It’s a cliché that a good horror movie leaves us afraid of the dark, but what if the sun never goes down?
Writer/director Ari Aster has referred to Midsommar as a break-up movie built on the framework of the folk horror sub-genre, and the film’s success lies in that genre’s use of folklore and landscape to create a setting both beautiful and menacing. Dani (Florence Pugh) is recovering from a family tragedy. Her reluctantly dutiful boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is about to take a trip to Sweden with his anthropology student friends, and half-heartedly invites her to join them. They’ll be there to observe the midsummer festival in the remote commune village of Hårga, home of fellow student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), but it soon becomes clear that Pelle hasn’t given the Americans the whole picture.
The village of Hårga is gorgeous, set in the kind of picturesque Swedish countryside that a group of hip young tourists would happily hike hours for, just to see what the regular tourists miss. The buildings are delightfully eccentric, adorned with charming folk art, but the residents all wear the same rustic frocks and their guests are greeted with a chorus of flutes. Something’s off about this paradise, so we’re unsurprised when one member of the visiting party compares it to Waco.
Like 1973 folk horror landmark The Wicker Man, Midsommar brings outsiders into a community of strange ways, testing them before revealing the hosts’ ultimate sinister motives. However, while so much of the fun of The Wicker Man comes from the quirky but seemingly ordinary residents of Summerisle toying with the visiting Sgt. Howie (and us as viewers) before springing their trap, Midsommar’s locals seem too far removed from the outside world for this to be anything but a horror film set-up. It’s not unusual for a horror film to be blunt about its premise like this – every film with a haunted house or a murderer roaming the woods does it – but Midsommar leaves little room for its protagonists to move.
After observing an upsetting ritual soon after arrival, the tourists quickly realize the gravity of their circumstances, and in a sense the rest of the film is about their attempts to cope. Dani and the other guests rarely have a moment to themselves, always about to be drawn in to another new experience that they don’t quite understand but can’t refuse. Not even the sky will give them respite, with the midnight sun offering dusk at most. This persistence of discomfort builds a claustrophobic tension, where even the most amiable gestures from the villagers might carry a hidden threat. It also produces some darkly funny moments as the guests struggle with the right way to accept this hospitality.
The ceremonies of Hårga dominate the plot, whether through participation or through the visitors’ scholarly interest in local customs, and the stunning imagery of these events carry an otherworldly, often hallucinatory quality. In Aster’s vision, Hårga becomes a place where the residents seem to know something about nature that the outside world doesn’t. The rituals of the midsummer festival honour nature while the villagers demonstrate their harmony with it – “What poetry that it’s now the hottest and brightest summer on record!” proclaims one of the village elders.
Ultimately, this is where Midsommar differs most from other folk horror films. In most entries of the genre, nature and the attempt to control it is at the root of the horror, but Hårga’s villagers are so assured in their ways that they don’t appear to struggle with the landscape at all. They seem to relate to their environment as equals, able to work with it to meet their needs, while the outsiders are at the mercy of both.
If Midsommar is also a break-up film, then Christian is the film’s other villain. At first Dani relies on him in her fragile state, even as we see him offer only minimal support as a partner. Once in Hårga, Christian’s lack of character reveals itself further in his interactions with friends and villagers alike. An increasing failure to stand for anything more than his own convenience places him in stark contrast to the strong communal ethic of the villagers, and Dani must eventually reckon with this. The pleasure of any genre film is in the way the filmmakers set up our expectations in order to play against them, and Midsommar succeeds at this gleefully. Even as the plot plays out with an air of inevitability, the film continues to surprise with its vitality and wit. Hårga as a setting lingers in the memory long after the film ends, as do many of the film’s beguiling set pieces and vibrant images. While an unlikely choice as a break-up film, Midsommar is a welcome addition to the folk horror canon.