In many ways, Hereditary, Ari Aster’s first feature, felt like an anthology horror film. The first act of Midsommar, his second feature, could easily be another part of that anthology. Once again, we’re immersed in the same dim, gloomy, netherworld, in which it’s difficult to distinguish whether it’s night or day, so dusky and murky is the lighting. Once again, too, we’re exposed to a macabre family trauma, although the horror strikes much quicker this time around. After a brief opening montage sequence that situates us in the midst of a snowy Midwestern town, we meet Dani Ardor, played by Florence Pugh, as she desperately tries to get in contact with her sister, after receiving a cryptic email in which she threatens to take both of their parents “into the black.” During a phone conversation between Dani and her boyfriend Christian Hughes, played by Jack Reynor, we learn that her sister has bipolar disorder, and often leaves threatening, eerie or worrying messages. In fact, so demanding is Dani’s sister that it has started to take a toll on Dani’s relationship with Christian, whose friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) encourage him to take the plunge and break up with her before the three head to Sweden for a break.
All that changes, however, when Christian receives the next phone call from Dani. Instead of vague concerns about her sister, all he hears is a single anguished scream. Upon arriving at her house, he learns that her sister has murdered their parents and killed herself. Just before the credits roll, Aster follows the first responders as they arrive at the grisly crime scene, taking us from the garage of the Ardor family home, where both cars have been left running, to the second story of the house, where the parents’ bedrooms have been taped shut, and where Dani’s sister has clamped a pipe over her mouth so that she can inhale the noxious fumes more quickly. This scene is one of the most traumatic and horrific tableaux that I have seen in a horror film for some time – the most traumatic and horrific since the car accident in Hereditary – and casts a pall over Midsommar that never really lifts or abates. Instead, the remainder of the film follows Dani as she tries to come to terms with this trauma, and to repress this horror, all the while knowing her efforts are doomed to fail.
Midsommar therefore forms part of a broader shift in the way in which family dynamics are depicted within horror cinema, especially within suburban and urban brands of horror. During the first wave of slasher films, horror operated by dissolving family relationships and the family structure, but recent horror films have tended to present the family as irreparably fractured and fragmented to begin with. Rather than horror dissolving a family unit, horror increasingly hastens the destruction of a family unit that is already in decline. This is very much the trajectory laid out at the start of Midsommar, which plays more like the end of a horror film than the start of a horror film. Robbed of her family in the most traumatic way, Dani has nowhere to go but Christian, while Christian himself is forced to renew his interest in their relationship despite being on the verge of breaking up with her when the murders occurred. Christian himself is also in a fractured space at the start of the film, caught between finishing his anthropology thesis and entering the real world, but unable to find a topic to write on, and so unable to really complete the shift into adulthood.
What makes Midsommar unique, however, is that the restoration of this family structure is presented as the source of horror. Since American horror typically frames family as a white achievement, this restoration of family also comes with a restoration of whiteness, and a restoration of the white structures of kinship and community that have proven so inadequate to Dani’s situation. This restoration takes the form of Christian’s trip to Sweden, which Dani joins at the insistence of Pelle, a Swedish exchange student played by Vilhelm Blomgren, who offers to show the four Americans his home town of Halsingland, where he lives in an ancestral commune, known as the Harga. While Dani needs to get away from America, and from the memories of her family, she also hopes that the Harga will provide some kind of sustenance in her traumatised state, especially since Pelle promises her that the midsummer celebrations, held every ninety years, will create an especially joyful mood.
