Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) terrified me into sleeping with the lights on for weeks. A night light would do nothing to prevent a cult bent from nabbing an appropriate vessel for their reincarnated god, of course, but it helped me sleep. It also made me wonder why horror films are not filmed in daylight. Can daylight be as scary as the dark? And how would daylight change the dynamic between the characters and their circumstances if what they feared could not hide in the dark?
Enter Aster’s second feature film, Midsommar, starring Frances Pugh (Dani) and Jack Reynor (Christian), set in northern Sweden during the summer solstice. Most of the action takes place in daylight in a delightful, isolated village. The sunshine exposes everything for the viewer and what we see is incongruent with what we expect in such a beautiful place.
Aster described Hereditary as a family trauma allegory and bills Midsommar as a breakup movie. On one level it is just that. Dani and Christian are ill-suited as partners yet cannot seem to separate. He’s the guy that’s too spineless to breakup with his long-time girlfriend. Dani, in the wake of a family tragedy, needs emotional support and turns to him. She knows he’s not emotionally there for her but there’s no one else. To avoid upsetting her, he invites her to a remote Swedish village with his friends to study a summer solstice ritual that only happens once every ninety years.
Aster shows his strength to create tension by juxtaposing an idyllic setting against a terrifying underbelly. The village is gorgeous and the people gracious hosts. It looks like a glamping resort this reviewer would go for a long weekend and return refreshed. Things start weirdly when they’re offered psychedelic mushrooms upon arrival. The characters are graduate students and no strangers to party drugs and partake willfully.
Bit by bit, the viewers notice things that mark the village as strange – ritualistic hugs given only to returning members of the village, children playing a game called “skin the fool,” and the liturgical mannerisms at dinner. As the viewer gets deeper in the film, the tension amps up and soon the daylight feels more frightening in the dark. The contrast between what the outsiders in the film expect to encounter, a bucolic village that preserved ancient customs for centuries, similar to the Amish, and what they experience, villagers focused on mollifying their local gods for continuing prosperity and protection, leading to tragedy for the outsiders. The outsiders watch a ritual which shows them they are indeed in a dangerous place, despite the beautiful traditional costumes the villagers wear, the flower bedecked Maypole, and the never-setting sun.
Through all of this, Dani and Christian edge towards their breakup. Dani finally finds the support to vent her grief. Christian, true to type, gets what he wants and realizes the price too late. Pugh and Reynor are excellent. It’s difficult to pull off an intentional lack of chemistry and Pugh and Reynor put on a believable performance. Many readers may have been on either side of a drawn out breakup and can empathize.
Ultimately, this reviewer was not terrified while watching Midsommar, or afterwards, but still enjoyed it. The film’s stunning imagery sticks with me and so does the sadness about Dani and Christian’s breakup taking so long and being so unnecessarily brutal.