Film Review: "Midsommar" Shows the True Nightmare of a Breakup
By Will Stickney
In June 2018, Ari Aster released his feature-length debut film Hereditary, as seemingly tense domestic drama that evolves into a horror film before its close. Aster’s vision of familial angst and melodrama filtered through predictable tropes of the horror genre, resulting in a film both emotionally distressing and genuinely terrifying.
With a film market oversaturated with countless superhero flicks and stale reboots of existing franchises, it’s rare that an independent film becomes a mainstream sensation. Hereditary did just that. The film became a critical success and drew huge numbers at the box office, grossing over $70 million worldwide (its budget was a mere fraction of that).
Less than a year later, Aster and A24, the studio that distributed his previous film, dropped the trailer for his sophomore follow-up: Midsommar.
The trailer presents the film as a horror movie set during a summer solstice festival held once every 90 years by a Swedish farming commune known as the Hârga. Considering the film is set in Northern Sweden during the height of the summer, the majority of the film takes place in complete and unrelenting daylight.
The trailer highlights the novelty of this premise, featuring countless shots of sunbathed valleys and meadows adorned with flowers stretching to the horizon, all while an ominous instrumental track underscores the terror hiding beneath the surface.
In less capable hands this premise would come off as a cheap gimmick, a simple inversion of the formula horror fans have grown to expect and love. But, Aster uses this solely as a setup to tell the story of a breakup, in a unique and bizarre fashion.
The film opens with Christian (Jack Reynor), an American anthropology student in graduate school debating with his friends if he should end his relationship with his girlfriend of three years. At the same time, his girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh) hears the news that her sister sealed off her childhood home, let the engine run on her car in the garage and filled the home with carbon monoxide, killing her two parents in her sleep and finally killing herself.
Christian isn’t a particularly sympathetic character (he’s actually kind of an asshole) but he’s put in one of the most difficult situations one can find themselves in. Considering the emotional turmoil Dani is experiencing, there’s no possible way he can end the relationship at this point. Instead, he stays with her, but becomes more and more distant. It’s obvious that the relationship isn’t going to last, though exactly when it will end is up in the air.
Aster’s characters here are fascinating in their apathy and cowardice. For several months, Dani struggles to cope with the aftermath of her sister’s horrendous actions—as expected. Meanwhile, Christian’s friend Pelle, who was born and raised in the Swedish commune, invites him and some other friends to join him in observing and participating in the Midsommar festival. Josh, a fellow anthropology student, plans to write his thesis on the Hârga and the rest tag along.
Dani discovers their plans, shortly before Christian is scheduled to arrive in Sweden, and she confronts him. He ends up awkwardly trying to explain himself before eventually inviting her along for the trip. Christian’s friends are pissed—except for Pelle, who sits down with Dani and seems genuinely happy she’s coming, almost as if he was planning it the whole time. He tries opening up to her about his own past, confiding in her that something equally tragic had happened to his parents as a child.
These scenes initially occur comically; there’s a quality to the staging and blocking of these conversations that are so uncomfortable that they become hysterical. As the film progresses, the line between humor and horror blurs, until it’s unclear whether Aster’s film is actually a comedy.
Fellow director Jordan Peele, who has spoken highly of Aster’s films, often draws a thin line between the two genres in his own work. Horror and comedy are essentially the most extreme ways of framing human drama.
“They’re two sides of the same coin… they’re both about building tension and releasing it in a way,” Peele said in Feb. 2017, after promoting his widely successful debut film Get Out.
Aster understands this innately and draws both laughs and terror from the precarity of an intimate relationship crumbling. The interpersonal dynamics we spend our lives navigating are hilarious, sad, and f**ked. Aster said he wrote this film after going through a breakup himself and it shows in the hyperbolic arcs of Dani and Christian.
One of the first things the group witnesses at the festival is an act of ritual elder suicide. A man and woman, both 72, fling themselves off a cliff to their deaths, while the rest of the village watches from the ground. The woman jumps first and dies instantly. The man follows her a minute later and instead of dying upon impact, writhes on the ground. Two members of the community finish him off with huge wooden mallets, smashing his face to bits, in gory, sensationalized violence. The community screams—not in repulsion—but to mimic the pain the man is experiencing.
Dani and Christian are both deeply disturbed, and Dani tries to leave but Christian talks her out of it. Pelle also calms her down and convinces her to stay. This scene marks a turning point in the narrative and in the relationship between the couple. Christian decides to double down on this experience and decides on the spot that he will join Josh in writing his anthropology thesis on the community.
The next hour or so of the film acts as a quasi-anthropological study of this culture and features many hysterical scenes of Josh and Christian fighting over the right to research the Hârga. However, in the final 45 minutes, the film truly descends to madness. At the risk of spoiling what has to be the most insane set piece in mainstream cinema in the last decade, all I will say is that humans are sacrificed and orgies are had.
Midsommar is upsetting and revolting, yet ultimately presents a simple yet tragic message: breakups suck.