At this point, the film shifts abruptly to the Swedish countryside, and the dim palettes of the opening act are replaced by bright sunlight. Most of the action now occurs outside, in broad daylight, since Halsingland so far north that the sun never really sets in midsummer. Only brief flashes of darkness intrude into this bright palette, which Aster foregrounds in the drive that takes Pelle and the four Americans to the Harga’s commune. During this scene, Aster opts for a series of queasy upside-down shots in which the whiteness and brightness of the sky become the terrain of the film, gradually occluding the landscape with their brilliant and blinding glare. By the time that the camera rights itself, the landscape has taken on the intensity of the sky, suffusing everything with a pearly sheen that is not all that different from the gloom that cloaks the first act of the film. In that first act, as in Hereditary, gloom is measured by how it occludes characters’ faces, especially since Aster often positions his camera quite remotely from the action that is occurring, or cuts away from scenes before facial expressions can resolve into a coherent response. Yet the light is so brilliant during these early Swedish scenes that the characters’ faces are occluded in a different way, saturated with so much softness and texture that their expressions become just as difficult to process, and more and more hallucinatory as the commune grows nearer.
In other words, bright light doesn’t necessarily make the images in the film more transparent and legible. If anything, the ambience provided by the sun creates more space and distance between the characters, all of whom seem to be moving in their own sequestered space as they traverse the field that leads to the commune proper. When Pelle offers them magic mushrooms as a prologue to meeting the commune elders, this sense of sequestration grows even stronger, setting the stage for a film where most of the action involves people performing discrete and opaque rituals within an ostensibly shared space. The result is a kind of luminous gloom, in which we can feel that it’s the middle of the night, even if we can’t see it, as well as a further development of gloom itself as a principle of Aster’s style. While Hereditary was clearly obsessed with gloom, it was just as clear that gloom wasn’t simply a matter of darkness, or the absence of light. What Midsommar clarifies is that, for Aster, gloom doesn’t have much to do with regular notions of light and dark at all, but with the ways in which faces can be occluded and obscured, especially when those faces are supposed to be surfaces for horror, or to be registering horror. As with Hereditary, then, the horror of Midsommar comes, initially, from this sense of an obscurity, or an opacity, whose gloom can’t be redressed by simply adding more light to the picture.
This indifference of gloom to light and darkness is particularly clear in the opening scenes of Midsommar, where light consistently fails to provide a point of illumination in the devolution of Dani’s family. In the opening scene, the main source of light is Dani’s computer, and the emails she has received from her sister, while the only source of light when we see the sister’s body, and the end-point of the tracking-shot that leads us through the gas-soaked house, are the unopened emails from Dani on her own computer, which is located just above the floor where her body is discovered. Over the next couple of scenes, Aster cuts in and out of digital light, continually suggesting its inadequacy and impotence, both in terms of restoring Dani’s connection to the world, but also in terms of simply lighting that world, and providing a point of illumination. This culminates with the first image we see of Sweden, on Pelle’s smart phone, which also happens to be the brightest image we have seen in the film so far. Going to Sweden therefore becomes a search for a source of light that can genuinely expel the gloom of the opening scenes, making it all the more unsettling when this gloom appears to have settled in even deeper when they arrive.
Like Hereditary, then, it is remarkably difficult to situate the time of day during the majority of Midsommar. Much as Hereditary felt perpetually poised at the moment when evening turns into night, Midsommar seems suspended in late afternoon light for its entire running time – that short period when everything appears to absorb the sunlight and glow from within, and when everything feels most mercurial, transitory and ethereal. This heightened daylight immediately disrupts Dani’s sense of self, as the first light night segues into her birthday, making it difficult for her, and for Christian, to discern when her birthday actually occurs. Divorced even further from the ceremonies and rituals of her family structure, time quickly feels relative – “Is it tomorrow?” “Only from yesterday’s perspective” – dissociating the commune from past and future and setting it adrift in a kind of hypothetical ambience.
That ambience gives the film a very painterly quality, especially when Dani and the other four Americans first arrive at the heart of the commune – an enormous field, flanked by mountains, filled with a variety of different structures, and occupied by groups of people performing traditional tasks. They are first greeted by the leaders of the commune, and then taken through an exercise in Swedish hospitality in which they are encouraged to celebrate “the hottest summer on record.” As with Downsizing, a link is made here between Scandinavia as an apex of whiteness, if only in people’s stereotypes and fantasies, and the spectre of global warming as a product of white colonization of the globe. Yet where Downsizing tacitly suggests that whiteness, as apotheosized in Scandinavia, needs to atone for global warming, there is no such anxiety here, with the members of the commune instead basking in rising temperatures as a sublime pastoral effect and affirming experience.
