Thursday, July 11, 2019

Blood Rites

Movies: Midsommar

There is so much I want to say about Ari Aster's sophomore film Midsommar, but I'll just start by saying that the director's follow-up to last summer's gut-wrenching horror film Hereditary proves that Aster is not a one-hit wonder and is indeed a masterful filmmaker and storyteller who understands that grief and loss are just as scary as ghosts and cults.

I'll do a quick spoiler-free review first, followed by a more in-depth review after a warning so that folks who want to go in with a relatively blank slate will be able to do so.

Midsommar opens in winter. Dani (Florence Pugh in a phenomenal performance) is a college student with a boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor, appropriately groan-inducing in the shitty boyfriend role), who is planning to break up with her. But before he pulls the plug, Dani receives some devastating news which makes it nearly impossible for Christian to dump her, so the two continue on in the most depressing relationship of all time.

Flash forward to summer. Dani finds out that Christian is planning on taking a multi-week trip to Sweden to witness a once in a lifetime midsummer celebration (literally once in a lifetime, as the celebration only takes place every 90 years) taking place at the ancestral commune of his grad school friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Along for the trip is anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper, aka Chidi from The Good Place) and annoying horndog Mark (Will Poulter). Upset that Christian failed to inform her about this trip, Dani invites herself along and no one is reasonably able to say no, given that she is still reeling from her loss.

The trips seems to start out well. Pelle's home is idyllic, with fresh-faced Swedes wearing all white and offering booze (and drugs, among the younger set), fresh fruit, and smiles to the Americans. Because they're in a northern part of Sweden, the sun basically doesn't set and the days are bright and hot.

While everyone seems welcoming and kind, there are small things that unsettle Dani and, eventually, other outsiders including two young adults from London whom Pelle's brother, Ingmar, invited. While Josh is fascinated by the culture and customs, Mark is chasing Swedish pussy, and Pelle is loving being home, Dani and Christian's relationship begins to unravel, especially after some of the rituals during the nine-day celebration begin to get, well, bloody.

I'll stop there and point out, as a warning to sensitive viewers, the violence in Midsommar is limited to a few key scenes...oh, but those scenes. They are NOT for the faint of heart. Read my spoiler review below if you want to hear the (literally) gory details. That said, Midsommar is not "scary" in the way Hereditary was or the way typical horror films generally are. There aren't jump scares. There isn't anything supernatural. The movie is long (2 hours and 20 minutes) so the horror is more of the unsettling, slow burn variety. If you could handle Get Out, you can probably handle Midsommar.

And it's completely worth it. While Midsommar is ostensibly about a cult whose rituals go too far, it's really about grief and how loss can completely gut us and leave us feeling unmoored. It's also about what makes a family. Is it blood? Or is it, as Pelle puts it in one scene where he has a private moment with Dani, about feeling "held". For all the strange and violent rites the Harga (the name of the people/commune in the film) indulge in, they also seem to understand the importance of supporting their fellow commune members and feeling/releasing emotions.  Perhaps what would be a trip to hell for one person is a homecoming for another.

Grade: A


Spoiler-filled review! Ye be warned!

Just as in Hereditary, Ari Aster weaves unimaginable grief into the tapestry of this film. Where Annie Graham loses her mother and then, in a grotesque freak accident, her daughter in Hereditary, Dani loses her entire family--mom, dad, and sister--in one fell swoop after her bipolar sister commits suicide (and brings her parents along) by allowing carbon monoxide from the family's cars to flood their house at night.

[It's important to note that Midsommar could be viewed as abelist not only because of its portrayal of a bipolar person as someone unstable to the point of committing murder-suicide, but also because of a disabled character who is considered a prophet by the commune. However, the latter is no accident and Aster has said as much. Here's an article with more info. I didn't find the abelism worth throwing the whole movie out, but others may feel differently.]

Dani's agonizing screams of grief as Christian holds and rocks her parallel the heartbreaking scene of Annie (played by the wonderful Toni Collette) moaning and rocking on the floor while her husband holds her after she discovers that her daughter has been decapitated. Aster has a flair for both gruesome death scenes and capturing what the depths of grief actually look like.

Additionally, Aster understands how acute grief transforms into a throbbing, numbing depression. 6 months after losing her family, Dani is--to put it mildly--not well. That Christian would plan a month-long trip without telling her says all we need to know about this asshole. To be fair, neither one of them seems happy in the relationship, but rather than ending things and helping Dani find additional support systems, as a decent person would do, he stays with her and resents her and takes her for granted at every turn.

Dani's depression is contrasted against the backdrop of never-ending sunshine of Sweden. Halsingland is gorgeous: tall grass, colorful flowers, asymmetrical buildings, and beautiful (if bizarre) artwork adorn the commune. There has been much discussion of the runes that Aster plants all over the film like tiny Easter eggs. Surely a place so beautiful filled with people so generous and kind couldn't be a haven for ritualized violence....could it? LOL OF COURSE IT IS.

