Thursday 12 September 2019

WDGB Midsommar Special #1: Eve Elizabeth Moriarty

So I've seen Midsommar, because of course I've seen Midsommar, and I have things to say about it, but I'm holding back on that because from tomorrow I'm going to be at the 13th MotelX film festival, in Lisbon, where I will, aside from being honoured to be on the jury for the short film selections, be hosting a folk horror masterclass with Midsommar director Ari Aster, and it just seems sort of sensible to hold off on saying much about it until I've, y'know, met the guy and talked about it.  

However! I'm not the only one who's got Thoughts, and several great writers I know have ideas about this. So over the next few weeks I'm running three (at least) takes on Midsommar by my friends and colleagues. 

First up is my good friend, the frankly powerful Eve Moriarty. Eve is a poet and academic, and it is no exaggeration to say that she numbers among my favourite people in the whole world. Here's what she has to say. There are spoilers in this piece.

Eve Elizabeth Moriarty

Possibly because I live my life disproportionately through the internet - many of my friends are in different cities, and many of my real life friends have been made through Twitter and other platforms - my experience of Midsommar feels collaborative, rather than individualistic. My initial response to the first watch was enormously coloured by the impressions that had filtered down to me from social media, and it’s these impressions that form a large part of my current thinking, if only as ideas to which I’m in opposition.

Being a woman in my late twenties with heavy investment in academic and feminist circles, the responses of my peers largely seemed to be that Midsommar was a feminist revenge film - a story in which a shitty boyfriend got what he deserved. I’d seen a lot of debate: about whether Christian deserved his fate, about whether we should take boys to screenings as acid tests of their shittiness (“if he thinks Dani was in the wrong,” one tweet said, “dump him”). It was with all this in mind that I took myself, alone, to a late screening, feeling at the time vaguely miserable about my own romantic situation and very ready to see the empowering, misandrist romp I’d been promised. The film I saw was absolutely not that, but something messier, sadder, harder to define - and better.

It’s worth saying, before I get into the meat of this, that I’m only going to make reference to scenes included in the UK cinematic cut of the film. I’ve read detailed descriptions of the extra half-hour in the directors’ cut, but as those additional elements are not in the work that I’ve seen, I’ve chosen not to respond to them. All they seem to do, at any rate, is make the implicit explicit, which in my opinion would negate some of the nuance that makes this film so good. And it is good, my favourite of the year so far.

The film opens with scenes from a fairly typical relationship - Dani and Christian have been together for a few years and bicker frequently. Christian, a presumably straight, white man in his late twenties, takes a call from Dani - she expresses concern for her mentally ill sister, who has sent some disturbing messages via Facebook and now can’t be reached. Christian’s emotional distance is clear from this call, as he dismisses Dani’s concerns and she trips over herself to agree with him, trivialising her own worries and telling him repeatedly that he’s “right”. When she hangs up, we see her talking to a female friend on the phone. Dani expresses concern that she is ‘too much’ and that she leans on her boyfriend for emotional support too often, contrasting this with the fact that he never needs to do the same with her. The friend points out that him not turning to her isn’t a good thing, that being vulnerable with your partner is the definition of true intimacy. These ideas of vulnerability and connection are absolutely integral to everything that happens from this point on in the film.

Christian is out with his friends: academic Josh, likeable Swede Pelle and Mark, objectionable and horny in equal measure. Mark as a character is very interesting - his open leering, casual misogyny and callousness serve as a counterbalance to Christian’s more insidious character flaws in a way that highlights rather than mitigating them. Throughout the narrative, Mark almost seems to be enacting the story beats of his own separate movie - an early 2000s euro-sex flick like 2004’s Eurotrip or a property in the American Pie franchise - but without any of the peverse innocence those films possess, playing the grubbiness and consequences of his actions straight. He’s a character stranded in the wrong genre, and ultimately, this leads to his demise.

As Christian hangs up, his friends ask him disparagingly when he’s going to break up with Dani, as he’s wanted to leave for some time; she calls him back – instead of speaking, all we hear is an animalistic, raw howl of grief, a primal scream which will later echo in one of the film’s most crucial ensemble scenes. In the following sequence, we learn that Dani’s sister has killed her parents and herself, essentially leaving Dani alone in the world. The last person to whom she has a real connection, Christian, goes over and holds her as she wails, now trapped by obligation in their faltering relationship. When the DVD is released, it’ll be worth pausing these early scenes in Dani’s home and looking at the art on the walls, which foreshadows later events in the film in a way I didn’t catch until a repeat watch.

This is the first point at which I start to disagree with the popular readings of Christian’s character and his relationship with Dani. Yes, it’s unhealthy and sad, and yes, they’d be better apart, but I don’t think he’s any worse than most straight men – he’s uncommunicative, selfish and distant in pretty mundane ways. If we killed every grown man who didn’t know how to express his emotions, who didn’t really consider ours, there would be very, very few of them left.

