Dani is getting increasingly deranged messages from her bi-polar sister Terri. She rings her parents, but they’ve already gone to bed. So she tries her waste of space boyfriend Christian. He’s having a pizza and some joints with his mates but will pop round later. Dani tells her mates that she’s worried that she’s burdening Christian with her problems, while his mates tell him to dump her and find someone “who actually enjoys sex”.
Dani gets a call and screams. Cut to: her parents’ house, where the corpses of her parents and Terri are being inserted into body bags. In the room a message flashes up on a computer saying that there are 4 missed messages from Terri.
Roll opening credits.
We’ve still not got started on the real story, and we already have a tonne of background info about the characters. We know that Dani is traumatized – and that Christian is not what she needs at the moment. But Christian at least tries to pay attention to her, unlike his boorish friend Mark. Pelle is a little more sensitive, which we know because he draws sketches. We haven’t yet learned much about the fourth friend Josh (isn’t it always the case with the People of Colour?)
Pelle invites them all to a festival in the small village in North Sweden where he grew up. It takes place once every 90 years, and is happening in a couple of weeks. Christian and Josh are post grad anthropologists and seize the opportunity to visit a rarely seen culture. Mark seems to be studying “how to be a lad” and goes on account of the Swedish women. Christian invites Dani along, presuming that she’ll say “no”, but she ends up coming anyway.
Pelle grew up in a commune, and we first see the “family” dressed in white robes, singing and playing pipes. Its apparently all for the festival, but any similarities with The Wicker Man are entirely deliberate. So, even though they seem to be all friendly, welcoming types, we are already on our guard.
Before going, I was very worried about the film’s 2½ hour length. Its a reasonable rule that any film that’s over 2 hours long (and many that are much shorter) deserves a lot more pruning. But Midsommar uses its timing judiciously. Exactly because we are expecting something weird and sinister to happen, the gradual innocuous exposition is much more sinister than in a film full of CRASH-BANG-BOOM events.
Eventually Plot starts to happen, which you don’t need to know about in advance. At first the anthropologists warn about the cultural insensitivity of taking offence at the strange happenings, before it gets fully batshit crazy. The situation gets increasingly dangerous and dramatic, and anyone who tries to get out disappears under mysterious circumstances (as do some who don’t).
I’ve seen Midsommar described as both a horror story and a comedy, but its neither really, even though it contains moments that are both horrific and funny, and sometimes both at the same time. It is not truly scary – maybe “eerie” is a better adjective, with the subtle score fuelling the sense of unease. Nor is the plot driven by the need to get a laugh, although it doesn’t shy away from making the odd joke.
I hesitate to think what its all about, as I worry that if you brush past the spider’s web, you may discover that it has no real substance. But it is about community and belonging – Pelle clings to the cult after losing both parents in a fire (there may be more to this than initially meets the eye) and sees similar needs in the newly-orphaned Dani.
It also looks gorgeous. We are treated to beautiful overhead shots reminiscent of the Handmaid’s Tale tv series, which uses the mass of people dressed in the same colour to pick out the presence of outsiders. And – quite unlike most horror films – we are not oppressed by darkness but by the almost incessant daylight. This is mid-summer in the deep North where the sun rarely sets.
If you don’t go with the flow, I can see you getting very irritated very quickly. There are various aspects of the film that you either accept or you don’t. I could accept them, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Probably in my top 4 films this year alongside The Favourite, Another Day of Life and Cleo.
Second viewing – June 2020
51st film of the year, and the first “live“ one in over 3 months because, well, you know. And you know what I’ve not missed from my Total Film Experience? Couples in front of you chatting all the way through, the endless stream of people getting up and going to the toilet in the middle of the film, and, well, just “people” generally.
But its still a great film – even if it didn’t overwhelm me the same way it did the first time round. There may be a reason for that. First time, I hadn’t ever really seen any film that quite did what Midsommar does. This time, I literally have seen it all before. No matter, it easily survives a second watch, and even justifies its “way too long” running time.
I deliberately didn’t read last September’s review before watching, but reading after the event, I’d more or less concur with what I said then. With maybe the following additions:
1. Use of colour
I already mentioned the Handmaid’s Tale-style overhead shots of groups of people moving in synchronization, but what was more clear this time round is how these shots emphasize who belongs to the self-appointed in-group, and who does not. At the beginning of the film, you see a knot of darkly-dressed Amis and Brits who form a block of people who do not quite belong. As the film goes on, and people start to disappear (often in mysterious circumstances), the individual transgressors become increasingly obvious and isolated. You must wear white and adapt, as Dani does, or remain excluded.
2. What’s up with Pelle then?
Again, watching the film with a knowledge of what’s going to happen makes you more aware of what a strange character Pelle is. First time round he seems to be the sympathetic character that the useless boyfriend can’t quite manage to be – remembering Dani’s birthday, drawing sensitive sketches and that. When you know what you know about him, he seems much more sinister.
3. Do not ask what its about
After I watched the film (and wrote the review) I was intrigued to see what other people had to say. And I came across a horde of wild ideas, like its about the rise of Nazism (all those Aryan Swedes). Or maybe Christian’s name is significant and its about the death of the Judeo-Christian culture. Well, maybe, but only if you want to miss the point entirely.
Look, if the film is “about” anything, its about a party of US-American tourists getting out of their depth when they’re confronted by a Swedish cult. Now you’re perfectly entitled to draw this or that parallel with something else, but if you treat the film first and foremost as a metaphor for something else entirely, you’ll lose what makes it good in the first place.
In my original review I warned against trying to read too much meaning into the film, for fear of looking ridiculous. I still believe this. There are plenty of moments when if you just pull back for a moment and ask “What? How? Really?” then you can quickly lose any sympathy with the film. Just enjoy it for what it is and stop trying to make it more profound than an above-average horror film with no great pretensions to explaining the world
4. The cult looks almost good by default
Having said this, I think there is one aspect where the film is very clever. It shows a cult who’s actions are so horrific that the liberal anthropologists can only explain by “respecting cultural differences”. But it never tries to imply that “we” are any better. The Ami men are universally dicks with an overblown sense of their own importance, and we are never surprized when [spolier alert] Dani goes over to the other side.
Midsommar is disgusted with Western society, and its all the better for this.