Thursday, 4 June 2020

We Don't Go Back #93: Midsommar (2019)

Although I wrote it a little while ago, I have finally gotten round to posting this, the first and longer of two pieces I'm doing about Midsommar, on the week before I run my online seminar on new folk horror, The Second Haunted Generation. I'd like to say that there was some sort of master plan behind this, but I'd have to be organised, logical, and neurotypical, and it officially turns out, far too late, that I am none of those things. Besides, there was a point that posting anything at all would be frivolous and awful, inasmuch as pretty much everything is right now.

Anyway, I would really like you to come to the webinar I'm running about this, and you can do that by buying a ticket, contacting me if you're broke and want to come because I have free extra tickets that have already been bought by generous attendees, or backing my Patreon for over ten of those American bucks a month, which gets you into all the seminars for free, videos of the ones you missed, gets you posts a week at least before everyone else, audio readings of fiction and poetry and is significantly better value. All of these things put food on my table.

(And if you don't want to do any of that, please at least forget about me and consider donating to one of the funds offering bail for protesters over in the USA right now. No one's really going to thank you for it, and they shouldn't have to, nor should you have to make a song and dance about it. Just, you know, do something quiet because it's the moral thing to do.) 

I’m not sure what there is left to say about Midsommar. Increasingly, writing about it has become something of an obligation (and if there's ever a second edition of We Don't Go Back, it's a shoo-in). But here we are. Quotes from Midsommar are taken direcctly from the script of the film, which can be found on the A24 site, which is a nice thing to have – usually I just transcribe scenes as I watch them, over and over.

Let's get the usual warnings done with. We are discussing horror here, so obviously things will be nasty, but you might be more concerned about spoilers, because we're giving away the whole thing. There is some detailed discussion of rape, gaslighting and abuse in this post. If that's the sort of thing that will remind you of something terrible that happened, or which will make you relive experiences you would rather not revisit, I'll trust that you'll know what to do. With that out of the way, let's begin.
Some background. In January 2018, I was asked to give a talk on folk horror in its cultural context to the audience at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and at the end of that talk, I said that I felt that folk horror’s future was in independent, low budget productions.

I was wrong.

In fact, it was in 2018 that folk horror began really to get the attention of the wider film and TV watching public. At the beginning of the year, the only vaguely historical Romans-vs-Celts drama Britannia did for peplum what Robin of Sherwood had done for swashbuckling Merry Men back in the 80s. And in the summer, Ari Aster’s Hereditary came out, which was an admittedly divisive but inventively nasty story of cult occultism in clear homage to Rosemary’s Baby. It made a splash. By the end of the year, though, we had Requiem and Apostle, both of which, although being set in the underused folk horror setting of Wales, were essentially exercises in folk horror bingo, and not especially energetic exercises. The less said about Apostle the better (my eyes… they’ve seen things), but while Requiem wasn’t even that bad really, it was more than simply derivative, it was an act of plagiarism on quite a deep level. I felt a fatigue there, a sense that if things stayed how they had, that was it for folk horror as a cultural expression with really that much to say.

Besides, the Black Philip Funko Pop was a thing that existed. I mean, you can understand how I might have thought folk horror was a done deal.

(Pictured: folk horror, finished.)
And then 2019 happened. The start of the year brought us Jordan Peele’s phenomenal, folk-horror-adjacent Us (my film of the year, at least until Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women came out), and the year ended in Robert Eggers’ return with The Lighthouse. And bang in the middle of that was Ari Aster's follow up to Hereditary, Midsommar. And Midsommar was huge, and everyone knew it was going to be, right from the moment the trailer dropped.

Midsommar has gone Full Meme. I suppose my circles are skewed, but it's easily now the most-memed folk horror movie. People have even mucked about with Animal Crossing to make Midsommar-themed images.
(Source: @smackbeth1. It's the hammer that makes this.)

