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[Horror, probable spoilers] Midsommar

Calliope

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So, I saw Midsommar pretty much as soon as it opened. I was really, really impressed by Hereditary, so I went in expecting that, if nothing else, Ari Aster would make me feel very bad.

Instead, I'm a little...ambivalent? Perplexed? Mildly annoyed? Bear in mind, these are my immediate thoughts (it's been all of an hour since the movie ended), and I'm still kind of thinking things over, so there may be connections or themes or elements I haven't quite slotted into place yet.

Spoilers and meandering thoughts to follow, I guess:

So, right off the bat, it pulls a similar trick to Hereditary - the horrible tragedy, the heart-rending, grief-stricken wailing, etc. The difference here is that it does it right off the bat, before the opening title even appears, whereas in Hereditary it comes at the end of a steady build up and feels like a sudden swerve, even a betrayal.

Don't get me wrong - the whole thing was horrifying. It was, in fact, more upsetting than most of what followed, which I think is kind of a problem when it's in the first 15 minutes or so of the movie.

Which brings me to my second issue with that part. I was kind of expecting it to have a little more relevance to the rest of the film. We see little flashes here and there to remind us, and obviously her grief is a big part of what's driving her character, but...I dunno. Maybe I was expecting a little more narrative symmetry.

Speaking of throwbacks to Hereditary: Aster sure does love close-up head trauma, doesn't he?

So, then they go off to the festival (which we, as viewers, know is going to be fatal), and the rest of the movie is how that slow-motion nightmare unspools.

As I think about it, one of the problems is, I think that I didn't really feel much of anything for most of these characters. Contrast that with Hereditary, where at least the pain of the characters is deeply sympathetic. I think the movie accomplishes that with Dani, but the other characters are either kind of obnoxious and sleazy or virtual ciphers defined by only one or two traits. As soon as certain characters show up, you pretty much know not only that they're going to die, but the order in which they're going to do so. "Oh, look, it's the other pair of outsiders who are in the film solely to tip us, the audience, off to the looming danger before it strikes one of the characters we actually know."

Sure, a few bits are kind of upsetting. The ritual suicide more or less works, I guess, even if it's telegraphed for a good 5 minutes before it happens. The Mark-mask is an effective little flinch moment, though that whole thing plays out like a pretty on-the-nose Texas Chainsaw Massacre homage. Some of the imagery is positively Hannibal-esque, especially towards the end - the suspended flower-corpse, the weird corpse-effigies with branches and whatnot, etc.

I'm not entirely thrilled, though, with how the film tries to use physical deformity (of the inbred oracle kid) to evoke disgust and horror.

I guess I just feel like it doesn't really...add up to much? A bunch of kids go to a weird isolated cult festival. They mostly all die. As we learn at the end, they were pretty much ALWAYS gonna die, because 4 (or 5) of them were required as a sacrifice. I'm just...not entirely sure what the point is. Obviously, the central throughline is the strained, failing relationship, and the film actually does a pretty good job there for a while. We see how Dani bends over backwards not to seem "needy" or "irrational" even when her boyfriend is being an enormous asshole. But by the end, what does that add up to? What are we meant to take from Dani's arc there? "Oh, she finally stood up for herself by having him burned alive in a hollowed-out bear", I guess?

Moments that feel like they should have had a lot more weight to them just kind of pass by in a blink. Every character but Dani and Christian basically dies with the cinematic equivalent of a shrug. On some level, I get it - the film wants to build this sense of lurking dread and menace BENEATH a seemingly idyllic surface. Everything needs to be all sunlight and white frocks and flowers until we finally see the corpses rotting underneath. But the end result, at least to me, is that none of it really means very much. And the ending...

Are we meant to draw some sort of rough parallels between the deaths of Dani's family and the sacrifice? The people locked in, the smoke, the wailing...But if so, what does that parallel signify? What's it in service of?

