Ally Davies delves deep into Ari Aster’s sunny folk-horror Midsommar and looks at body horror, complexity of emotion and the unique audiovisual tapestry he employs in his second foray into feature films.
Across the ever increasing sub-genres of horror there has been a somewhat slow resurgence of folk-horror, a genre popularised in the 1960s and 1970s categorised by their exploration of the monstrous parts of folklore, haunting landscapes, ritual erotisicm, disconcerting elements of the natural world and Euro-Pagan practices (The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), The Wicker Man (1973), The Kill List (2011), The VVitch (2015), Blair Witch (2016) The Ritual (2017)). Midsommar (2019), Ari Aster’s second foray into feature films, is a slowly simmering crescendo of paranoia, grief, body horror and paganesque ancient rituals which bond together to form a visceral, mind-bending, dreamy, sun-soaked ‘macabre fairytale’ (as Aster himself describes it). It follows a group of post-grad university friends on a backpacking holiday to their Swedish friend’s remote family commune in the wilderness of Sweden for their sacred Midsommar festival that takes place every 90 years. As predicted, Aster’s sunny paradise quickly takes a dark, unsettling turn; flowers, green fields and blue skies have never seemed more sinister.
The film begins with Dani, played exquisitely by Florence Pugh, suffering an inconceivable family tragedy. Her relationship with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is already in decline before the tragedy; they are in wholly diametric places emotionally. Christian in an apathetic, uninterested pit of self-serving detachment and Dani is consumed with consternation over her emotional reliance on Christian due to her family issues. But instead of giving her the clean break that he has wanted for years due to the tragedy that befalls her he decides to give her the passive aggressive treatment, ignoring her and getting more emotionally distant. He reluctantly invites her to Sweden on his trip with his friends (much to their dismay) and she accepts, longing to escape the monstrosity of the situation she has been in and hoping to embark on a journey in pursuit of getting closer to Christian. However, instead they find something that will drive them to the ultimate test of their relationship.
The group of friends arrive in Sweden and begin their trip with recreational drug use and the usual banter. Dani is still noticeably suffering with trauma and Christian grows ever more not-so-discreetly distant. We are introduced to the people of the commune, the Harga, in resplendent, sun-drenched fields with blue skies, swelling music, flower-clad heads, maypoles and meadows. There is an uncanniness to this seemingly free-going, amiable tribe and an almost transcendent vibe to their intoxicated relaxedness; paradisal imagery and music permeate scenes with the Harga and their traditions. However, despite welcoming grins, everything and everyone seems slightly…off. Buried under the surface of every seemingly innocent look or word is a somewhat dark undertone. As expected, the commune very quickly become secretive, ritualistic and sinister and the plot moves to a harrowing, sadistic conclusion.
Aster’s smash-hit debut feature Hereditary (2018) was for me a film of two halves: the first hour I liked; the second I thought quickly descended into nonsensical mayhem. Midsommar is instead a film of dual themes. Primarily, we have the familiar narrative strand of a remote village determined to draw outsiders into their harmful, cultish goings on which leads to a sinister, yet not particularly new trajectory for our protagonists. Secondly, and perhaps most intriguingly, we have a film that is essentially about a woman’s grief and her total aloneness in that anguish. Like many enthralling horror films, this is a piece about the interconnection between the character’s internal, psychological descent and the horrific outward events. Midsommar is a slow, methodical look at a woman’s continual trauma, the horror she bares, the loneliness and isolation of grief and the mind-fuck of a failing relationship. Aster himself wrote this film after a bad break-up and you can really feel this frustration in the film. A few questions came to mind while watching this narrative unravel: is true horror the complete and total loss of the things that we love in the world or is it apathetic, emotionally indifferent people in our lives?
Personally, I thought this was indeed the strongest concept explored in the film. Being discarded by an emotionally unavailable partner and devastated by a family tragedy, Dani craved oneness and belonging above everything on this trip and finds herself drawn to the Harga rather than her indifferent companions. Another of the film’s strengths is the performance by Florence Pugh. Her face is a deep ocean of intensity and a canvas of human emotion. She is intensely mesmerising as Dani with her gurning, contorted facial expressions; she needs little dialogue as her non-verbal communication is so nuanced and responsive. She gives a kinetic performance in what becomes almost an individual character study whilst other characters are allowed little development. And later, her journey takes a welcomed vengeful turn. The horror genre has often had a complex relationship with women and empowerment, though women have gained more power in horror’s recent history (The Cabin in the Woods (2011), You’re Next (2011), Underworld (2003), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Alien (1979), Black Swan (2010), The Babadook (2014)). However, the Feminist Revenge trope seems to still leave a slightly bitter taste of judgement in the mouth: do women who gain power and seek revenge become the monsters themselves, is this the price of female empowerment? Would the same be said of a man who took the same actions? The answer remains to be seen in the denouement of such films as The Witch (2015), The Descent (2005) and Midsommar.