It sits more or less on the same not-really-indie level as Pulp Fiction did in 1994; like Pulp Fiction, it was the second well-received film in a well-trodden genre, packed with homage, made by a young male auteur; and like Pulp Fiction, it’s become the Poster that Adorns a Thousand Halls of Residence. Back in the 90s, Pulp Fiction had become popular enough that liking Quentin Tarantino became sort of semi-mainstream; that is, mainstream enough that lots of people who aren’t film fans or even necessarily genre fans have heard of it, but just edgy enough that the cool kids can feel good about liking it.

To say that’s damning the movie with faint praise is more than an understatement, and perhaps that is unfair. Let’s start again.

Midsommar is, love it or hate it (and many, many more people love it than hate it, but notably I have only one, just one, close friend who absolutely despises this film, and few are just meh) is important. It matters. It is the one unimpeachable New Folk Horror Hit. It is the centre of current folk horror discourse. That needs to be approached thoughtfully.

Fortunately, I got a break there.
(I don't know who made this meme, but it's my favourite, because it gets the film perfectly.)
In September 2019, the Miskatonic Institute asked me to go to the MotelX Festival in Lisbon, and host an on-stage masterclass for them, with Ari Aster. I of course jumped at the chance. I wrote the agenda for the thing (the release on the MotelX website, I wrote that) and I had the chance to talk with him a couple of times before the event, and then we spent an hour on stage together, and that was it, really, because the event kept him pretty busy, as you'd expect. But the conversations we had, on stage and off, were enjoyable and useful for me, if only because Ari is a pretty nice guy, and it helped me to get a grip on a film that I'd found difficult to get a handle on, and I think some of Ari’s words from that afternoon are going to be helpful to quote here, so I’ll be coming back to them as I go (and if you want to see them in their native, unedited form, the video of the masterclass session can be found in two parts on MotelX’s Facebook page, here and here).
(Pictured: Ari Aster being introduced to the audience by some old queer.)
Midsommar falls firmly into the Pagan Village Conspiracy category of folk horror, and owes the most to The Wicker Man (although we’ll see it’s a little bit more complex than that).

We follow Dani (Florence Pugh), who is thrust into a personal sort of hell when her sister’s mental illness claims both her life and the life of her and Dani’s parents in a horrible murder-suicide. Although Dani is in the dying stages of a relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), Dani, absorbed by grief, can no longer function enough to gather up the courage to split from Christian, and Christian no longer feels able to split from Dani, out of guilt and cowardice.

Months pass; Dani is not given the support she needs to work through her grief. Christian, an anthropology graduate, is riding on the coat tails of more competent colleague Josh (William Jackson Harper, basically playing Chidi from The Good Place, only not comedic, and resolutely unsympathetic), and going on a sort of half-research trip, half-holiday to Hårga in Sweden, the home community of fellow postgrad Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), to witness a Midsummer (Midsommar) festival. Also going is their obnoxious pal Mark (Will Poulter), but Dani is explicitly not invited, or even told about it. Dani of course finds out and Christian doesn’t have the backbone to go without her, and Dani is too lost in her pain to be able to stand up for herself, resorting to all the tactics of the clingy, needy, hurting lover, prey to the way that you become a sort of manipulative when you’ve been manipulated.

Christian, a coward and a rat, lies to her about what she’s seen and heard, causing her to doubt herself. Plunged into insecurity, then, she becomes more clingy, more needy, and Christian lies more, because he is a coward and a rat. Don’t get me wrong: this is not a “both sides are bad” thing. This is mainly on Christian. His behaviour turns both of them into worse people and he’s the one with the agency to tell the truth and dump her, because she’s in bits right now. And the obvious answer is that this will hurt an already hurting woman even more, and it will, but it is the only way she can escape this: by his leaving her. She is too in need of support to make the move.
They go to Hårga; the place is beautiful and sun-drenched – it’s the solstice, and the sun doesn’t go down. The community is pagan, and engaged in a lengthy celebration that has not been held for ninety years. The celebrations go from charming, to comical, to disturbing, to horrific, and then to bloody, as the visitors to Hårga are ritually murdered one by one.

