Midsommar Director’s Cut: Relationship Horror

The technical brilliance of Midsommar is evident from its first minutes. The establishing shots of the frozen forest, the intimate conversations between Dani (Florence Pugh) and the answering machine of her mentally unstable sister are full of the kind of secret dread that comes into all our lives when we don’t know what we need from them. Before the title card, Dani’s sister kills herself and their parents; Dani curls up on the couch, crying like a grown baby. In a state of helpless power, a hoarse child, she’ll make you disbelieve all the other times you’ve heard a movie character cry.

Looking back on the movie, these ten minutes were the best in the film, both technically and emotionally. It was the only time I had no idea what would happen; the rest of Midsommar, by comparison, is reheated genre leftovers. On paper, this movie is an underachiever. Discovering the parts of it that are good requires a bit of distance: I feel like I’m complimenting someone’s immaculate outfit without really believing in the person beneath it. That analogy contains a secret truth of Midsommar: horror isn’t its subject so much as its fashion choice.

Despite a tone of upheaval (director Ari Aster, and I mean this nicely, makes his movies as though they’re masterpieces), the remaining two hours and forty minutes of this director’s cut of Midsommar, on limited release a couple of months after the movie’s theatrical run, is predictable and easy to describe if you’ve seen a lot of horror movies. Dani goes with her passively supportive boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), and his three friends to Sweden where they encounter a dreamy-eyed cult community. What do you think will happen? If the real evil had been their ignorance and suspicion in the face of well-meaning natives, if there was some ambiguity, it might be a new thought. On the contrary, the Swedes are evil hippy occultists that force-feed each other their genital fluids, inbreed, enslave, cannibalize, and desecrate each other. Midsommar is as suspicious of foreign cultures as movies used to be, and it all seems justifiable by its heritage as a horror movie. To understand how it gets away with barbarism, we have to look first at how it gets away with plagiarism.

Renaissance artists riffed on each other’s work, even across centuries: you know Michelangelo’s David, but you should also know Donatello’s David, made ninety years earlier. Midsommar is a form of The Wicker Man, practically a remake of it, and I’m framing it this way because I want you to know that I mean it with as little condemnation as I would accuse Michelangelo of plagiarizing another man’s statue. Those artists shared the Bible in common; modern horror movie mythologists share the 1970s. I’m perfectly willing to think of playing on a theme as a form of modernization, whether the references are as broad as matriarchy and inbreeding or as specific as a bear costume that recalls The Wicker Man remake with Nicolas Cage. Aster, like Michelangelo, is a cover artist.

The joy of watching Midsommar, and what keeps it from dragging even at its obstinate length, is in the movie’s look and in Pugh’s performance, neither of which are borrowed from anything. These things survive the script’s codependency with movie history. The establishing shots at the beginning of the film set up an effective contrast: the frigid New England winter and skeletal trees and overcast skies merely make it more suspiciously refreshing to visit the cult community in sunny Sweden (they have to put shades over the windows because there’s not enough nighttime to sleep in). The fields and clothes are warm pastels; the flowers are vivid; the entire area is shot with grace and affection. Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography is equally and oppositely as beautiful as his work on Aster’s Hereditary, which emphasized enclosure and construction as much as Midsommar replaces them with breathing, open skies and cryptic geometry.

Re-discovering enclosures even in a sunny world is the key to the hidden tension of Midsommar. The movie favors close-ups and Pugh bears herself at this movie fearlessly. She has weight on the screen; she’s who Jennifer Lawrence would be with a little bravery. I would suggest without having seen the theatrical cut that her occasional absence in this extended version holds it back. I found myself wishing it was a closer character study when Christian’s friends had their long scenes together, some of which I can just feel were the additions, involving who is doing what thesis. These moments that feel extra are when Midsommar loses its edge (a particularly awkward twilight ceremony, full of onlookers and out-of-place sarcasm, is an obvious addition to this cut).

It’s far better as a fairytale, and in the broad mosaic of its visuals, held up by the vulnerability of Dani being subjected to them, it becomes one.