And the sex scene...man. I'm not sure if that's supposed to be a comic relief moment for the audience. It probably shouldn't be! It's basically the ritualistic rape of Christian! But people in my showing, at least, were laughing out loud at parts of it.

I dunno. Maybe I'll totally change my mind after sleeping on it. But too much of it feels like it's just covering terrain already covered by its obvious influences - The Wicker Man, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and so on. Hell, at LEAST once, the thought crossed my mind, "Is this just The Green Inferno with white people?" Maybe most damning, it feels like it front-loads its most upsetting material, and everything after that point (while suitably disorienting and nightmarish and unpleasant) never really matches the gut-clenching emotional horror that it starts off with.

EDIT: I have been reading some reviews and interviews, and they raise interesting points, though I'm still going to have to sleep on it to see how I feel.

Spoiler: Show

Specifically, Aster says a few things:

He knows that the audience is going to know the structure and whatnot going in, so he leans on it.
The decision not to linger on the deaths was deliberate, because he thinks those are one of the least interesting parts of what's happening (due to the previous point) and he thinks it's almost more upsetting to have these lives snuffed out and everyone just goes on like they were never there. Fair enough.
At least one reviewer points out that, at the start of the film, Dani loses her family, and at the end, she gains one. I had picked up on Pelle's pretty unsubtle attempts to recruit her, but...well. Anyway, that at least provides the parallel I was alluding to earlier. Whether it works for me or not, I haven't yet decided.
 
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Olof Jönsson

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I saw the trailer for this and couldn't stop giggling. It's...well...

...let's just say your average Swedish cult is more likely to be fanatically Christian than pagan. The closest thing we get to pagans are New Age crystal-lovers or your rare metalhead proclaiming themselves Asatru. The only creepy murderous cults and cult leaders we've had were very much of the Bible-thumping variety.

So the very basic premise of it is laughable - our isolated communities are Christian, not pagan. Even The Wicker Man is more believable than the premise of this movie.

Secondly, Midsummer's Eve celebrations are basically the equivalent of...which holiday does Americans use to go out to get plastered and eat unhealthy food then go home? St. Patrick's Day? Yeah. It's basically making a Murderous Evil Cult Conspiracy of Bostoners painting the harbor green once a year.

Does this context maybe change any of your impressions so far?
 

Proteus

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So the very basic premise of it is laughable - our isolated communities are Christian, not pagan. Even The Wicker Man is more believable than the premise of this movie.
The Wicker Man is a great film.

But I absolutely cannot see how a Scottish island of pagans is any more plausible than this.

The Wicker Man also takes some completely banal and non-sinister cultural traditions (morris dancing, maypoles) and makes them appear creepy.

I'm not saying Midsommar is as successful as the Wicker Man - I haven't even seen it yet - but they seem to share a similar degree of plausibility, as regards their time and place of setting.
 

Uncle Claudius

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Doesn't the Wicker Man also hinge on the fact that the 'ancient Pagan traditions' actually only date back a couple of generations? It's a fairly smart commentary on the new age types who believed they were the heirs to millennia old rituals that were largely made up in the late nineteenth century.
 

Olof Jönsson

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The Wicker Man is a great film.

But I absolutely cannot see how a Scottish island of pagans is any more plausible than this.

The Wicker Man also takes some completely banal and non-sinister cultural traditions (morris dancing, maypoles) and makes them appear creepy.

I'm not saying Midsommar is as successful as the Wicker Man - I haven't even seen it yet - but they seem to share a similar degree of plausibility, as regards their time and place of setting.
Mainly because the very concept of "isolated community that kept some old traditions" has actually happened in reality in the British isles. Granted, it was a long, long time ago and got pretty thoroughly stamped out, but still. Whereas the closest Sweden has gotten to that was a couple of witch trials in that time period (which, ironically, had nothing to do with pagan traditions surviving) and then a brief rise in nationalism in the 19th century where they got all the old myths wrong and made them more racist than the actual old Norse and Svear were. We've pretty much been deeply Christian since the 11th century, and went Protestant because one of our first major kings didn't like the idea of Rome calling the shots. After that, though, we've basically been the epitome of White Privileged Northern Protestants. Hell, only reason Sweden went Social-Democrat so hard was because they were the least radical party at the time (the conservatives barely wanted anyone but the upper class to have voting rights, and the commies were...commies) of the Russian Revolution, and even then it took another thirty years for them to truly get into power.