Like many other folk horror texts, the tone of the film maintains a balance between dread and comedy. Mark in particular is sort of signified as a comic relief character, the sort of person you’d find in an American Pie movie – the bit where he accidentally pisses on the sacred Ancestor Tree works because it shows the consequences of a character from a frat-boy comedy coming up against the traditions of a people who take this sort of thing seriously. But there’s much in the way the Hårga rites are framed that seems faintly ridiculous. The film itself acknowledges this in dialogue.
Pelle: It's sort of a crazy nine-day festival my family's doing, lots of pageantry and–special ceremonies and dressing up.
Dani: That sounds fun!
Pelle: It'll probably seem very silly, but it's like theatre.
It’s like theatre. It’s a play, unfolding. And of course, with the tableau at the start laying out the story in all its inevitability, and later on with the tapestry showing the love spells, there is a sense that the film in its leisurely inevitability is presenting a sort of tableau vivant. In several points in the film, images are hidden in images (such as, towards the end, when we see the face of Dani’s dead sister, encoded, Magic Eye-like, in the trees and bushes, which I missed, first time I saw it, because I've always sucked at Magic Eyes), and there’s a sort of van Gogh-style distortion in the way the ground is transformed during the scenes where Dani is strung out on various hallucinogens.

At the end, with the foreigners whittled down one by one, only Dani and Christian are left. Christian is drugged, and lured into a chamber by the promise of sex with a local woman, Maja (Isabelle Grill), who has been casting love spells on him all through the movie. Unable to withdraw his consent, he is ritually raped in an excruciating, harrowing scene. Dani, groomed by the pagans, is lured into taking part in the women’s ceremonies. She becomes the May Queen, and, crowned, gets to choose who the last sacrifice is. She has been manipulated into seeing Christian fucking Maja, and rules that he will be the last human sacrifice. Christian, helpless, burns alive with all the other visitors and a number of volunteers from Hårga, and as she watches the building in which her (presumably now ex-) boyfriend is burning alive, Dani transitions from misery to her only unforced moment of joy in the film.

