Midsommar is easily the most disturbing and provocative film released this summer. It’s a horror film that examines disintegrating relationships, both familial and romantic, and the effect that it has on a young woman in the aftermath of their breakdowns. Promising new auteur director Ari Aster understands that most great horror films have a common thread; the recognition that nothing is more terrifying than the bleakness of the human condition and the people we should be the most frightened of are not always strangers, but often the people with whom we share the most intimate relationships.
Dani, the protagonist, is a young graduate student reeling from a great personal tragedy, and a far cry from the fierce, determined final lady of most horror films. She’s submissive and emotionally needy. If her vulnerability borders on pathological, it’s because she’s a sensitive young woman forced to exist in a ridiculously callous world. Her relationships are toxic, but she clings to them because that is what life has given her. At the start of the film, her mentally ill sister has placed such stress in her life she is forced to take anti-anxiety medication. Her boyfriend, Christian, another source of insecurity, only serves to fuel her self-doubt. She has to beg him for the slightest bit of attention and tenderness. He stays with her less out of a sense of obligation than his self-serving concern he may regret dumping her and later want her back. His equally insensitive friends are the quintessential toxic males. They feign “pleasant” in her presence but, in private, encourage Christian to end the relationship. They ridicule her by suggesting he find a woman who actually enjoys sex while never considering that perhaps he is an unsatisfying lover. It’s hard to believe these insensitive, undeveloped, full fledged members of the “bro” culture are actually graduate students of anthropology traveling to Sweden to pursue their studies.
It is in a fragile state that Dani follows the whole lot of them to a remote area of Sweden where they participate in festivities to celebrate the summer solstice. In the remote woods, Dani begins her journey. At the start of the trip, nothing substantive has changed. Her boyfriend remains inattentive, forgetting her birthday, ogling another woman, and incorrectly stating the number of years they have been together. He also reveals an even more insidious side to his personality-the willingness to steal the idea for a thesis from his friend and fellow classmate.
Dani finds solace in the form of a friendship with Swedish native Pelle (and friend of Christian) who at one point, questioning her about her relationship with Christian, asks, “Does he feel like home?” Unfortunately, for Dani, given the state of her own unhappy home life, the answer to that question may be a troubling yes. But the film doesn’t allow Dani to wallow in her dissatisfaction. Instead, in this communal environment she begins to flourish, forging a gradual path of liberation from those that oppress her. There is a thrilling scene where she dances with the female locals and she finally come to life, displaying a joy that up until now always eluded her.
The film celebrates the power of community particularly that of the women. There are several scenes where the local women demonstrate great empathy towards one another. Seeing Dani in distress, they try to mimic her emotional state. In a sense, they are attempting to feel her pain. The film also contains one of the most interesting (to put it mildly) sex scenes ever depicted in film that features a group of women who participate in the act in order to help along the process of a successful impregnation.
By the film’s somewhat ambigious, not to mention highly disturbing ending, it’s fair to question whether Dani has merely traded one bleak existence for another. Then again, she seems to have found a place that for now feels like home, a place where there is genuine interest in the idea of community. This concept likely holds great appeal for many women who understand the value of nurturing, the importance of encouraging growth and development. Seeing Dani’s radiant smile and newly discovered fulfillment, one’s compelled to feel a measure of happiness for her. This Swedish community may offer her a warped sense of security, but perhaps for a young, vulnerable repeatedly victimized woman that is better than no security at all.
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