If anything, the heat bakes the community into the landscape, like the cracked surface of a Flemish or Dutch Old Master, much as Aster’s luminous gloom looks like light reflecting off the surface of an oil painting. Without many confined or dark spaces, Aster has to divide the visual field of the film in the same way as a landscape painter, often structuring scenes around the contrast between the foreground and the various pastoral activities that are happening in the background. In a static medium like painting, this background often seems calm and serene, but in a more mobile medium like film this milling background presence quickly starts to feel sinister. The painterly effect of the film is even more unsettling given that the commune primarily communicate and commemorate their history through a much more naïve style of painting, devoid of the mathematical perspective and multiple spatial planes of Aster’s visual field. Moving between the flatness of the community’s paintings, and his own heightened spatial awareness, Aster suggests a growing and inchoate disconnect between what the Harga claims to be, and what its true intentions actually are.
This growing unease is exacerbated by the fact that the Harga seems to provide precisely the restoration that Dani desires. Fleeing a traumatised family structure, a palette in which faces are perpetually shrouded in gloom, and the horror of her sister’s descent into the “black,” she is presented with a community that seems to be inhabiting whiteness as a state of nature, as harmonious and self-sufficient as a modern-day volksgemeinschaft. Yet as the film proceeds, the visual scheme of the Horga starts to reiterate, rather than resist, that of the opening part of the film. In Hereditary, Aster occluded and obscured faces by moving between doll houses and the real house where the action occurs. A similar process takes place here, as the camera shifts between the runic inscriptions of the commune, and the layout of the commune, which reflects those runic inscriptions. The more panoramic the shots become, the more we can see their conformity to these runes, and so the closer they seem. Yet the closer the shots become, and the more they hone in on the physicality of the commune, the more they reiterate this more conceptual runic style, structure and layout.
This anamorphic spatial logic is most disturbing and unsettling when it is applied to the characters and faces that occupy these spaces. The closer we get to individual faces, the more designified they become, reduced to so many geometric components in a broader spatial scheme. Only when we achieve some distance from faces do they start to exhibit individual expressions, since their individuality can only be read as part of this broader spatial scheme. The maximum moments of horror thus tend to occur from a distance, when faces strain with horror, or strain for meaning, while the camera is too far away from them to really do justice to their expressions, or to provide them with any kind of satiation. In a very real way, the characters’ faces seem to be searching for a way to escape a spatial scheme that prohibits their expression – a scheme that, combined with Aster’s gloom, makes it difficult for white faces, in particular, to occupy a middle distance, or to define their whiteness as the position needed for this middle distance to occur. In the vast majority of American horror, white faces are both a site of meaning and a site of horror, a way of registering both how we are meant to experience horror as an audience, but also a reminder that horror is nearly always framed as a violation of white faciality. By contrast, Aster evokes a crisis in the white face as a stabilizer of horror, opting for a gloom that is too dim or luminous for white faces to settle into a naturalistic surface, or to simply align themselves with light and against darkness, as occurs in the vast majority of American films.
This is perhaps why the film has been criticized, by some reviewers, for “bad” acting. Yet Aster isn’t really interested in naturalistic responses to horror so much as in the way in which the white face is used to naturalise horror in the first place. Up close, the faces in the film don’t really ramify, whereas from a distance they are terrifying in their need to break out from the gloom and constrictive schemes that constrain them. In both cases, the white faces of the film are never really capable of anchoring the visions of nature that surround them – or at least not the faces of the white Americans. For what makes the Harga so powerful and unsettling is that they have internalised and processed this waning of the white face, and incorporated it into their most significant rituals and ceremonies. All of these rituals and ceremonies revolve around performatively disfiguring the white face, usually in ways that force the community to alternate between close-up and distant perspectives in the same way as Aster’s camera itself, thereby removing the white face from the middle distance, but reclaiming autonomy over that removal by reinventing it as ritual.