Midsommar is undeniably beautifully and intricately made. Criticisms that it's predictable miss the point – it's supposed to be predictable, even to the extent that we see the whole plot in pictorial form at the start of the movie. I do feel that the film’s a little too long, a little too in love with its slow pace – the Director's Cut, particularly, weighing in at 170 minutes, adds a great deal of length and little that can't be worked out from the theatrical cut – and my feeling, which is an outlier, is that there's a thin line between “hypnotic” and “soporific” and the Director's Cut starts to straddle that. But this slow pace is a deliberate choice. I can criticise it and take issue with it, but it’s not an error. Midsommar wants to take its time.
AA: I think that when movies are made cynically, that’s a bad thing. And by cynically, I mean movies that are – you can tell when movies are made by committee, and when it’s not personal, and when people are just constantly aiming for an effect, an immediate effect, an immediate result. Those films don’t interest me, I actively try to avoid them. I have nothing against the jump scare. The rule I had for myself when I was making these two films was just, if something happens to be a jump scare, but it’s right, great. But I was never looking for it, I was not looking for the opportunity. I think both films probably have a few of them.
HDI: Midsommar less so, I think.
AA: Midsommar less so. I’m not sure there is a jump scare in Midsommar.
(On stage, Cinema São Jorge, Lisbon, 15th September 2019)
The first time I saw Midsommar, my first thought was that it was another case of Folk Horror Bingo, albeit one, as I said to friends at the time, that was working from an oddly different card. I spent the whole film thinking “What's happening here?” I was wrong again, since peculiarly, this is not in fact the case, and the fact that Midsommar is not consciously a checklist of tropes is itself pretty fascinating.
AA: I made a decision to not watch any folk horror films before I made Midsommar. I had seen them all before – but it had been about ten years since I had seen – really, any of them. I knew them but kind of wanted to stay away from them, while also paying homage to an extent, and acknowledging what came before. It was sort of important to me to just stay clear of them.
HDI: Were you perhaps acknowledging hazy memories of having seen those films rather than the films themselves?
AA: In a way. I mean, certainly the connection between Midsommar and The Wicker Man is pretty clear. And if anything, that was sort of the key for me to – breaking the film open, because at the time I was concerned with – writing – a breakup movie, and wanting to find an appropriate framework, you know, over which to drape this kind of more personal material. And I am a genre filmmaker. I was approached by a Swedish production company, called B-Reel, that wanted me to make a folk horror film set in Sweden. And that was exciting to me for a lot of reasons. But when I – you know when I sat down and I engaged with the exercise of, you know, imagining what my folk horror might be. It was almost immediate how I made the connection between the film I had been trying to form and that structure.
That is, B-Reel, a Swedish company, had approached Aster with an idea for a folk horror film (which gives the lie to the objection that the film exploits and others Swedish traditions, by the way), and apparently they’d wanted something more on the stalk-and-slash spectrum of horror, something Hostel-y, and he had decided that what he’d wanted to do was something more like “The Wicker Man, only a break up movie.” Except that he’d made the conscious decision not to directly engage with the folk horror classics. In fact, you could draw parallels, even find near-identical scenes, in Robin Redbreast, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Kill List, and The Witch, among others, but they’re not consciously referenced here. They just happened. 
In fact, Aster is going further back here, and taking more direct inspiration from directors like Bergman, from older sources, many of the same sources which were no doubt seen by the filmmakers who made those original folk horror films so long ago.
AA: Your connection to the genre is almost like something that you have to write in retrospect. What I know is that I grew up obsessed with horror films, loving horror films, only wanting to see horror films. I had a binder that I filled with badly photocopied images from horror movies. I was always drawing, I would draw these gory illustrations. I was really into it. ...And what happened is I kind of broke from horror for a long time, as a viewer, and I would only go to movies that were recommended to me. And making these horror films has brought me back to the genre. But in many ways it’s always very interesting for me to hear people talk about what they believe these films are doing and how they’re playing with these conventions. Which they are, and in Hereditary – actually, both films are films that are loaded with tropes and certain acknowledgements, nodding to certain things, and I believe that what’s exciting about making a genre film, in any genre, is the idea of breathing new life into a dead horse. And taking clichés, which are only clichés because people keep using them, because they work so effectively, there’s something very essential in them, but for that same reason they become rote. How do you take that – if you’re going to take that – and make it essential again?
And this is interesting. I think that part of the reason that Midsommar hit a nerve is because folk horror tropes don’t depend on you having seen the movies to understand or know them. They are in the air.
HDI: I mentioned earlier on that I saw a lot of parallels between Hereditary and The Witch, and I was interested in what you had to say about that… that you actually started writing Hereditary before The Witch came out.
AA: It was written three years before that.
HDI: And they’re still very similar in plot, and is that because, perhaps, the same general things are flying around in the air?
AA: Yeah. I mean, there’s a certain, I think, fatalism that’s pretty pervasive. It definitely feels like, the world is ending, and I think it’s that feeling that’s informing maybe the fact that the genre is so embraced at this time… It’s not a particularly interesting insight, but yeah, things are fucked up at this time.
I think that if Midsommar hadn’t have come along, if it hadn’t have tapped into the sense of that collective cultural haunting that I keep writing about, and if it hadn’t struck a nerve with its painfully observed relationship breakdown, something else would have seized the folk horror zeitgeist. But here we are. It was Midsommar.
Like every classic pagan village conspiracy, it’s all a murder plot from the very start. The ritual depends on outsiders being sacrificed and used as breeding stock – Dani, assimilated, joins them, as was arguably the plan from the very beginning. All through the film, the Hårgalanders lie and gaslight their way through their interactions with their visitors. It becomes evident that Pelle, far from being the gentle, solicitous and possibly lovelorn friend he appears to be, was in fact sent out to groom and find participants for the bloody Midsommar ritual, as indeed was Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg). And here is where one of the more interesting story elements comes in, because Ingemar brought back an English couple, Simon and Connie (Archie Madekwe and Ellora Torchia).
Ingemar: Well...we were all working on the same farm, and funny enough: I was dating Connie when Simon and me first became pals.
Connie: Well - we‘d been on a date. Which I wasn’t even actually aware was a date.
Ingemar: Right, no, I meant that Connie and me had just become friends – we decided to be friends - and that was just before Connie and Simon started dating. And now they're engaged!
Dani: Oh wow. Congratulations.
Ingemar: Which is amazing. Yes. Congratulations.
Simon: (to Dani) We’ve actually asked Ingemar to officiate the wedding.
Dani: You did?
Simon: Nope!
Right from this moment, we see that the function Connie and Simon – who are, by the way, a very British variety of non-white – serve in the plot is to be better than the Americans. They have working moral compasses, they are secure in each other, and they will not be gaslit. Ingemar is giving a narrative of how they know each other that Simon and Connie explicitly reject. You get the impression that they don't particularly feel strongly about Ingemar, but they're totally going to take up an invitation to see a once-in-a-lifetime Swedish cultural festival. Of course, they don't know that here it's “once-in-a-lifetime” because their lifetimes are going to be very soon brutally curtailed, but then that's folk horror, right?