Though the film doesn’t deal with many new horror tropes it is punctuated with some rather stirring and profound moments. Worth mentioning is a key scene later where we see Dani breaking down over her abismal relationship with Christian. The Harga women respond by emoting to her pain by sharing an intense empathy with her sorrow in choral unison. It’s a guttural, raw, powerful sharing of emotion taking empathy to new levels. It is a total juxtapostion to the apathetic indifference we have seen with Christian. What they show her is the true opposite of being alone and she finds herself moved by the ‘surrogate family’. This sharing of everything on a physical level; every tear, every scream, every pang of grief, becomes about the shared experience of emotion; empathy on the deepest scale. In many ways this was what Dani needed, an inclusive, loving family that embrace her in ways she seems to never have had in the past. However, the film misses out on developing these truly powerful moments for longer. It is a shame Aster doesn’t focus enough on the real heart of the narrative; Dani’s family trauma and the powerful pull she has to the Harga. There is too much focus on childish boys competing over Ph.D thesis rights to the commune’s ancient, pagan rituals and overly long scenes of village meals. And at almost two and a half hours its longer than it needs to be, even counting in immersive, experiential sequences.
For me, it is Aster’s distinctive audio-visual tapestry that is the star component of Midsommar. A haunting aesthetic combination of swirling cinematography, hallucinatory VFX, ingenious body horror special effects and evocative music brings the film out of the conventional horror bracket. The cinematography is intelligent and meticulously planned; there are true moments of visual and aural poetry captured in this film. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Hereditary) worked closely with Aster as they collaborated on the particular visual look; a sun-soaked, over-exposed, technicolour dreamscape. For a horror film set predominantly in the sunshine the sense of foreboding in the atmosphere created is immense. Most horrors are set in the darkness but this film couldn’t be farther from the claustrophobic pools of shadows in Hereditary, where things moved in the dark and you really had to look for the details. Shadows have no place here. Instead, what this film teaches us is that fear and unease can be found in the safety of daylight.
Pogorzelski plays with the boundaries of exposure and experiments with the use of large format equipment. There is a glowing magic to the imagery and a progression of colour intensity, depth and richness that is completely deliberate and which adds to the intricacy of the poetic visual language. Sunlight was so important in fact that there was copious amounts of light prep involving lighting surveys in the locations in Hungary. Aster described the shoot as ‘really, really painful’ compared to the ease of shooting Hereditary in a completely controlled environment. Simple shots of seemingly regular things like driving are turned into spiralling, swirling, upturned, ominous moments. There are long takes and clever, seamless, match-cut transitions. Very subtle visual effects on flowers pulsating and distorting, looming geometric shapes in the mise-en-scene and Henrik Svensson’s production design in the purpose-built village add to the trippy, fantastical feeling of being with the Harga. All these elements together combine into a truly spectacular, unhinged experience, even if you aren’t too enamoured by the narrative or characters. This is cinematography that you can actually feel in the gut and in the mind.The physical sense of foreboding it gave me was extraordinary.
The film is also punctuated with music by British composer Bobby Krlic who perfectly encapsulates elation, dread, magic, fantasy, beauty and descent into horror in to one score which is quite a feat. It is a graduating, trippy dream-fest that evokes paradisal harmony and grandiose moments of fantastical romanticism. It contains underlying wailing strings and distortion with a strange mix of atonal, nightmarish melodies that provides trepidation for the audience. The grandiose moments take us to new heights, almost paralleling Dani’s journey of welcoming this new world and becoming one with it. There are notes that dreamily go on for what seems like forever, evoking an eternal feeling suggestive perhaps of the eternal nature of the cult and whatever they serve. Choral voices of women swell into guttural chanting forming a cacophony of carnal human urges and raw emotion. Echoes of stripped back, unearthly, undulating instrumentation bring the score of The VVitch to mind.
Lastly, where Midsommar excels is in its use of innovative body horror and prosthetics. There is considerable debate regarding horror films and their use of sensational, gratuitous gore and body horror. But what is so often missed are the conversations applauding the artistry of creating such effects. Prosthetic makeup designer Ivan Poharnok developed some profoundly shocking and exquisitely executed special effects for the death scenes in Midsommar, some of which remain hauntingly inventive. An apparent former student of the illustrious makeup artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist (1973)), Poharnok and his effects company Filmefex (Hellboy: The Golden Army (2008), The Terror (2018), The Alienist (2018)) are connoisseurs of cadavers and body horror. With multiple deaths in Midsommar, all unique, debased and mutilated, he was the one to turn to to create the bodies that were an eclectic mix of dead; defiled, mangled and ‘origami-ed’; organs in almost floral arrangements; and imagery that brings new meaning to ‘animal costume party’. The camera cleverly doesn’t cut where you expect forcing you to see his horrific and inventive work. In addition, Poharnok used and developed cutting-edge technology for the film including a skull that uses pneumatic cylinder technology to implode and then reinflate itself for another take. Rest assured though that some shots were left out of the final cut as they were deemed too disturbing (although it’s difficult to say after this what would be classed as ‘too disturbing’).
As I left the cinema on a sunny, relaxed evening with people drinking, laughing and smiling on the grass in the late summer sunshine, I was left with the kind of feeling you ultimately want to be left with after a horror film: a quiet sense of hopelessness; my mind replaying the final imagery and music. I couldn’t quite help thinking, however, that this sense of foreboding was coming from the joyful, festival-esqe summer atmosphere I was walking through. Aster perhaps has succeeded in making the sunshine feel like the new home of horror. Midsommar may have its draw-backs narratively but it more than makes up for it with its unique form.
First published here for Louder Than War on 3rd August 2019.
Ally Davies is the director of Aesthetic Realms and has worked in the creative arts industry in a variety of roles. Her academic career includes gaining a BA, MA and MPhil in Cinema and Screen Studies from the University of Manchester as well as attending Art School. Her MPhil specialist research area covered post-9/11 American politics and the audiovisual aesthetics and design in film and television space-based science fiction. She also likes pumpkins. A lot.