Midsommar: not subtle, on point
So Midsommar isn’t subtle.
This is a horror movie. Basically it’s about a cult. Nothing overtly supernatural happens. Ari Aster also made Hereditary, and this film has some of the same themes, including drug use.
In the main story, some American grad students get invited to a special festival in remote Northern Sweden. The place is a commune where everyone is family. The host introduces everyone as his brothers and sisters. The Americans, a mixed bag of personalities, expect to see some usual old-fashioned living and hippie stuff. Addled with psychedelics and unbalanced by the unsetting summer sun, they are shocked and distraught by the first ritual of the festival: voluntary ritual euthanasia of the two village elders.
Voluntary suicide escalates, of course, into increasingly bizarre and dangerous rituals. Nothing said or shown in any scene is irrelevant. Almost everything is clearly telegraphed, which doesn’t make anything easier to take. The pace is almost achingly slow; this is not a film written to pander to the American need for action and explosions. But for the patient person, the payoff is deeply disturbing psychological horror.
If that were all there was to it, I wouldn’t bother with a review. But of course there’s more.
In the opening scenes, Dani (the protagonist) loses her family to murder-suicide. In these scenes, the movie makes it clear that you should take literally every word said or written and every image shown. These scenes are rough, emotionally taxing and disturbing. But they’re also important.
Dani’s ambivalent boyfriend, Christian, can’t hold her feelings. He’s with her mostly out of guilt, because it would be in bad taste to break up with her. She’s in constant crisis. The deaths of her sister and parents are just the latest but they trap Christian with her. In one scene she wails out her anguish while he just holds her head. He can do nothing; he seems discomfited but feels no empathy.
This pattern continues through the film. In a later scene, in the village, Dani expresses concern that someone has gone missing. A young man seems to have abandoned his fiancée there after they witnessed the ritual euthanasia. Christian says a few words about how awful it all is, but then changes the subject back to the questions he was asking a local. He fails to connect with Dani in any way.
The villagers, though, connect deeply through their rituals. They’re highly empathic. At the first meal together, everyone stands until it is time to sit, and then they sit together. When Dani become the May Queen, she leads this practice easily. At a dance, she knows the steps without hearing about them, and speaks Swedish without learning it. A partner says, “It’s a dance. We don’t need words to communicate.”
They breathe together, more than once. They stand around touching palms, getting closer together. In one rather graphic sex scene, a group of women surround a couple as they couple, breathing with and amplifying the voice of the woman. And near the end, as Dani experiences great anguish, they do the same for her: perfect empathy for her distress, something she’s never felt before.
The film uses some explicit therapy language. The host at one point asks if Dani has ever felt held the way his community holds him. I’m just back from an extensive visit to China where I demonstrated some basic therapy skills to psychotherapists. Many of the activities going on around the commune seemed familiar, because I led them myself in various counseling centers and universities. They’re all about empathic connections, at a pre-cognitive, embodied level.
In one, we pair off and stand facing a partner. We hold up our hands and touch, palm-to-palm. For much longer than is natural or comfortable, we just stand together that way and do whatever is natural. For sensitive people committed to the empathic connection, this had powerful results. It stirred emotions and forged connections.
It’s easy to overanalyze a film. But all this stuff is right out in the open for you to see, and the filmmakers show you pretty boldly that they’re not being subtle with their meanings or symbolism. It’s all right out there in the open.
So, I left with some strange feelings. Obviously some of the elements are horrifying. I won’t be explicit because the film totally is. At the same time, though, I loved the empathy Dani received. It was beautiful and heroic. I found myself really loving these villagers. For all their dangerousness, they were considerate, carefully ethical, and caring in the extreme. I cried at the end because the empathic connections were so beautiful, despite the disturbing nature of that closing scene. I wouldn’t mind living in this remote place, living simply, loving people dearly and just being together. It’s not impossible to rationalize a few murders every 90 years for the joys of so beautiful a life.