When the visitors witness the Ättestupan – the ritual suicide of two of the village elders – it is Simon and Connie who object at the brutality and horror of it. The Hårgalanders say it’s beautiful and true, but it’s obviously no such thing; it’s an act of blood and pain. Josh knew it was going to happen anyway and wanted to see it (and also doesn’t tell the others what will go down, because he's smug about knowing something they don't), Mark isn’t there because he doesn’t care, and Christian is too much of a cowardly liberal to object.

There is a scene in the Director’s Cut of the movie that implies that Dani feels the way Simon and Connie do, but doesn’t have the courage to try to say anything or leave on her own. When Simon is done away with (and we will discover, at the end of the movie, done away with in an excruciatingly awful way), Connie refuses to believe that he would have left her behind when she is told so, because she and he have a healthy relationship. Because she trusts him. Dani survives because she is susceptible to being gaslit. She survives because she does not have the resources to leave, even when she has more moral clarity than any of the other Americans.
Christian: No, hey - have you even seen what’s happening here?! This level of tradition? And nobody knows about it, nobody’s written on it – and they’ve invited us to be part of it! Can’t you see what a privilege that is?!
Dani: But why have they invited us?
Christian: Because Pelle did!
Dani: And why did Pelle?!
Christian: Because he trusts us!
Dani: And why would he trust you, of all people? You’re opportunistic anthropology students.
Christian: Maybe because we’re anthropologists. Maybe they want someone to document this.
Dani: Oh my God, are you blind? They’re performing pagan rituals! People are jumping off cliffs. They depend on nobody knowing about this!
Christian: Not necessarily.
Dani’s choice, then, depends on which gaslighter is better. And she chooses the murderers and rapists because they have something that Christian doesn’t have.
Pelle: I know, and that’s fine, but please... My birth-parents both died when I was a little boy. They burned up in a fire, and I became - technically - an orphan. So believe me when I say I know what that is, because I do. Yet my difference is: I didn’t get a chance to feel lost. Because I had a family - here - where everyone embraced me and swept me up and I was raised by a community that doesn’t bicker over what is theirs and what is not theirs. That’s what you were sacrificed to. But I - have always felt...held. By a family. A real family. Which everyone deserves. And you deserve.
[Dani looks down at Pelle’s hands gripping hers.]
Dani: Christian could walk in.
Pelle: He’s what I’m talking about. And he’s my good friend and I like him... But do you feel HELD by him, Dani? Does he feel like a HOME to you?
Do you feel held?

