Two women pave their paths out of fantastical nightmaresby Caspar Salmon / July 18, 2019 / Leave a comment
“A Wizard of Oz for perverts” is how Hereditary director Ari Aster has described his second film—a tantalising description for this particular friend of Dorothy, and an apt one when you consider both the format of the film and the derangement Midsommar sounds out.
But the film, centring as it does on Dani, a young American woman accompanying her anthropologist boyfriend to a Nordic festival that turns steadily more sinister, also brings to mind Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In both, whimsy and horror collide. In Midsommar’s presentation of a vulnerable, virginal femininity—embodied by anxious college student Dani—rubbing up against cruelty and unreason, the movie creates a familiar sense of disturbance which it then takes a wicked pleasure in subverting.
Aster sets his film in purposefully loose and hazy circumstances. Its tight preamble manages to lay out narrative facts—for instance Dani’s fraught relationship with her boyfriend Christian, a gaslighting nightmare who also dabbles in casual cruelty —while being vague about the passing of time and psychological details, much like the hazy difference between reality and dream at the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s story. And just as Alice experiences a blurring of the line between the real and the fantastical, between normality and nightmare, so the beginning of Midsommar flips between America and the trip to Sweden, prefiguring the descent into chaos of its heroine.
In a startling edit, Aster cuts from Dani vomiting in a bathroom upon being reminded of the death of her parents and sister, to a scene of her being travel-sick on board the plane. In a sense, Dani is already in the nightmare that we are about to witness.
In other scenes, such as the early drug-fueled hallucination where Dani perceives her hands as overgrown with moss and grass, Aster creates a strange sense of horror. It is less to do with fright or anguish than it is with the uncanny—the feeling of strangeness being in some way familiar—as when Alice’s body stretches and distorts itself under the effect of various biscuits and medicines.
Just like Alice, Dani spends a great deal of the story apologising for her behaviour. While Alice feels compelled to say sorry to a mouse (for talking about her cat), a particularly uncomfortable scene early on in Midsommar shows Dani apologising to her boyfriend for offending him when we already know he has abused her trust. Like Alice, Dani spends a lot of time crying—mournful, confused tears in an exceptionally brilliant opening scene, and sobs that rack her body later on—not unlike when Alice cries so much at having become tall that, upon shrinking anew, she practically drowns in her own tears. These stories locate horror within the female body: the young girl’s changing body is connected, in these worlds, to a patriarchal fear of female sexuality. This body horror meets its match in the subject’s growing independence and self-determination, which Dani comes to embody towards the end of Midsommar. Perhaps the greatest fear of all, for those in Alice’s and Dani’s original worlds, is the thought of women acquiring independence and power.
Although Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a creepy, unsettling story that inflicts kink, shame and physical suffering upon its young heroine, she still manages to fight back. In an evolution of this idea, Dani not only challenges her wayward boyfriend but also learns to control the horror of her deranged environment. Alice is only ever a guest in Wonderland, whereas Dani effectively acclimates to her new setting. In the unhinged midsommar cult where she finds herself, Dani makes herself at home and learns to fashion the world in her own way. In the ‘other’ world, this upside-down land with its own codes—its gender segregation, its strange feasts and death rituals, Dani is a queen. You can see another parallel here with a film like Pan’s Labyrinth, where the terrifying ‘other’ world comes to seem like a haven for the girl escaping a lifetime filled with horror.
Midsommar is noteworthy because it doesn’t seek to terrify. In this sense it is a horror film only in name. What the film seeks to do is reframe reality, or bend the possibilities of the real. It quietly shifts the colours, the chronology, the sensory quality of the real, and even the meaning of death. In so doing, it allows us to reconsider our own world, calling into question the barbarities and the petty cruelty of our everyday existences. Unlike other horror films there are no certainties, no status quo to which Dani can return. Midsommar’s shocks—its gruesome deaths, its sense of menace—almost all occur in broad daylight and there are no jump scares. At times the film is barely even frightening at all: it works just as well as a comedy of archetypes, or a riff on fairytales. The metaphorical virgin at its heart, this beleaguered orphan travelling not, like Dorothy, with amiable companions, but with openly hostile enemies, can only be rescued by herself.