Midsommar: The Director’s Cut – Empowerment Horror

This review contains SPOILERS for the film.

Midsommar opens with a sensation of secret but familiar dread. Establishing shots of a frozen forest provide a backdrop for an intimate conversation between Dani (Florence Pugh) and the answering machine of her mentally unstable sister, who kills herself and their parents before the title rolls. Dani curls up on the couch, crying like a grown baby. In that state of helpless power, she’ll make you doubt all the other times you’ve heard a movie character cry.

Looking back, these ten minutes were the film’s most effective. They had no clear emotional end and this made them scary, as scary as the real times in life when it’s impossible to know what’s next. The rest of Midsommar in comparison is reheated genre leftovers, where its obvious technical brilliance awkwardly underscores its script’s dependence on horror history. Its closeness to certain tropes can cause complimenting the film to sound backhanded, like praising a beautiful outfit in a tone that seems like criticism of the person wearing it. That analogy contains a secret truth of Midsommar: horror isn’t its subject so much as its fashion choice.

Despite a tone of upheaval, the remaining two hours and forty minutes of Midsommar leans its weight on the horror movies of the past, most notably the folk horror of the 70s. This is the director’s cut, on limited release a couple of months after its original theatrical run, by a director who makes his movies as though they’re masterpieces even when there’s little in them that cannot be traced to another film. The combination is not wrong, but it fits into the little-used category of “blockbuster horror,” focusing on big performances, broad themes, high-budget visuals, and tons of references to its favorite movies. Midsommar never quite becomes the "art film" it clearly aspires to be in the way that Robert Eggers' The Witch did.

Dani, in shambles, imposes herself on her passively supportive boyfriend’s vacation, which he and his three friends planned as a research project and getaway. The circumstance describes their dynamic perfectly: he asks her to come, hoping she’ll refuse, and she agrees without really wanting to (she doesn't want to let him down). When they get to Sweden (which was actually a sunny set in Hungary), they encounter a dreamy-eyed cult community and wonder what will happen next, not knowing that the audience can practically countdown to each kill.

Crucially, the community’s values are not meaningfully ambiguous like they were in The Wicker Man, where pagan rituals seemed nearly explainable even as they were misunderstood by the outside perspective of a Christian police officer. If Aster intended the villagers to be non-foreboding or earthly-rational, the shadow of the film’s genre is too disquieting because Midsommar’s villagers are horror movie villains from their first minutes on screen. They are evil hippy occultists that force-feed each other their genital fluids, inbreed, enslave, cannibalize, and desecrate each other even as they choose from unlucky visitors the ones who will be eaten, murdered and displayed, or turned into breeding stock. The feeling is shock-revulsion, justifiable in the context of a horror movie, but less so when Aster begins to pick at the formula to turn it into something more meaningful. Midsommar is a fun, cheap horror film that believes it's a pedigree pony.

By adding an atmosphere of social importance to Dani’s changed nature, Midsommar at times recalls the awkward commentary of the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man more than the subtler original. It’s stuck somewhere between Lee’s Lord Summerisle lamenting, “I think I could turn and live with animals. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins” and the schoolgirls in the remake chanting, “Phallic symbol, phallic symbol, phallic symbol.” Like the 2006 film, Midsommar can only imprecisely apply a story intended to show a conflict between Christianity and Paganism to a personal empowerment scenario, which quickly becomes the film's most memorable (and most debated) aspect.

Pugh’s performance and the film’s stark look survive the script’s codependency with movie history. Even at the film’s obstinate length, her wild reactions most contribute to its watchability. The first moments serve as visual foils for the rest of the film, as the frigid New England trees and overcast skies morph into the suspiciously refreshing pastel horizon of Sweden (they have to put shades over the windows because there’s not enough nighttime to sleep in). The film frequently detaches from reality, unnervingly shifting locations from one room to another. This loose relationship with continuity makes parts of it genuinely haunting. Even as the audience laughs at times, they simultaneously tense up.

Despite an ambiguous tone, the film’s visual journey, held up by Dani’s vulnerable extremes as she is subjected to changes in space and her own unsettled feelings, succeeds in turning a break-up into a horror fable. The arc of the film is built on this messy, inevitably ending relationship, which manages to turn love into a form of mutual self-harm. It seems to be the real focus of Midsommar, like it exists inside of an outer appearance that is only pretending to be a predictable horror movie.

The film opens with Dani’s bad impression of relationships at the front of its tension in a self-pitying rant about her fear that she’ll lose Christian. She pleads with him to understand her worry as a sign of her weakness and not his. Meanwhile, the viewer sees that she’s burdened above all by the need to be loved, which comes with her belief that she doesn’t deserve it. This makes a lump like Christian feel pressured to pity her. He knows that he doesn’t care about Dani anymore (his friends encourage him to “cut her loose” and find someone who’s less work). He's become convinced by her self-loathing that she was never worthy of affection, but he can’t take responsibility for abandoning her. He does her favors that he’s really doing himself. Love to him is just procrastinating a breakup.

No one in Midsommar profits from their relationship. The film begins as a testament to how hating yourself leads you to be hurt, especially when you hate through a bad idea of love. Despite the many reviews that interpreted the film as empowering, the barbaric certainty of Dani’s escape from her need of Christian at the end of the film is not a triumph because it does not reflect the change that would have been required for her to become happy. Rather than discovering and achieving her needs, she trades the risk of depending on someone she loves for the seemingly safer bet of becoming the mouthpiece of a mob. Neither case results in her being happy, heroic, or empowered in even the slightest sense, but the second lacks even the hope that she might get stronger.