After a time jump, we see a clearly traumatised Dani struggling to cope with her grief, wearing no makeup and the classic depression uniform of a baggy shirt and sweatpants. It was really refreshing to see this wardrobe choice, particularly in a film directed by a man, when most filmic representations of depressed women are strangely glamorous (I’m thinking Dunst in Melancholia, or of the sort of portrayals parodied by Rachel Bloom in her song ‘Sexy French Depression’), as if we can’t even suffer without being continually subjected to the male gaze. It becomes clear at a party that Christian has booked a holiday to Sweden with his friends without telling Dani, and when the pair argue about it, we see another instance of Dani’s unwillingness to assert herself - when Christian borderline gaslights her, trying to tell her he’d already mentioned the trip and outright lying, it’s Dani who ends up pleading with him to stay, repeating placatory sentences about how good it is that he’s going, how sorry she is about the disagreement. It’s painful to watch this scene, in which she’s clearly terrified of being left, even when she is clearly not the one in the wrong.

Once the action moves to Hälsingland, Sweden, the group of men, now with Dani in tow, stop just outside the town in some fields, where the young people of the commune, who are all coming home for the festival, are congregating in small groups. We’re introduced to some new characters - Pelle’s brother and his friends from London, two characters that we never explore fully enough to really get a sense of why they’re there, or what their eventual fate means. Certainly their relationship seems to be much more loving and healthy than Dani and Christian’s, so it’s possible they’re just there as a point of contrast. The group are offered magic mushrooms, and Dani, although reluctant to join in at first, finally agrees not to eat them, but to drink psilocybin tea. Even in this group scene, when the idea of being “on the same trip” is important, Dani ingests the drugs in a slightly different way, highlighting and compounding her isolation. Sitting around, coming up in the field, Mark says something quietly in the background about the guys being “like his family”. This line highlights so many ideas of found family, community and connection whilst also being absolutely standard druggie nonsense, it’s incredible: a perfect example of delicate, efficient screenwriting. This statement seems to be the point at which Dani’s trip really goes bad - she gets up for a walk and wanders around the field, the small clusters of people only highlighting how removed and lonely she is, until she eventually hallucinates her dead sister and passes out. Drug trip scenes in films, particularly in horror movies, are often excuses to be wacky, nonsensical or ill-disciplined, but this, and indeed the other drug sequences in Midsommar, displays admirable restraint with the sparingly used visual effects and has a ring of psychic truth that illuminates, rather than obfuscates.

The group’s arrival in the town proper is classic Swedish Midsummer - girls in traditional white costume and hair braids, maypoles, singing, flower crowns - I was interested to see one person online saying this portrayal was “typical American xenophobia”, that the idea that European countries would behave in this way depicts them as pagan and backwards. As someone who has spent several Midsummers in Sweden, where I have close family, I have to disagree: although Midsommar picks and chooses different traditions, and entirely invents others, the overall vibe of Swedish Midsummer is not hugely different to these early scenes. This exchange made me think about the additional layer of othering the characters in Midsommar experience - just as my friends with no connections to Scandi countries felt alienated by these cultural displays, as outsiders, Dani and her fellow travellers are out of context and wrongfooted even by these harmless differences. I would be very interested to see how Swedish audiences responded to this film, given so much of what makes the environment strange and unfamiliar to the protagonists would read entirely differently to them.

It becomes clear that Christian has forgotten Dani’s birthday - Pelle remembers and presents her with a hand drawn portrait. This seemingly minor exchange begins a process in which care and belonging are associated with the Hårga, contrasted with the lack of communication and intimacy related to Christian and, by proxy, the outside world. Later, when discussing their relationship, Pelle asks Dani “do you feel held by [Christian]?”, an exchange which clearly has ulterior motives to repeat viewers but which nonetheless packs an emotional punch. This entire film is about feeling held - feeling connection and support - and what happens to a person without that, the lengths to which they’ll go to get it.

In the film’s goriest sequence, the next day the group witnesses an ättestupa, ritual suicide of the elderly in the commune, which reflects their ideas about death. At 72, everyone takes part in this, to prevent physical decline, and it is seen not as a sad, traumatic event but a natural and beautiful part of the life cycle. Contrasted with the untimely deaths of Dani’s family earlier in the film, this physically horrific but seemingly emotionally peaceful embrace of death provides a queasy counterbalance and is our first explicit indication that for all their outward wholesomeness, the commune have some very strange practices. The group decide to stay, particularly because as anthropology students, the practices of the commune fascinate Josh and Christian. I’m not the best placed person to speak on this, but the fact that the unprepared, poorly informed Christian decides to poach his friend’s idea - Josh, a black academic, already intended to write on this - really feels like a comment not only on the inherently othering practices of unethical anthropological study but more broadly on race in academia and the arrogance of white scholars.