I'll come right out and get to the "scene" in question. Pelle informs his friends that they will be witnessing a very special ritual--an attestupa--as part of the midsummer celebration. When he says this, booksmart Josh (William Jackson Harper is extremely good in this role, by the way) has a knowing look on his face, while Dani and Christian beg for more details (Pelle says "you really have to see it for yourself"). As soon as two elderly people are seated at the head of the table for the meal that commences the ritual, I knew what the fuck was up, even if our characters were slow on the uptake. Haven't these people seen the movie North before? Sure enough, after the meal, the elders are taken up to a high cliff, where they cut their hands and wipe their blood on some runes...and then throw themselves to their death. This scene is filmed in stomach-churning detail, with crushed skulls, legs pointing in the wrong direction, and loose eyeballs. While Dani and Christian are quietly horrified (horndog Mark misses the spectacle since he was taking a nap), Connie and Simon, a couple from London, are disgusted and outraged, screaming "what the fuck is wrong with you people". They are inconsolable even after the matriarch of the commune explains that the Harga see life as a cycle and ritual suicide as a gift a person can give to the community.

Unsurprisingly, witnessing two violent suicides is not conducive to Dani's healing. She plans to leave, but before she can, she overhears Connie freaking out upon finding out that Simon left for the train station without her. "He wouldn't do that!" she cries. "He wouldn't leave without telling me anything!". Hmm...indeed. And it's not long before Connie is "driven to the train station" (wink wink, Connie and Simon don't actually leave the commune, wink wink) herself. So, due to fear and also due to the fact that the Harga increase their efforts to befriend her, Dani stays.

What's interesting about Midsommar is just how much of a sneakily feminist film it is. While the women of the commune do stereotypical "women's work" such as cooking, they also appear to have a lot of power--especially over the rituals (ok, ok, human sacrifices). The women of the commune are also very supportive of one another, sharing in one another's grief and joy. When Dani participates in a Maypole dance where she is crowned May Queen, the other young women embrace her as family. And Dani, who has lost her family of birth, can't resist the gentle, insistent pull of the Harga to bring her in as "new blood".

Speaking of blood, while all this May Queen stuff is going on, Christian is drugged and all but forced into a mating ritual with a young woman, Maja, from the commune. The Harga see it as an opportunity to get new blood into the gene pool of the commune. Christian is a means to an end--surrounded by naked women (including Maja's mom--awkward) who grunt and groan along with Maja until they tell Christian to finish and unceremoniously push him off the girl once his manly duty is done. Unfortunately for Christian, Dani spies on him during this ceremony, which finally breaks any ties or good will left between them.

Poor Christian. After he discovers the dead bodies of Josh (killed for his greedy attempt to photograph a sacred book he was explicitly told not to), Mark (killed for being an idiot who literally pisses on the ashes of the commune's dead), and Simon (killed for trying to get out), he is poisoned with a paralyzing solution and wheeled out for the final, and most important ritual: the sacrificing of nine humans--four "new bloods" (Josh, Mark, Connie, and Simon), four Harga (the two elders plus two volunteers) and one additional person to be chosen by...dun dun!...the May Queen herself. And let's just say that Dani isn't ready to forgive and forget. She is, however, ready to see any remaining ties to her previous life literally burn to the fucking ground. Christian is sewn into a bear's skin and placed in a barn with the other sacrifices, both living and dead, and burned alive, as Dani looks on with an expression of, not glee exactly, but of righteousness. She has found her new home.

End of movie. Oh man, and I didn't even get to Reuben, the prophet with a deformed face who is the product of intentional inbreeding! Aster said in an interview that Reuben is a symbol of "things happening in Sweden right now that are echoes of the things that happened in the second World War" (I'm guessing he's talking about eugenics and white supremacy. Sweden isn't notable for its diversity). I'm not sure I fully buy this--Reuben is so poorly sketched out that he seems more of a red herring designed to spook people in the trailer than anything else. But Midsommar is a layered movie, so I'm not unwilling to believe that he served a greater purpose. It's also not lost on me that all three characters of color (Josh, Connie, and Simon) end up dead. I *do not* believe this was an accident. I think it was an intentional choice on Aster's part to show that while the commune may be welcoming to outsiders, it's only going to accept "pure blood" (i.e. whiiiite people) into its fold.

Midsommar was, to me, just such a pleasure to experience. In addition to the wonderful performances, beautiful cinematography, and spooky suspense, it just has so much to say about grief, family, cultural relativism, gender politics, and more. Some reviews have called it slow and derivative, but I never wanted it to end and I haven't seen a movie do exactly what Aster does in this one. It is definitely inspired by other films (The Wicker Man, The Shining, even a little The Silence of the Lambs is thrown in there), but I found it to be original, masterful, and satisfying.

Grade: A

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