The most dramatic of these rituals occurs about halfway through the film, and involves the two eldest members of the community committing suicide by jumping off a cliff at a short distance from the main field. The bright palette of the film is now condensed into an otherworldly landscape – white cliff, white sand, white sky – while Aster retreats to a series of extreme long shots as the two elders’ faces appear over the rim of the cliff. When they jump, this extreme distance both anonymizes their faces and emphasises the brutality of their destruction on the rocks below, especially since Aster cuts liberally to close-ups of these disfigured and desecrated heads. It seems, too, that the elders are instructed to fall on their faces, since when the older man accidentally falls on his feet, several members of the community approach him with mallets and carve his face in, a ritual he accepts with calmness and dignity. These disfigured faces are then paraded through the community, and transferred from one site to another, where they can be finally be viewed from a middle distance. Finally, the inability of the white face to properly signify, and its increasingly visceral emptiness, can be utilised to establish a new kind of critical distance and whiteness.
As this ritual demonstrates, it is not the disruption of white family, but the restoration of white family, that forms the primary horror of Midsommar. Shortly after the ritual, Pelle sits Dani down and draws a series of parallels between their lives, since they have both lost their parents at a relatively young age. The difference, Pelle insists, is that “I never got a chance to feel like I didn’t have a family,” since the Harga provided him with a richer and more expansive community of whiteness. Confiding to Dani that “I have always felt held,” he goes on to question her about her relationship with Christian: “Do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?” While this sets up a tacit rivalry between Pelle and Christian, it also clarifies that the experience of being “held” by a white community, in a white state of nature, as a logical endpoint of white fantasies of family, is the real horror of Midsommar. In that sense, Aster speaks to a world in which white people often don’t feel “held” in this way, and are increasingly dislocated from the social forces that once held their hegemony in place. With the suicides forming the peak horror spectacle of the film, the remainder plays as a kind of anthropological exercise in considering how this experience of “holding” looks.
In a humorous meta-commentary, Christian decides that he will focus on the Harga for his thesis, using the Harga’s resumption of white critical distance as both inspiration and subject matter for his own anthropological stance. The austere scene on the cliff thus becomes fuel for one of the whitest forms of anxiety – finishing a college paper – in a transition that reminded me of the way that Candyman moves between supernatural horror and the more banal horror of being a white academic researcher without a viable project. The satire is even more pointed in that Josh, who is African-American, has already decided to write about the Harga before arriving in Sweden, only to find his critical insights ousted and cannibalized by his supposed friend. In effect, Christian has taken Josh’s project, but after a series of squabbles, and some sweet-talking with Pelle, who grants him top priority, he “generously” agrees to share his findings with Josh, and work on the project in tandem.
Through their eyes, and through Dani’s growing rapport with Pelle, we learn that the Harga’s community is defined by two key aesthetic features. In fact, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the community is invested in the idea of aesthetics itself, as a consistent, organic, tasteful set of expectations that is irreducibly and inextricably white. Only a white community can be so free of messiness, or frame horror so aesthetically, the film suggests, much as its horror often stems from how rigorously and meticulously every potential source of horror is aestheticized and internalised by the community. Part of what made the cult at the end of Hereditary so eerie was the way in which it resolved all the tensions and even contradictions of the film into an aesthetic calm and contemplation. That same eerie sense of the culpability of aesthetics itself hangs over this extended final act of Midsommar, which becomes scarier as its horror is progressively painted and danced away.