The arc of the film is an extended allegory for a messy breakup, for the kind of self-harm that people who don’t love themselves inflict on the world around them by not knowing how to be in love. Dani and Christian’s dynamic is mutually destructive. It’s a relationship that neither is willing to admit the faults in, and neither is strong enough to change. We see Dani’s approach to relationships at the film’s beginning through a self-pitying rant about her fear that she’ll lose Christian, pleading with him to understand her worry as a sign of her weakness and not his. We see that she’s burdened by the need to be loved, and the belief that she doesn’t deserve it, and that it makes a coward like Christian feel pressured to pity her: he does her favors that he’s really doing himself.

Though he doesn’t abuse her, Christian knows that he doesn’t care about Dani (his friends encourage him to “cut her loose” so he can find someone that’s less work). But he can’t take responsibility for abandoning her; she even knows he doesn’t care about her, but can’t take responsibility for leaving him. They are collectively the problem with being normal people who aren’t honest with themselves or with each other, who can’t be happy together because they can’t be happy alone. They are as normal as the least heroic in all of us.

Is the movie, as some are claiming, intended to be empowering? I’m not sure which part is supposed to give anyone power. The movie begins with Midsommar being about how hating yourself leads you to be hurt, especially when you hate through a bad idea of love. The violent, barbaric certainty of Dani’s escape from her need of Christian at the end of this movie is not heroic: it’s trading the risk of depending on one person for the seemingly safer bet of giving yourself to a collective. Neither case results in her being a better or happier person: it’s a spiritual transition motivated by brutality, not self-actualization. This ending shows a girl who needed to stand up for her own needs losing all her ability to do so, becoming the mouthpiece of a terrifying mob, lashing out and losing all her remaining humanity to a wilderness of fake intimacy.

This is communicated by her silence: she has no ability to express herself by the end of this film; she’s reduced to pure pain. It’s a truly horrifying prospect that some reviewers are reading as a kind of self-right anthem, as though Christian deserved his fate because he was a douchebag who couldn’t take responsibility for breaking up with his girlfriend, or that Dani benefits from giving a mob of inbred cannibals control over her self-image. I think the aspects that feel like teen horror, like any bargain bin cannibal cult movie, reduce the morals in Midsommar so far that the effect is almost comical; I thought the ending was full of irony, not empowerment.

I don’t know if Christian deserves what ultimately happens to him, but he deserves the fate of someone who can’t commit to loving the person he claims to love. The most disturbing thing about his whole character is that he reminds us so much of ourselves, in that way in which we never hope to be remembered by those we hurt: as so inactive in our own lives that we have no room for anyone else’s. This applies in reverse to Dani, who is so overactive about her own wants that she can’t see straight. This is why she goes silent in the film’s last third: her character’s only remaining trait by the end is the ability to be hurt. I think it says less about Aster than about us that people are tempted to cheer when they see it.

Yet, even as a blatant allegory for dating that overindulges in its genre, Midsommar manages to stay grounded, and that makes parts of it genuinely haunting. Even if you’re laughing, you’re also unsettled. We can see the villagers’ tribal art reflecting Dani’s inner turmoil (it recalls the primal murals on the tile in 3 Women) and we can see her in a context without society’s distractions, as she begins to see that Christian can’t offer her the support she needs. The movie’s most powerful scene involves a heaving chorus of chanting women, breathing in time with Danni’s sorrowful cries as she awakens into her brutality through sexual and emotional togetherness. I suppose some people think that’s when she becomes heroic; I thought it was the exact moment she becomes soulless. But all of the scenes of the villagers’ practices are disquieting, personal, and deeply tense.

This is why Aster favors close-ups so much. Despite the most breathtaking scenery, much of the movie’s most intense imagery is of Pugh’s eyes, emotionally evolving, and the stoic faces of people who are content enough in their own lives to take the lives of others. By being so dynamic, however, next to side characters that are so intentionally mundane, Truth or Dare characters trapped in a cult classic, Midsommar starts to feel its length when we deal with them too much. That’s why so much of it feels outside of the allegory. Its theme is like its summer home, while it’s normally living inside of its comfortable conventions.

