Emotional Absence and Isolation in Midsommar

A young man, Christian, shamefacedly sidles out from a jeering, aggrieved knot of his male friends to take a phone call from his girlfriend Dani. “This is literally abuse,” one buddy cautions him, referring to Dani’s emotionally demanding family life and reliance on Christian for support. When Christian answers, though, the keening, incoherent howl of grief that spills from his cell phone rips through his friends’ stunted relationship advice like a hurricane wind. It’s the rawest moment in the movie, a pitch-black plunge into a bottomless hole of misery. 

Later, Dani will utter that same scream again when she sees Christian in another woman’s arms near the culmination of the titular nine-day feast at a Swedish cult’s remote compound, finally cementing his avoidant, uncommunicative emotional abandonment of her. This time though, instead of her boyfriend’s inept, reluctant emotional support, the women of the Hårga commune join Dani in her grief. They scream and wail in unison with her, reflecting the immensity of her emotion by donating their own bodies to its expression. It’s an interesting conceit, the tremendous release of experiencing real sympathy after a life spent immersed in the perpetually stifled emotional adolescence of American culture, but one that writer/director Ari Aster’s Midsommar probes at with only occasional insight. 

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Midsommar alternates depictions of isolated experiences of tragedy and communal reactions to similar traumatic events. Dani’s sister’s carbon monoxide poisoning of herself and their parents connects directly to the ritual senecide — suicide by an elder to spare the community the burden of their diminished capabilities and themselves the pains and sickness of old age — by two of the Hårga’s oldest members. The former sends the isolated and mistreated Dani spiraling into depression. Her anxious phone calls to Christian in the cold open feature the film’s best writing as she self-doubtingly talks herself into believing that he’s being anything but callous and belittling toward her. Watching actress Florence Pugh as Dani crush her emotions down to fit them in around a man’s indifference, watching him treat her grief with obvious distaste; it’s a cruelly convincing reenactment of the lives so many women lead.

It’s when the film tries to dig into its characters’ reactions to the senecide that Midsommar hits its first big stumbling block. The unconditional familial love and near-mystical sympathy offered by the Hårga are fascinating in motion but limp without a spectacle to play against, and Aster’s aversion to messiness, dirt, and muck works against the intensity of the cult’s mass displays of emotion. Even the film’s instances of ultraviolence are presented at a remove, without intimacy or wetness, as is the antiseptic sex scene between Christian and commune member Maja. The presence of many of the commune’s other women in a nude, chanting half-circle is deliberately played as sexless and off-putting, even as they reach in to comfort Maja and encourage Christian’s thrusting. 

The fear and shame separating private, individualistic sexuality from communal sex is interesting ground to explore, but Aster holds back by keeping the film’s visual language sterile. There’s no trace of cum, blood, or vaginal mucus when Christian pulls out, no sweat on either participant during or after sex, no mashing of the cut flowers on which they couple or dirt from the packed floor crusting their knees. It is the cold rubbing together of two bodies, thematic miles away from the richly emotional madness of the crying scenes. Even Maja’s vulva is presented as a sterile icon when she ritualistically opens her legs like she’s Czernobog spreading his wings in Night on Bald Mountain. 

Perhaps that coldness is meant to contrast with the concurrent scene in which Dani wails with the commune’s other women — which, with stronger acting and more complicated framing, suffers less for its lack of slimy physicality — but the film fails to dig any deeper than the idea that men lack emotional depth while women contain reservoirs of repressed violence and grief. The cultic setting, psychedelics, and hodgepodge of folk horror imagery cribbed from Bryan Fuller’s much more visceral and intimate Hannibal never successfully heighten the collapsing emotionally abusive relationship around which the film is structured. The cultist Pelle’s heartfelt appeal to Dani about whether or not Christian “feel[s] like home” to her is the most effective of Midsommar’s attempts to forge a connection between its emotional throughlines, but after this suggestion that the suicidal ruin which engulfed Dani’s family has a comfortingly meaningful echo in the cult’s traditions the idea seems to get away from Aster.

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Aster’s film touches genuine pain on more than one occasion, but its lack of suspense, sterile aesthetic, and sloppy iconography hold it short of truly difficult territory. The mute, deformed child-prophet Ruben, the sacrificial bearskin, and the A-frame yellow temple which figure in the film’s climax bear no apparent relation to Midsommar’s themes. Openly inviting comparison to Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk horror classic The Wicker Man, it tries on a half-dozen successors to that film’s single indelible image of horror and finds nothing to match or expand upon it. A human leg jutting from plowed earth. A pair of aging bodies dashed against a rock. A disabled child apparently present simply to repulse and shock. It’s hard to find a unifying thread.

There is beauty in Midsommar. Dani scrambling mid-panic-attack into her bathroom and the door-slam cut into an airplane lavatory where another anxiety attack follows seamlessly from the first affords a momentary vision of a world transformed into a boundless gauntlet of pain, even the light-washed silence above the clouds no defense against its hold. In its outpourings of grief it locates something difficult to touch, a glimpse of the raw and unfulfilled human need for love and communion cleverly reinforced by the sound of a baby crying offscreen during multiple stilted, difficult emotional discussions. If only it could build on those scorching performances and momentary flashes of real grief. If only the thread of Dani’s throat-tearing screams of devastation led anywhere but to the dull catharsis of an overly elaborate, visually uninteresting act of violence.

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