Earlier this year, I saw Midsommar and wrote a review of it the night of after getting home from the theater. I ended up not publishing it due to not being entirely satisfied with it, but since it’s more or less a finished review, it must be offered up to the process (after some touch-ups).
I feel like I’m both the perfect viewer for Ari Aster’s movies but also the worst possible one. I’ve seen all of his movies now (The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, Hereditary, and now this movie) and feel like I relate a bit too much to whatever is going on in his head. All of his movies have themes of family, specifically family trauma. It’s obvious that he has some unresolved issues with his family. Along with this, both Hereditary and Midsommar are unique examples in horror of movies that clearly had a lot of research done into them about actual occult/pagan practices. Most audiences won’t have this level of engagement with his movies and just view them as occult/folk horror movies, which as a horror movie viewer is important. As Lovecraft said, the oldest and strongest form of fear is fear of the unknown.
Midsommar, being a folk horror movie, is unsurprisingly about the horror of encountering another, subaltern/subterranean culture existing on the fringes of the rest of society. Liberal multicultural narratives function towards the imperialist goals of capitalism. The relentless expansion of capital requires the subordination of otherness into a framework of logistics in which otherness is already grasped and accounted for. To quote Nick Land at length in “Kant, Capital, and the Prohibition of Incest”:
The paradox of enlightenment, then, is an attempt to fix a stable relation with what is radically other, since insofar as the other is rigidly positioned within a relation it is no longer fully other. If before encountering otherness we already know what its relation to us will be, we have obliterated it in advance. And this brutal denial is the effective implication of the thought of the a priori, since if our certainties come to us without reference to otherness we have always already torn out the tongue of alterity before entering into relation with it. This aggressive logical absurdity (the absurdity of logic itself) reaches its zenith in the philosophy of Kant, whose basic problem was to find an account for the possibility of what he termed “synthetic a priori knowledge”, which is knowledge that is both given in advance by ourselves, and yet adds to what we know. As we have seen, this problem is the same as that of accounting for the possibility of modernity or enlightenment, which is to say, of the inhibited encounter with alterity.
As opposed to outright racist imperialist narratives in which the other is treated as subhuman, liberalism’s is more totalizing because it strives to make otherness ultimately subsumed into and complicit in further imperialism. This is just one example of the general development of capitalism away from outright oppressive regimes towards more affirmation. Purely for teleological purposes, and only in periods of growth, and only in the first-world, but nonetheless a general trend in the 20th century in the west. Though it still functions towards white supremacist projects, the narrative liberals tell themselves is very different. This makes it all the more horrifying to actually encounter otherness and see the darkness secretly bred into us, making us complicit in imperialism without being aware of it, and only realizing it when otherness is encountered as an object of horror.
Yes, I’m here saying that in Midsommar, the Swedish pagan commune is an example of a subaltern culture. Christianity is an imperialist plague that has suppressed and erased indigenous European religions as part of broader imperialist projects that were later ultimately expanded outward to other continents. There are plenty of well-known examples like the English colonization of Ireland to back up this point that imperialism isn’t limited to non-European ethnic groups. Obviously this isn’t meant to equate indigenous European ethnic groups with non-Europeans in terms of how imperialism has played out in the two cases, before anyone starts misreading this. It nevertheless seems like Midsommar wanted to present an experience of otherness that both feels foreign and distant (Americans in Europe) but is also recognizable enough to Americans to keep the message feeling like a generalized experience of cultural otherness rather than specifically racial otherness. Take from that what you will, the fact that it would need to be presented such a way rather than be about non-Europeans for the audience to be able to identify with the subaltern culture in the movie is directly related to what it’s trying to accomplish.
The brilliance of Midsommar, even more than Hereditary, is that Ari Aster makes use of suppressed religious practices not just to horrify his audience in an interesting and unique way beyond the typical satanic horror movie, but to deconstruct the essence of the horror genre and reveal the beauty of what is always an object of horror for the majority. Not just that, but to even prod at the form of horror itself which depends on an existing fear/hatred of an other.
Horror is a unique genre from a marketing perspective because while other genres of mass media on some level have to consider marketing themselves to a lowest-common-denominator audience in order to succeed (and this is especially the case for film, since movies are expensive to make), horror is actively antagonistic to the lowest common denominator. Horror isn’t exactly supposed to appeal to the average capeshit-viewing mouthbreathing American, it’s supposed to horrify that person. The essence of horror involves locating and then exploiting a shared cultural fear, which ultimately through the irritation and exploitation of that fear results in pleasure. The pleasure of having one’s biases against otherness revealed and attacked, possibly to be excised even.
Many horror archetypes in one way or another come from a fear of otherness. Vampires, for instance, are known to be a metaphor for homosexuality and foreigners, and all demons in general have an element of transgressing gender and sexuality. In the case of Midsommar, it is a horror of other customs, other religious practices, and the conflict between the liberal impulse to study and understand other cultures (serving the aims of imperialism ultimately) versus apprehending difference in its totality. It’s easy to see the violence of one’s own culture as the norm; it’s only when it’s seen outside oneself that we see how horrifying we ourselves are.
All of the main characters in Midsommar are Americans, and they act consequently rude and disrespectful of the cultures and customs of the Swedish pagan commune they come to observe as a vacation – a narrative set-up which itself is highly indicative of the film’s preoccupation with difference and imperialism. The encounter of otherness is made possible by these bourgeois American grad students having the means and freedom to take a vacation to another country for a month. The pretense of them being anthropology students studying the commune’s practices is the “inhibited encounter with alterity” par excellence, and it quickly falls away when the Americans aren’t able to stomach these weird foreigners' religious practices.