What I'm saying is that there are still quite a few people speaking various dialects of the old pre-English languages in the Isles, whereas I think the last speaker of a medieval (not even Old Norse) dialect we had passed away a few years back.
 

Calliope

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Does this context maybe change any of your impressions so far?
Not really, to be honest - folk horror generally already requires a certain amount of, uh, let’s call it “suspension of disbelief”. More than anything, I think it’s an excuse to have a bunch of pale blonde people in near-constant daylight as a weird juxtaposition with everything else.

(Fun note: the film literally ends with the burning and ritual sacrifice of the character named “Christian”.)

There ARE parts that don’t ring true, though. I’ve seen Aster say that these people don’t feel what they’re doing is wrong and that they think it’s all natural, but, uh...they sure do go to a lot of trouble to hide the reality from/lie to their guests, even well past the point where the outsiders are all totally at their mercy. If you squint, you can maybe say that some of that is because it made it easier to ensure their participation in certain rituals and so on, but...eh. It feels a little contrived, like that part doesn’t quite match up with what other parts of the movie are trying to sell.
 

Iozz-Sothoth

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What I'm saying is that there are still quite a few people speaking various dialects of the old pre-English languages in the Isles, whereas I think the last speaker of a medieval (not even Old Norse) dialect we had passed away a few years back.
Being a Welsh or Gaelic speaker does not make you any kind of pagan survival, nor does the survival of Welsh or Gaelic imply anything about pagan survivals in remote places: that's just reproducing weird English stereotypes about minoritised language speakers. Please don't do that; it hasn't stopped being any more irritating than it was when Isle of the Mighty did it.

In fact everything you've said about the implausibility of pagan survivals in Sweden goes double for the UK. The Welsh were thoroughly Christian by the 6th century, any 'pagan' custom with apparent antiquity was probably made up by Iolo Morganwg while he was high on opium during the 18th century, and so on. Scottish Gaelic speakers tend to come from heavily Presbyterian regions of Scotland etc.

(Witch trials were mostly an English and Lowlands Scots thing, in part because for Gaelic speakers and the Welsh most things that'd be pinned on witches would be pinned on the Fair Folk, and partly because getting a local vicar or cunning-man to curse someone who'd wronged you was socially acceptable. See Ron Hutton's The Witch for more on this. Witch beliefs in the UK had bugger all to do with paganism, of course.)
 

Proteus

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Thanks, Iozz, I wanted to say something similar but I didn't have the relevant facts to hand. And good thing too, as I'd never have made it as elegantly as you.

Responding to other points: It's true that the cult in Wicker Man is explicitly a Victorian "revival". The age of the one in Midsommar isn't specified, but it's many generations if you believe what's said about their scriptures. So I suppose that does make Midsommar less plausible.

But the general argument that Scottish islands are a more plausible setting for pagan shenanigans than Sweden is just ridiculous.

But then, if Summerisle were full of Calvinists, I don't think you'd have much of a film.
 

AbjectQuestioner

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Saw it. Liked it, though not as much as Hereditary, probably because I had a notion from Hereditary just how unsettling this director can make things.

As mentioned by others, Midsommar is highly comparable to the original The Wicker Man. My main takeaway is that choosing to visit an isolated religious community that is celebrating - if that's the right word - a festival of unknown nature is not at all a good idea. Not at all.

The ending reminded me a lot of The Witch.
 
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