In the end, that sense of community, that sense of being held, that’s the central fulcrum of the film.
I’m going to write about Midsommar in the sense of cult grooming and brainwashing in the other post, because it's a fertile ground for that, but right now, because that whole thread deserves an entire piece on its own, let’s just hold onto how Dani chooses the Hårga people because while she knows they’re also gaslighting her – that’s the horrible thing about being gaslit, you know it’s happening, and it’s the being made to doubt your own perceptions and values that’s the most awful thing about it – they have something Christian cannot bring: home. A sense of being held in a community. Solidarity. A feeling of being held.

Now, in Midsommar, there are only three innocent victims – Simon, Connie and the bear. Simon faces the death of the Blood Eagle. Mark gets skinned. Josh is whacked over the head and buried upside down, which I guess is comparatively mild (if you can call being dead “comparatively mild”). But Christian’s humiliation and torment, and yes, his rape, is more extreme to us, because all of the other things happen off camera, and we only see their aftermath.

Does Christian deserve it? Of course not. But then, who does?

Josh doesn’t really deserve to die for being amoral in his pursuit of his research – the only genuine research, the only competent research. This whole trip is Josh’s trip, in fact. Christian’s attempt to usurp Josh’s research, in the way that white researchers do to nonwhite researchers all time, is the sort of thing that happens. But of course Christian only wants to write his thesis on Hårga because he’s here.
Josh: Find your own subject! Or find your own passion! I'm actually invested in this. This is not some glorified hobby that I'm casually dipping my feet into!
Nothing Christian does is a passion. It’s not a hobby for Josh, on the other hand, but it’s not what Josh dies for. It’s evident – evident from the unfulfillable promises that the Hårgalanders make, in Pelle’s disingenuous reassurances, that Josh is here to die from moment one. His intellectual curiosity might be amoral but it’s not why he dies. Mark, likewise, doesn’t die because he is a jerk who pisses on an ancestor tree. He dies because he’s going to die. Connie might have wound up the May Queen (but seriously, there are reasons why that's unlikely), but she will not be manipulated. Connie and Simon are simply too good. So you have here the trope of inescapability in folk horror. The sense that it was you they wanted all along.
And Christian was never going to be chosen to escape. Dani was always going to pick him. Because that’s how the people of Hårga played it, how they engineered that she would see him in flagrante with Maya.
HDI: ...The most memorable scene in Blood on Satan’s Claw is the big ritual rape/sacrifice... at the end of the second act… You have a teenaged girl who is lured into a clearing. She is raped while everyone is watching... The rape-ritual at the end of Midsommar, and it’s a rape, it absolutely is… That reminded me of Blood on Satan’s Claw. And your answer to that was really interesting.
AA: Well, my answer was that that was something that occurred to us in post-production, that we were editing the film and we were like, “Oh, this is a lot like Blood on Satan’s Claw.” And actually, I wasn't the one to make that connection, but rather, my editor. ...It’s funny. I mean, it sounds disingenuous, but it occurred to me later on.
And it may be accidental, but the parallels there are undeniable.

So. Let's talk about the rape scene. I've already said this, but if you don’t want to read about precise definitions of what does and does not constitute rape, if such things would ruin your day or your week, or worse, remind you of something that happened to you, skip the next 600 words or so, or, I don’t know, close the tab and do something else (like donate to a bail fund).

By “the rape scene”, I mean the scene where Christian is manipulated into a ritual sex act, intended to add some breeding stock into the Hårga bloodline, while drugged, and it's really quite depressing that I even have to clarify that. It was intended to be read as a rape by the director – I am lucky enough to have it from the horse’s mouth (I asked him about this directly backstage, but that’s anecdotal; but it's in the video too). But even aside from that, I think it's hard to see it as anything else.

