Midsommer is empathy horror. Our protagonist, Dani (Florence Pugh) has anxiety issues severe enough to hinder a relationship with a boyfriend who is ill-equipped to deal with her mental health. He name is Christian (Jack Reynor) and he views Florence as a burden when he probably ought to either commit emotionally or commit to a break-up.
And then Dani’s sister and parents die in a murder suicide, which only amplifies Dani’s already fragile mental state. But Christian and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) consider Dani too difficult to be with to employ an appropriate sense of empathy. Like anyone who isn’t receiving the connection they need or deserve, Dani is emotionally isolated as a result of the behaviour of the people around her.
Another of Christian’s friends, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), has invited the boys to attend a midsummer celebration at his ancestral commune, the Hårga, in Sweden. Christian and Josh, budding anthropologists, are keen to study the festival. Mark is more interested in the sex and meatballs. Christian, in lieu of an actual emotional connection, extends the invite to Dani in the wake of her family’s death. He feels sorry for her. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just a bad boyfriend. The only one who appears genuinely glad to hear of Dani’s inclusion is Pelle.
The commune, we quickly learn is seemingly almost wholly built around the concept of empathy. When one member of the community feels pain, the entire Hårga community wails in agony. In one scene, when a young woman is experiencing the pleasure of sex, she is joined by a team of matriarchal onlookers who moan in unified ecstasy.
I was struck, during Midsommar, by certain genre convention that were highlighted and playfully admonished in the 2011 Drew Goddard film, The Cabin in the Woods, which by sheer coincidence I revisited just last night. Goddard’s film is a knowing ode to the tired tropes of horror filmmaking, in which staple characters of the genre (the athlete, the fool, the scholar etc.) succumb to deaths that are often spurned on by an absence of logic in regard to what one might do in a strange situation. Many of those archetypal characters are recognisable in Midsommar. Regardless of the shiny veneer that suggests something more innovative than genre retreading, Aster’s Midsommar subscribes to many conventions wholeheartedly.
Much of the horror is conveyed through the establishment of the commune as an ‘other’. Alienation to one’s environment is certainly a powerful tool in the genre but the practices of the Hårga are so foreign to the American protagonists and the audience that a valid sense of fear is almost wholly unattainable.
Fear is a byproduct of experience. If Aster had established a way in which we might connect to each outlandish ritual then there might have been a greater sense of apprehension regarding proceedings. By the end of the film we are able to grasp little more of the Hårga than we were at the start. It’s all just a series of weird stuff. Extreme gore and the inclusion of a deformed child member of the commune are surely little more than cheap tactics designed to induce emotional discomfort.
The real horror in Midsommar lies in its attitude toward empathy. The opening sequence is phenomenal, laying a foundation upon which the rest of the film never effectively builds. In Aster’s film, empathy is as damaging as the lack of it, perhaps even more so. Dani is a prey to both its presence and absence as someone who is frighteningly in need of it.
It is heartening to have someone like Ari Aster working in horror filmmaking. He clearly expects more of horror than many of his contemporaries. Both Midsommar and his previous film, Hereditary, recall in their ambition in style and theme some of the best examples of the genre. But his strength is in directing. Midsommar might have benefitted from a defter script.