For me, Midsommar was not a scary movie. I’m convinced that Ari Aster had his tongue firmly in cheek the entire time he made this movie. The whole movie takes place during midsummer, so of course being Scandinavia the sun is out all the time. Almost the entire movie takes place in wonderfully sunny fields of verdure, the Swedes are all dressed in white with flowers in their hair, singing, dancing, making music. You could say that the intention here is to have an ironic contrast with the events that take place, but to me this all fits so perfectly with what actually happens in the movie.
The Americans end up not just being rude to the Swedes or not being able to stomach their customs (which involve the elderly committing voluntary suicide at 72, pretty based if you as me), but literally piss on the ashes of their ancestors and attempt to document their religious practices despite being told not to do so and agreeing not to. They all end up dying, including the boyfriend of the main character Dani. Their corpses are used as part of the midsummer ritual that only occurs every 90 years, and by the end of the movie after he has cheated on her with one of the local girls, Dani’s boyfriend ends up being put to death by Dani herself.
Aside from the asshole imperialist Americans getting what they deserved after their pretense of respecting other people’s customs falls away, and aside from a simple statement that other cultures are different and not necessarily going to be different in ways that your culture agrees with, there are many subtle layers of critiquing American culture specifically that I thought was amazingly well done. And in the ultimate twist of irony, most of the viewers of this movie will probably not pick up on it and just view this as a folk horror movie – the ultimate “fuck you” to the capeshit-viewing mouthbreather moviegoers who might end up seeing this.
The thing that sets off everything in this movie is the scene where the elders commit ritual suicide. One of the Swedish women, while trying to calm down the Americans, even addresses how horrible and strange this probably seems to most Americans when she says how horrible and sad it is that Americans want to live as long as possible while their bodies fall apart before their eyes and they end up alone and miserable in hospitals. Contrast this with the suicides, where death comes just as wisdom has reached its peak and there is little left to do with one’s life. Death becomes a life-affirming ritual, the body is returned to the earth where life will subsist on death, there is a joy before death rather than a pathetic human impulse to prolong its own miserable existence.
As I said before, Ari Aster clearly has family issues, but in Midsommar everything starts off similarly to how Hereditary ends with the main character Dani’s entire family dying from her bipolar sister suffocating everyone with smog. This leaves her, throughout the movie, suffering from the trauma of losing her entire family this way and having a boyfriend who has behind her back been wanting to break up for over a year. It’s implied that he would have already done so by the time they went to Sweden if her family hadn’t died. Americans have a sick oedipal obsession with family values, and it tends to result in children being treated as a property and a burden. This closed off microfascist dynamic ends up being carried over and reproduced in marriage, and while Dani and her boyfriend aren’t married, they’ve been together long enough that they’re starting to experience the typical isolation from a long-term relationship. Much to the annoyance of his friends, Dani only ends up going to Sweden with him because she found out about the trip and had to be included along when it was implied that her boyfriend wanted to take the trip to get away from her and have a life outside the relationship.
Dani’s only source of support following the death of her family is her piece of shit boyfriend, and his Swedish friend (Pelle) who brings everyone along to the midsummer festival and at one point tells her about his experience of also losing his family. Pelle tells her that unlike her, though he lost his family in a fire, he had the entire community to depend on. They “held” him in his specific phrasing and made him feel home. He asks her if her boyfriend makes her feel at home. She doesn’t answer, but throughout the course of the movie she ends up taking part in the commune’s festivities and being crowned the May Queen for winning an endurance dance competition based on an old Swedish legend. When she discovers that her boyfriend has been cheating on her, the other women in the community scream and sob with her, as one, and they do the same when their willing sacrificial victims at the last ritual of the festival start screaming in pain as they’re burned alive.
As this happens and her former boyfriend perishes in the flames, a smile starts to form across Dani’s face. Not a malicious or sadistic smile, though. A joyful one. She has finally been able to heal, and she feels belonging and love.
Undoubtedly, most viewers wouldn’t take the pagan practices in Midsommar seriously (since most people in general are Judeo-Christians or atheists), and most wouldn’t feel positively about the treatments of death and family in it. To me, Ari Aster has managed to make something that not only stands up as a solid horror movie, but is an extremely compelling look at how the things that collectively horrify westerners are by the same token a source of much of our own collective suffering.
Out of all the main characters, Dani is the only one who comes from the imperialist core and is able to make the transition away from its culture, healing from the trauma that it inflicts on its own members in the process. The compulsory promises of living forever (or at least as long as possible) and being loved and supported by your family and partner no matter what are revealed for the brittle, often hollow narratives that they are. Against the rigid family form of Judeo-Christian anglo imperialism is the life-affirming, communal network of the Swedish commune Dani ends up being taken in by. The scenes of collective wailing and pain most perfectly illustrate the alternative offered up, where the collective becomes an emergent organism one is subsumed into.
Due to the connotations of it being something of a primitive pagan commune, the one criticism I’d have towards Midsommar is that it would seem to fall into the trap of also believing that in order to overcome the miserable condition of Judeo-Christian whiteness, one needs to reject modernity and return to tradition. But the movie would become something entirely different if it tried to go in that direction, and folk horror is a preexisting genre that gives Ari Aster a foothold for drawing the audience in. There are other threads in Midsommar that others have explored, but its treatment of horror as a matter of perspective – whether encountering different human cultures or different forms of intelligence altogether – was particularly striking to me. It in this sense has a life-affirming, even a little accelerationist in a sense take on horror. The horrifying has an underlying beauty, and Midsommar got that across well enough to me that I watched this horror movie less as something horrifying and more as joyful and Dionysian, in all the violence and revelry, and it’s in that Dionysian joy that healing is found from loathsome sameness.