastes different. I hope it’s just as operatic and cathartic as the movie has promised, but hopefully, it catches in the throat a little bit more uneasily.”

Toni Collette in "Hereditary."
Toni Collette in "Hereditary."

The results stand apart from “Hereditary,” which grossed $79 million and polarized audiences the way only great horror can. Aster’s debut trafficked in fairly traditional supernaturalism, but “Midsommar” is far more genre-fluid. (Seriously, it’s hilarious.) Regardless, grief sits at the center of both, a notion that nothing can get better until everything first implodes.

Comparisons to “The Wicker Man,” a movie Aster has loved since he was a kid, are inevitable. It, too, erupts in a blaze after a man gets a little too close to a cult for comfort. Aster purposefully avoided revisiting the 1973 folk-horror classic, knowing its sunny surreality would share some DNA with his. He instead channeled Albert Brooks’ breakup satire “Modern Romance,” the erotic Technicolor masterpiece “Black Narcissus” and the abstract Soviet drama “The Color of Pomegranates,” each a far cry from “Don’t Look Now” and “Psycho,” two of Aster’s “Hereditary” touchstones.

Some viewers didn’t appreciate the leisurely drip of “Hereditary,” which earned a D+ Cinemascore from opening-night audiences. It was a badge of honor for an art-house director who is perfectly happy to know that this work doesn’t appeal to everyone. Those who thought “Hereditary” was slow could have an even harder time embracing “Midsommar,” but the film is all the better for allowing us to luxuriate in its verdant pastures and visceral iconography before things go awry.

For anyone walking away unsatisfied, Aster won’t mind. He’s made an uncompromising vision that ranks him alongside Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and Robert Eggers (“The Witch”) as one of today’s top-tier horror maestros.

“Midsommar” is now in theaters.

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