In religious symbolism, as in society, upward triangles are a masculine shape. They’re the symbol of warning and combustible material. They point upward to the heavens, a sign of dominance, a symbol of fire and air and the destruction they create.
Observe how these elements are used in Midsommar – how they’re ignited and expunged, invoked and wielded – and you’ll have cracked the code to this latest film by Ari Aster. This is a scathing takedown of masculinity and abusive relationships played out in the form of a horror movie, and it’s hauntingly, effectively done.
Midsommar starts off focused on the relationship between Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reyner), a college-aged couple in middle class America. They’ve been together for four years – they’re at the end of their season – but Christian doesn’t remember how long it’s been, or many details about Dani’s life at all. He moans to his friends about how he needs to break up with her, but doesn’t in case he regrets it later. His friends roll their eyes when she calls. “Is that her again? She needs therapy,” Christian’s friend Mark (Will Poulter) says at one point. They just want to hang out and be left alone, unbothered by the emotional needs of women. They’re standoffish and hesitant with her, even when she endures unbearable tragedy. She begins every sentence to them with “sorry….” Sorry for standing in a circle with them. Sorry for existing, for needing anything, for having something to say. Only Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren ), Christian’s Swedish friend, seems to really see her.
Dani’s not even supposed to know about the trip to Sweden, but it comes up at a party. She starts to ask Christian about it and backs off when it’s obvious he meant to exclude her. I’m not mad, she tells him, although she wants to be. It’s no big deal, she tells him, even when it is. She’s just experienced massive loss, and she wants to hang onto whatever’s left. She needs the companionship he provides, the memory of a time when he gave her the comfort she needs, but he’s so distant now that she’s just trying to please him and grabbing for the scraps.
The group of four friends head to Pelle’s home commune in rural Sweden. It’s summer in the land of the midnight sun, and his home is a strange, isolated pagan cult embarking on its own 10-day festival. Cults are never a good sign in film, especially ones of the horror variety, and it goes as well for the Americans as you can imagine. Much like in a bad relationship, though, it’s hard to know when to cut and run, when to forego politeness and get the hell out of there. We mostly watch this through Dani’s eyes, and we need her to figure it out. We need her to realize what we already have. We as an audience are the ones telling her to just leave the jerk. We root for her, and we wait. And wait. And wait.
In a film this deliberate, no symbol, shot or camera angle is accidental. Christian is often observed through mirrors, not for what he is but how others see him, since the essence of him isn’t much at all. The mirror shots are emblematic of his manipulation, of his transparent desire to maintain the right appearance to fulfil his shallow needs for sex and competition and self involvement. The air in his apartment is thick, as are the clouds on the other side of the airplane window. Christian and his friend Josh (William Jackson Harper) are too busy competing with each other to see warning signs. Mark is too busy trying to get laid. These represent base masculine traits as perceived by society, maleness at its most cynical. Their lack of empathy is contrasted by the pagan cult members, who lapse into synchronized sounds when one of them experiences an intense moment. They wail and grunt and scream in harmony, which is just one of the disarming details Aster gives this bizarre world. When violence first happens there, it happens in blue.
The film is purposely discombobulating, not unlike how Dani feels in a relationship where she holds no cards, where at any moment her boyfriend’s callousness and disinterest can press on an already darkening bruise. The finest shot is when they’re heading down the road to the commune, when the camera tilts and shows us the world upside down and holds us there like a literal and metaphorical roller-coaster loop. Nature moves and breathes, especially the flowers (read: feminine). When they first get out of the car, even the camera seems to be at a slight angle. As viewers, we can never get situated, not even through to the metaphorical end.
Midsommar is, to be frank, as strong of a film as Hereditary, Aster’s feature directorial debut. This is a razor-sharp social message, smart and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. It makes its point and drops it into our laps like a brick, and now we have to contend with it . 4/5
Does it pass the Beschdel test? Yes.
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reyner, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren.
Directed by: Ari Aster.
Written by: Ari Aster.