Christian has been approached repeatedly by Maja. He knows she's into him early on. She puts love charms under his bed, and menstrual blood in his drink, gives him a special cake with her pubes in it. He is a terrible guy, and is quite happy to cheat on Dani: the Hårga elders even straight out ask him if he wouldn't mind fucking Maja and getting her pregnant, for the sake of breeding stock, and he's too much of a rat to say no, because she's sorta hot, and Jack Reynor gives the impression of someone who's already formulating in his head tactical ways to get this past Dani.

But the Hårga people drug him anyway. Christian follows Maja into the ritual chamber, and they start to have sex while the Hårga women watch, naked. But his expressions and behaviours are not those of someone who is really into it, or knows what he's doing, and the more it goes on, the weirder it gets.

He has no control over where he is or what he is doing, and while he, being a coward and a rat, was at least quite willing to start the enterprise (and probably told himself he'd be nailing this babe as a necessary sacrifice for the cause of anthopology), there's no way in hell that he, although a coward, a rat and, worst of all, a smug straight white middle-class liberal, wants to be here once it's over (because if he was OK with the way it ended, he certainly wouldn't run away in confusion, terror and shame). An old woman grabs his arse at one point and gives him a hand with the thrusting. That's not a consensual act.

Let's put it another way. Here are some questions:

One. Does date rape exist as a phenomenon?

Two. Is it rape if a woman is into a guy, and he slips her a roofie, and she winds up having sex with him without really being able to say no, even if there's a more than zero chance she might have enthusiastically said yes anyway if she hadn't have been drugged?

Three. Is it rape if a woman, drunk or high, enthusiastically goes to bed with a guy and then realises that this is wrong and needs to get out before the deed is done, only she's drunk or high and unable to, and it's forced on her to the end?

If the answer to at least two of those questions is “yes” (and for those of you playing along at home, the correct answers are “yes”, “yes”, and “yes”) then why is there any question whatsoever about what happens to Christian? He's a terrible person. Terrible people can be raped too and although no one deserves this to happen to them – even lying, manipulative, self-serving shits like Christian – it doesn't make them any less terrible. Rape, undeserved, humiliating and traumatising – isn't just a thing that happens to the innocent. Straight men can be raped. Straight men can be raped, even by women. Medically, it is known that erection and ejaculation can happen independently of whether the owner of the penis wants them to. If you believe date rape is a thing, Christian is raped.

And this is part of the reason why the film really has struck a chord as a sort of feminist revenge fantasy. Because the no-good boyfriend gets raped and killed for being a no-good boyfriend. Of course, this is a film. It is a story that is imaginary, played by people who are acting. No one who actually cheers that part of the film really wants to murder anyone (OK, let’s say almost no one, just to be safe, but that’s not the point). That's implicit in the term “revenge fantasy”. Dani’s grin at the end is a signifier of catharsis. In the world of the film, Dani as a person is annihilated at this point, her self subsumed under an entirely new identity, but then that’s also a whole part of what makes this part of the film so elemental and powerful for so many people.
 
Many of us who have been subject to abuse and gaslighting for large parts of our lives (and do not mistake me, there is a very good reason I am saying “us” here) know full well that any efforts we make to escape our situations or fight back against them will have awful consequences. That’s part of the deal. That’s part of the valid fear we live with. The fact that Dani’s terrible, final victory over her cowardly, no-good boyfriend is not consequence-free, the fact that she pays an awful, soul-destroying price for it, is precisely why this film strikes a chord. Because it is easier to believe. Because, inside, we know.

