It was, strangely enough, Greta Gerwig’s delightful Little Women, that cinematic ne plus ultra of wholesome domesticity, that tempted me to watch Midsommar, a ‘horror’ film whose breathless reviewers were united in calling ‘disturbing’ and ‘bizarre’.
More accurately it was Florence Pugh that drew me to Midsommar. Her performance as Amy in Little Women was so captivating and nuanced that I went looking for other films to see her in, only to find she’d starred in a film I would surely have avoided otherwise. For I have always gone out of my way to avoid horror films. My logic being: I am more than capable of scaring the crap out of myself simply by letting my mind wander, so why pay other people to do it for me? And although I have never minded purposeful violence in film, even purposeful gore if it comes to that, I have no tolerance for gratuitous violence or gore, both of which seem to more or less define the horror genre. So I have stayed away.
But, determined to see Pugh in action, one day not long ago I dialed up Midsommar and hit play. I was alone, true, but the sun was shining outside. I figured I could handle it.
And yet I only got a half hour in before I had to stop. I was mildly freaked out, yes, but more importantly I was utterly entranced. Midsommar was just too good to watch alone, so I turned it off and waited until I could watch it with Annie. I knew it would blow her mind too.
And so we watched a film like none we had ever seen before. Marvelous, mysterious, utterly revealing. It came as a complete surprise. Certainly at times it was awful, in the original sense of ‘full of awe’, with ‘awe’ meaning terrifying wonder. At times yes it was filled with terrifying wonder, and occasionally that terror included blood, and once or twice even gore. But those occasions were the opposite of gratuitous. In fact, the blood and gore (minimal in quantity, I repeat, compared to the bloodbaths in say a Tarantino film) were not only not gratuitous but solemn, mysterious and transformative. (Though yes, briefly gross too.)
Midsommar tells the story of a bunch of American grad students (4 overgrown boys and 1 young woman) who set off on a research holiday to a remote village commune in rural Sweden where they are to be guests of honour at a ceremony that takes place only once every 99 years. As you might expect, bad things happen, resulting in disappearances, deaths, blah blah blah. But so much that is unexpected happens, and it is these unexpected moments of deep communion and revelation that are the true meaning and purpose of the film.
For what we encounter in this anachronistic folk village is a profound alternative to our post-modern networked capitalist consumerist world of alienated individualism. And it is in our encounter with village behaviours rooted in empathy, compassion, communalism, ritual and sacrifice that the true horror in this film emerges. Which turns out to be the horror of our own lives, so removed from the truly transformative caring that the villagers manifest for each other in awe-inspiring shows of shared emotion and support. Honestly, this film contains some of the most beautiful scenes of communal human caring that I have ever seen. Moments that stand as a mirror to our own rootless existence, living without ritual, without sacrifice, without a community to stand by you when you need them most. In the end, despite its creepiness and occasional moments of bloody shock, this film is both a searing social critique of our contemporary world and an uplifting vision of human potential.
Before I conclude my fawning rant, I will take the liberty of highlighting one scene in particular, a scene that is so unique, so remarkable and apparently so shocking to the entire corps of film reviewers that I have never seen it addressed properly in a review, apart from a few confused and dismissive references to ‘orgy’ or ‘rape’ or ‘nudity’. The scene in question involves one of the visiting young men, Florence Pugh’s boyfriend, who is secretly invited – only very slightly against his will – to have sex with a girl in the village. (The reason being that the remote town needs regular infusions of fresh genes.)
What transpires next is a scene that – not to repeat myself too much – is unlike anything seen on film before. He is brought to a sort of wooden church, where a young naked girl lies waiting for him, surrounded by flowers and a demi-circle of naked mothers there to witness, support and share this moment of ecstatic insemination. Needless to say this freaks the hell out of Florence’s BF but he goes along with it anyway because, well, guys. The scene is long but it actually feels interminable, as we feel our gaze to be deeply intrusive and awkward in this shocking moment of shared intimacy; but as the camera lingers lovingly over the massed choir of flowing naked bodies and saturated flowers it challenges us to examine our own prejudices, expectations, fears and experiences. The sense of communal emotional holiness in this scene is simply overwhelming. And I haven’t even mentioned the impact of Florence Pugh’s reaction when she accidentally stumbles upon it, which adds yet more layers of compassion and emotional depth to these wild events.
To many reviewers this one shocking scene on its own no doubt earned the film its ‘horror’ designation, since by and large critics appear to be a highly prudish bunch. Yet in a sense they are not wrong. That scene, and others of equal spiritual depth in this film, are, from our perspective, horrible. Not because of their goriness but because the deeper horror of this film is that it unmasks the disturbing truths of our lives: the truth of our loneliness, of our lack of purpose, of our many civilized sorrows, all laid bare in the terrible mirror of Midsommar.
This is a film made by a man, Ari Aster, yet it evokes and celebrates archetypally female values found in many matriarchal and matrilineal indigenous cultures. It is no accident that we experience this film’s events through the eyes of Dani, powerfully embodied by Florence Pugh, or that she ultimately accepts and is accepted by this alien community. For there she finds the honesty, love and wisdom missing from the paternalistic world of academia to which she had been clinging. Academia being itself merely a cipher for the broader psychopathic egotism and immaturity of her (our) world, pathologies that led Dani’s sister to take her own life, a tragedy that kicks off this whole journey.
Thus, like the equally brilliant Kajillionaire, Midsommar isn’t so much about one women’s experience of our destructive and uncaring world, though both films begin there, but rather it is about her extraordinary and ultimately successful efforts to remake her world, our world, into one rooted in community, honesty and empathy.
Sadly, for many of us that’s about as horrifying a prospect as life has to offer.