One of the film’s few missteps is the presence of the oracle, a young person in the commune with physical disabilities as a deliberate result of incest. There is so little relevance to the main narrative - the scenes with this character are brief and few - that Aster could have easily cut them without anything being lost, therefore not adding to horror cinema’s long and shameful tradition of using physical disability as shorthand for monstrousness, or to elicit disgust and pity. When added to the fact that the film’s inciting action is a violent act by a mentally ill woman - who, incidentally, has bipolar disorder, a misunderstood condition with which sufferers are astronomically more likely to cause harm to themselves than to others - the film is left with an ugly stain of ablism that could easily have been avoided.
The final act of the film is a drug-fuelled fever-dream. Josh and Mark are both dispatched, both for disrespecting the commune’s rules and traditions, although Dani and Christian don’t know this yet. Simon and Connie, the pair from London, are also separated and murdered. Dani takes part in a maypole competition on psychedelics, during which, interestingly, she suddenly becomes (or perceives herself to become) able to understand Swedish, symbolically becoming part of the community and ceasing to be “other”. As she wins, she is crowned May Queen - dressed in white and flowers, she is now visually indistinct from the Hårga, whilst Christian still wears the clothing of an outsider.

As she is taken away for May Queen business, Christian is drugged and lured into a room with a naked girl and several similarly nude female onlookers. He takes part in a sex ritual that is uncomfortable to watch - in both screenings I attended it elicited a lot of nervous laughter. This is another point at which my reading of this film differs wildly from many people with whom I’ve spoken. It’s widely been discussed as the final straw - the moment that seals his fate - and referred to as infidelity, a moment of ultimate betrayal. I refuse to agree with any reading of this ritual that doesn’t acknowledge that, given his intoxicated state (and the weird pubic hair-based love potion he’s been given), what happens to Christian is absolutely rape. To argue that he in any way deserves his eventual death due to this is a profoundly unfeminist act of victim blaming.

Dani witnesses the tail end of this and runs away, panicking and inconsolable. In arguably the film’s most famous sequence, the women of the commune surround her and join in with her anguished wailing, their guttural screams syncing up into a collective expression of pain. While it’s tempting to see this as a moment of profound empathy - certainly it’s the moment when Dani emotionally weds herself fully to the Hårga - this scene is incredibly sinister, an act of indoctrination in which her individual, specific pain is universalised. Dani has not found acceptance or a group of people who will love her as an individual - she has found a group which has slowly stripped her of her identity and depersonalised her, in the way of the most successful cults throughout history. Even Dani’s pain, the biggest part of who she is, is now not her own.

The film concludes with a group sacrifice, and Dani is forced to decide: will Christian be killed? Her decision to allow this murder is the final step in her subsumation into the group identity: with it, she is (and I believe this is howard’s phrase) swapping one codependence for another. Letting go of Christian, and the morality of the outside world, Dani is like a bride being handed over from father to husband. In the last frame of the film, she’s smiling, but she certainly hasn’t won.

So many readings of this view her acquiescence to Christian’s killing as some kind of ‘gotcha!’, a triumphant rejection of him, his inadequate love, and it’s very easy, particularly for a female audience, to project things onto him. He’s a totem, a symbol of everyone who didn’t understand us, or simply didn’t want to, every cheating, deceptive manchild, every halfhearted lover. So I do understand the responses to this film which want to celebrate Christian’s death as a kind of scapegoat, a cathartic representative of all of these things, I really do. But fundamentally, this reading erases the things about Midsommar that make it so great.

I’ve written at length in other places about the acute sense of loneliness that I’ve always felt, the feeling of being slightly removed from others, the real or perceived inability to see and be seen in a meaningful way. This film is all about that, about the mundane ways in which we, as flawed people in a flawed world, repeatedly try and fail to hold and be held by each other. It’s about speaking without being heard, and hearing without listening. It’s about all the tiny ways we hurt each other through lack of effort or understanding. Everything Dani does is driven by her loneliness and grief, by her reaching for connection and accepting it, even when it’s being offered by a sinister cult that offers belonging at the cost of her identity. And even though this reading isn’t as neat as those which demonise Christian, or as comforting as the takes in which Dani has found somewhere to finally be happy, I really do think that’s the point: being a person is lonely, and hard, and people do crazy things to feel loved. Up to and including letting a rural Swedish cult dress your boyfriend as a bear and set him on fire.
Personally, I’m a mess of conflicting impulses—I’m independent and greedy and I also want to belong and share and be a part of the whole. I doubt that I’m the only one who feels this way. It’s the core of monster making, actually. Wanna make a monster? Take the parts of yourself that make you uncomfortable—your weaknesses, bad thoughts, vanities, and hungers—and pretend they’re across the room. It’s too ugly to be human. It’s too ugly to be you. Children are afraid of the dark because they have nothing real to work with. Adults are afraid of themselves.
Richard Siken, Black Telephone (emphasis mine)