Will Poulter plays Mark, a character that downgrades the movie: he’s exactly the kind of irreverent teenager that gets picked off in a movie like this, and here again, that seems to be his only role. He’s stupid beyond all reason, a chore to watch, and the characters leave him behind whenever the movie gets suspenseful (for the ritual suicide scene, for instance). It’s unrealistic that he’d be absent, but absolutely necessary that he does not intrude on the important scenes: Aster knew this and that’s why he leaves him behind. Knowing that, he should have cut the character completely.

William Jackson Harper plays Josh, the one most conscientious of the villagers’ customs, and I think I would have preferred him in the lead. I’d have better enjoyed seeing him play down to the level of a selfish jerk than seeing Reynor try to play up to one. I know Christian is supposed to be inert but Reynor overachieves on it: his scenes come right out of TV movies. Vilhelm Blomgren is a native of the little town and is so aggressively suspicious that not even the soft charm of the actor can prevent the part from being laughable.

It doesn’t sound like I’m describing the cast of a masterpiece and I’m not: pretty much everyone other than Pugh cheapens the movie. That’s why if the teenagers’ part is the one extended for this edition, I guarantee the theatrical cut is better: Pugh is a powerhouse in this movie and it’s not fun to be pulled away from her. The extra stuff makes Midsommar lack that perfect perspective horror that really examines a character’s mind-space, as it was for Duvall in The Shining or Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch. When we leave her perspective, we also leave her sleepless nights and her suspicions; we lose the movie’s breadcrumb trail to its intention, which I believe is to turn breaking up into body horror. Seeing Pugh transform through suspicion and self-tyranny is the only interesting thing, and it is interesting. It ends on a scowl, a clever reverse reflection of the poster art. But you may find yourself wondering if it was earned by these distracted events, as they were earned without hesitation at the end of the trial of spirit and body in The Witch.

I said that I didn’t want to accuse Aster of plagiarism, but I wrote that before researching this movie. Unknown to most of us, there was a movie I discovered researching for this review called Midsommer, a 2003 Danish film in which a man named Christian takes his buddies (there’s also a Mark) and his girlfriend to Sweden to participate in a Midsommer festival after his sister commits suicide, which turns into the setting for a horror movie. It was remade into the 2008 film, Solstice. So you see, my belief that Aster is an artist giving us his variation of a cultural story, and not just a scam artist, depends on realizing that the originality of his Midsommar comes from visuals and not at all from ideas.

He didn’t invent the recipe but he’s a great chef, original in ways that are limited entirely to the technical but valid as an artist in a craft that takes inspiration from everywhere. He’s an amateur dramatist, a pretender, who gives Dani the last name Ardor with the mindset of a film student (if he had made The Exorcist, he'd have named the girl, Regan Demonchild). Yet, he's a master technician: on most levels, his own Midsommar is a disturbingly pleasurable viewing, which challenges your ability to separate poetic ambitions from total genre excess (the orgy scene is filmed with brutal intensity, and more than one person in my theater was laughing for its entirety, even as I was squirming in itchy terror at the implications of raping a man as punishment for personality).

Aster gets close to us, close enough to make us wish he would look away. It’s those angles where we least like ourselves, where we need love most even as we’re least able to emotionally accept it. I think that our idea that Midsommar is heroic somehow is a form of self-absolution: we don’t want to think that any of this is our fault or our destiny. The startling, brutal images of Midsommar are as much about horror movies as about this illness of ego that allows us to cheer at barbarism if it’s in the service of justifying how sad we are. It’s in that realm that it’s a triumph. It has a lot of extra stuff it doesn’t need. But if it ever figured that out, it wouldn’t be like us at all.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film: © A24

Cast & Crew

Ari Aster

Ari Aster

Dani Ardor Florence Pugh
Christian Hughes Jack Reynor
Pelle Vilhelm Blomgren
Mark Will Poulter
Connie Ellora Torchia
Simon Archie Madekwe

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