The more horrible the consequences, the more horrible and cathartic the imaginary revenge can be. Because it gives us a sort of permission. 
AA: Cumulatively, I spent about a year, with Midsommar and Hereditary, amassing books and reading as much as I could. Midsommar, that was kind of fun research, that was more anthropological – I was reading The Golden Bough, different things like that... and I think that sort of reflected in Midsommar. I feel sort of closer to those customs. Not in my own life, but most of my research there – I shouldn’t say most, because there was so much research, so many things – folklore and midsummer traditions, Germanic traditions, not just Swedish, English…
HDI: Morris dancing...
AA: And spiritual movements that I really dove deep into, different spiritual movements. Not the ones I was necessarily skeptical about, that I had opinions about, but the ones that I found to be particularly beautiful. So if anything what I wanted with Midsommar was… I wanted to create a community that was in many ways much more appealing than the people visiting it ... And at the same time have plenty there that’s upsetting and noxious. But hopefully, the ending serves as something that is simultaneously cathartic and almost sweet, and disturbing.
The Hårga folk are not good people.

Let's pull back and look at Midsommar's most important antecedent, The Wicker Man. Now the most tiresome (and paradoxically orthodox) take on The Wicker Man is the one where you root for the Summerislanders, because they're the actual goodies. Don’t do that, Galaxy Brain. Just don't. Especially not in 2020, when we’ve seen what happens when a community on a large scale proves willing to engage in human sacrifice for the sake of economic stability. But also, don’t do that because the people of Summerisle have practices that, to the trained eye of the child protection professional, read as a fairly clear code for “grooming for sexual abuse”.

Consider, then, with that in mind, the Hårgalanders. They lie. They’re lying from the start. The example of Ingemar shows that Pelle is not the better man, he is just better at lying. They’re lying when they give permission for their rituals to be research subjects and they structure their lies to put Josh and Christian at odds (not that this is hard).

Also, they keep talking about breeding stock. They freely admit they deliberately encourage inbreeding to create deformed, developmentally disabled children, who have no choice but to be usedas oracles. The Hårga folk speak the language of eugenics. Dani is going to wind up staying here and having babies, and it was always going to be Dani, because of the two women who visit, Dani is the one who is white.

The Hårga people are attractive, and superficially friendly, and they have a strong, supportive community – and this is complex, it’s not a zero sum game, there has to be a valid reason to throw in with them – and they have good things, and they commit ritual mass murder in a big ceremony every ninety years (are ninety year gaps just too big to maintain a living tradition? I don’t know. But why don’t the anthropologists mention it? I wonder about this. It’s just a quibble. But still) and they speak the language of eugenics. They kill the weak and the different, except when they can manufacture and exploit them.
Hårga – and let's not forget, this is a film made by a Jewish guy who explicitly and meticulously curates every image in his movies – is a sun-soaked white supremacist idyll.  Hårga is what white nationalists think they’re like when they think about themselves. And this is the only way in my mind that the whole thing with the exploitation of the disabled kid can be read as not ableist – it's a depiction of ableist exploitation, an indicator of just how awful these people are under the cute costumes, friendly demeanours and loving community. And OK, just as you often wind up being a bit misogynist when you show misogyny, it's not terribly hard to argue that showing ableism here might still be a bit ableist. Still, I think it's a lot more defensible than the thing in Hereditary where possession by a Goetic King of Hell gets equated with childhood ASD. 

Throwing in with these people doesn’t make Dani a bad person, because this isn’t what she’s seeing. She has found belonging here. The lengthy prologue, showing her trauma and gaslighting in excruciating detail, matters here because we need to understand the extent to which Dani's strength has been broken, and how she simply doesn't have the personal resources to stand up. They’re lying to her, they’re gaslighting her… until she becomes one of them, and she has genuinely become one of them, even to the extent of magically speaking Swedish all of a sudden. They have converted her. They have turned her into a different person. And that different person is one who doesn’t have to be yoked to an asshole like Christian. That’s what that smile is, and that’s why it’s so exquisitely horrible, so appalling, so disturbing, so simultaneously sweet and noxious. Because in this loving, supportive community of lying, eugenicist murder-conspirators, she has found the best solace she’ll ever have.

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