Yet while the Horga are invested in aesthetics in and of itself, they also exhibit two more specific aesthetic attributes, or frame aesthetics as having two defining features. The first is a fixation with the ways in which horror, chaos, disorder and division can be reframed as elegance, tact, subtlety and taste. In his research, Josh discovers that the Horga scripture consists of an ongoing work of runic literature that is transcribed by the most erudite members of the community. However, it is transcribed from the inchoate sounds and paintings of children who are deliberately inbred, over many generations, so that their minds are “unclouded by normal cognition.” Rather than attending to these children in any real way, the community instead treats them functionally, as a symbol of the chaos and horror that their aesthetics are designed to refine and massage into an elegant, tasteful whole. This leads on to the second aesthetic attribute of the Horga – an imperturbable calm that settles over the film as it proceeds. Time and again, Aster, and the elders themselves, shift our attention away from the movements of the Harga before they become too kinetic, continually absorbing horror back into a hypnotic stillness that sees the characters grow more remote from one another, as the spaces between them distend into dreamy distance.
Through these two attributes, Aster frames aesthetics as the capacity to subsume horror into a seamless and elegant whole – a capacity that is both fetishized by, and limited to, whiteness. Rather than moving from the cliff suicides to an even more horrific spectacle, Midsommar thus takes an original turn, shifting from this moment of maximum horror to the ease with which the Horga internalize and normalize it. In other words, the community’s immunity to horror is precisely what is horrifying, along with their assurance of an aestheticism that will absorb any disruption or difficulty. Both their elegance and their calm is performatively enacted during the central spectacle of the film, and Midsommar festival – the May Dance, in which the young women of the community compete to see who can dance around a maypole for the longest. We learn that this ritual arose in response to a “Black One” who purportedly once entered the community, and forced all the women to dance to death. By re-enacting the dance as spectacle, the women can expel this “Black One,” and prevent their community from heading into “the Black” that consumed Dani’s sister. During this extraordinary sequence, the dancers embrace all the unruliness and chaos that the community has defined itself against, only for the ritual to aestheticise it into order.
While the cliff suicides are horrific, this final spectacle is one of the most original horror sequences I have seen in some time. Rather than intensifying the horror, Aster sinks us further into the ambience that normalises the horror. It’s here that the extended daylight really works wonders, stretching on and on until any capacity for horror seems to have been totally exhausted. One by one, all of the Americans, and the other visitors to the Harga, are incorporated into macabre and bloody rituals, but their horror is oddly deadened, subsumed into the aesthetic calm, and aesthetic assurance, of the film and community. By the final scenes, when Dani is crowned the May Queen, and presides over the execution of Christian, there’s no clear sense that she has joined the community voluntarily, but no clear sense that she has been coerced or imprisoned either. Instead, the community’s supreme aesthetic assurance fuses so seamlessly with her own longing for restoration, and her own need to render herself immune to horror, that it as if she was always a part of the Horga, always invested in the restoration of whiteness that forms the crux of these final moments.
The horror of Midsommar, then, is how eloquently it divests itself of horror in its third act. Not only does this make the community seem almost appealing – even or especially at its most brutal – but it also makes the community seem far less alien or otherworldly than it does at the start. At times, this is very close to the futures envisaged by white supremacy, and the values espoused by the white right. At other times, however, it’s a hipster aesthetic as much as a supremacist aesthetic, freak folk as much as white terror. The Harga rituals might be scary, but they’re also precious and pedantic, while many of their most horrific tableaux look like a Williamsburg bar, or a Rolling Stone photo shoot. Like Salo set in a hippie commune, the film converges right and left wing visions of white futurity, sinking us into a manic white insistence on the manic demands of white aesthetic calmness that is so familiar from everyday life that it’s oddly banal and bathetic. Although they start off exotic, the Horga quickly feel exhausted, exuding the finitude suffuses every gesture of white pride in the modern world. Watching it, I wondered whether the focus on fertility and fecundity in recent horror cinema, from Annihilation to Arrival, is a way of dodging the sterility of the white face as a site of horror, and the waning of whiteness as a way of calibrating horror. If that is true, then the marvel of Midsommar is the way it sterilises this pastoral community in its last scenes, restoring the white world to us as the real object of contemporary horror.