The film’s allegory, which presents a bad relationship as body horror, shows a spiritual transition motivated by loss, not self-actualization. It reverses Dani’s capacity for empathy and replaces it with brutal decisiveness that only pretends to be a kind of strength. Her remaining humanity is lost in a wilderness of fake intimacy, a final self-deactivation. Aster’s biggest change to the film’s formula is that he allowed the protagonist to become their own Wicker Man by getting the emotional support they wanted all along.

Dani goes silent in the film’s finale because her only remaining trait is to be hurt and controlled by others, something which desperation has tricked her into believing is a victory. The image is so powerful that it tricked many viewers too – she aligns herself with a cult of power, togetherness, femininity, anything that could make her feel empowered that she doesn’t also have to take responsibility for. She gives in to even its most sadistic urges to feel like she belongs and fools herself into thinking that it fulfills her needs. Aster created a painfully cautionary tale. It says less about him than about the audience that it has often been interpreted as a self-help film.

The film’s look favors colors that are so glossy and perfect that they defy reality. The fields and clothes are warm floral tones. The horizon is shot affectionately but almost overworked by a vibrant digital palette to unearthly, colorful extremes. Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography is equally and oppositely as beautiful as his work on Aster’s Hereditary, which emphasized enclosure and construction as much as Midsommar replaces them with breathing, open skies, cryptic geometry, and flowers. Re-discovering the enclosures of emotion even in a sunny world is key to the film’s hidden tension.

Its most powerful scene involves a heaving chorus of chanting women, breathing out in time with Dani’s sorrowful cries as togetherness awakens her sexual, emotional, and primal instincts, a resolution of an earlier scene where she discovers that she can speak Swedish on intuition alone. This moment materializes the villagers’ tribal art, which display’s Dani’s inner turmoil as cultural mythology (it recalls the primal murals on the tile of the pool in Robert Altman’s 3 Women or even the storybook openings of Disney cartoons). It is the precise moment that she becomes soulless, a disquietingly personal and deeply tense erasure of the possibility that she can regain her individuality.

The movie features many closeups, at which Pugh bears herself fearlessly. Much of the film’s tensest imagery relies on Pugh’s eyes as she comes out of her emotional shell even though the irony of the film, which climaxes with the chanting scene, is that her coming out is a devolution. She acquires the stoic faces of the murderers, leaving behind her tedious side character friends. They are so tedious that they contribute to the audience mistaking her murdering them for character growth. This is how trying to do “just a horror movie” in the middle of Midsommar can become not only a structural distraction but even a moral one.

Not having seen the theatrical cut, the director’s version drags whenever scenes without Pugh seem to linger, padding out the subplots, such as when Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends have long discussions about their thesis projects. A particularly awkward scene (a twilight ceremony by a lake, full of out-of-place sarcasm) seems like another obvious addition to the new cut. Midsommar aspires to be treated as a fairytale despite frequently detouring to the cheapest horror tropes imaginable, such as when people improbably wander off alone, turn a corner, and slam into a hard edit away from their predictable and inoffensive deaths.

At one point, Mark (Will Poulter), the character that most fits into the average horror film Midsommar invited into its bed, has to be improbably left behind just so a serious scene isn’t ruined by his irreverent chatter. Pugh is the film’s powerhouse and brings it closest to the point-of-view horror of The Wicker Man and The Witch. Seeing her transform through suspicion and grief into a form of self-tyranny is its most interesting feature, so much so that scenes of Mark’s whining or Christian’s TV movie bickering always seem extra (William Jackson Harper, who plays Josh, might have made a better Christian, as both a more powerful personality and a person killed with ironic precision by his empathy for their foreign surroundings). Even Vilhelm Blomgren plays the part of Pelle so aggressively suspicious that not even the soft charm of the actor can prevent the part from being so improbable that it elicits giggles. The movie ends on a scowl, a clever reversal of the poster art, that reflects Dani being freed from her needs as much as from the chaff of her costars.

Researching this film, I discovered a Danish movie from 2003 called Midsommer, in which a man named Christian takes his friend and girlfriend (there’s also a Mark) to Sweden to participate in a Midsommer festival after his sister commits suicide. It turns into the setting of a horror film, with enough analogous details to be a curious example of how a framework can be stolen, yet rebuilt as a better structure. Midsommar’s technical aspects were built to last, but Aster’s reliance on the work of others to get his brain going makes his movies’ desperate plea for relevance seem more demanding than praiseworthy.

Genre filmmaking is always elevated homage, in a sense. But dramatically, Aster has a lot of growing left to do (he even gave Dani the last name “Ardor” and a boyfriend named “Christian” with the mindset of a film student – had he directed The Exorcist, Regan would have been named, Regan Daemonchild). Yet as a technician, he turned Midsommar into disturbingly pleasurable viewing, which can occasionally strike a powerful balance between dark comedy and violent certainty. The brutal orgy scene, for instance, made more than one person in my theater laugh, even as I was squirming in itchy terror at the implications of raping a man as punishment for his personality. (I've seen online that many people have debated if this scene even counts as rape since Christian willingly took the village's free-will-suppressing drug. I will not even attempt to explain how problematic that opinion is.)

Aster creates a view of us in Midsommar that isn’t pretty. He favors the angles where people least like themselves, even if this makes them so overactively aware of their needs that they can’t see why they are never met. Midsommar being read as a heroic or empowering story is a form of self-absolution, a consequence of seeing a film designed to criticize normal emotions and acting apart from them rather than understanding them. The startling, brutal images of Midsommar have become as much about horror movies as about this illness of ego that allows viewers to cheer at barbarism if it can be interpreted as abstract justice. It has a lot of extra stuff it doesn’t need, sometimes accomplishing the goal of being disguised as an average horror film too well. But if it ever figured that out, it wouldn’t be like us at all.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, August 6, 2020

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©A24

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