*Ho HA!* What’s that, dearest Filthy Dreams cult member…*ahem* I mean, reader? Oh, I’m just practicing my new method breathing for when I move to Sweden to join the Hårga, that darkly sunny commune, from director and writer Ari Aster’s deeply unsettling yet intoxicatingly beautiful cult horror classic Midsommar. I’m ready to drink mushroom tea and dance around a maypole in a flower crown. Oh, ignore those screams in the distance. And sure, things may get a little messy at 72, but I never wanted to live that long. Bring on the cliff and the mallet.
In all seriousness, I’ve become worringly obsessed with Midsommar after seeing the film twice in the theaters–something I don’t think I’ve ever done as an adult. I mean, theater prices in New York aren’t cheap! And you know what? I’d see my favorite film of 2019 again (and again and again). What does that say about my mental state? Certainly something!
And I’m not alone. Earlier this week, I peeped an Instagram video of drag king Charles Galin performing his own Midsommar tribute at Dynasty Handbag’s Weirdo Night, mimicking the film’s trailer, including the Hårga’s oddly threatening breathing technique, while wearing their white cult uniform.
But what is it about Midsommar that makes me want to watch it repeatedly, even though some scenes disturb me at such a visceral level my palms sweat? Is it that it looks like a Lana Del Rey music video gone wrong? A Pinterest board turned psychotically sentient? Is it the dreamlike visions of a psychedelic utopia transformed into a death cult dystopia under the perpetual Swedish sunshine? Is it the promise of eating a pube-riddled meat pie? Enduring the most hilariously startling sex scene since Twin Peaks: The Return’s finale? Or perhaps all of the above.
The film’s plot is fairly simple, so much so that it is laid out completely in a paneled painting at the very beginning of the film, like the darkest Disney fairytale imaginable. Three brutal family deaths spark the protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh)’s harrowing and heroic journey. Tip: the film’s soundtrack (yes, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack and yes, I know I have a problem) features a song “Gassed” that opens with Dani’s wracking, wretched sobs. What a way to send a party to a screeching halt! The bleak snow-covered darkness of the initial scenes are juxtaposed with the vivid brightness of Dani’s eventual arrival in Sweden. She joins her ambivalent wide-eyed douche boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) on a sad “finding yourself in grad school” trip for a once in a lifetime midsommar celebration invited by creepily attractive Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) who grew up in the remote agrarian commune. They’re joined by Christian’s academic friends: serious student Josh (William Jackson Harper) and vaping goofball Mark (Will Poulter). And well, not to spoil things entirely, things don’t go that well. Or they don’t go well for anyone, but Dani.
One reason that the film is so engrossing, of course, besides the plot itself, is its haunting beauty. It’s a horror film set in the sunshine of a rural Swedish paradise–all green rolling hills, and lush multicolored flower crowns. The vibrancy of the setting only serves to strengthen the dark unsettling atmosphere; gruesome acts are done in the light of day. However, even the most violent scenes are so alarmingly artfully that they too are gorgeous, reminiscent of the gore in the first season of Hannibal.
In addition to the visuals, Midsommar feels like a multifaceted fable that perfectly typifies our current era. The film offers a rich plethora of angles with which to dive into critically, from the Hårga’s white supremacist leanings to Dani’s feminist epiphany as she burns down her life and the patriarchy with a grin. However, the portion of the film that I think may account for its unavoidable draw is its alluring depiction of the collective cult mentality. The film, by throwing its audience directly into the center of the Hårga’s mass hysteria, satisfies a deep-seated, if denied and subliminal, urge we may all have to join a cult.
In Role Models, John Waters writes, “I’m so tired of writing ‘Cult Filmmaker’ on my income tax forms. If only I could write ‘Cult Leader,’ I’d finally be happy.” But more than a cult leader, don’t we all kind of universally want to join a cult? I know I do! We’re all looking for answers and a sense of belonging, and with the increasing digital age isolation, that connection, obtained by whatever means necessary, becomes an attractive alternative. Even if it does include sewing someone up in a bear suit and putting menstrual blood in a drink.
Cult mentality pervades our society. Of course, when thinking of cults, the groups that immediately pop into mind are the pinnacle of batshittery: the Manson family, Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, etc. But, as our society gets bleaker and bleaker, it seems like the draw toward group mentality supplanting individual thought only grows stronger. Trumpers, Fox News viewers, the NRA, Marianne Williamson’s Orb Gang, Kanye’s Sunday services, and [insert any religion here] are all cults in their own way. Hell, even stan culture is its own version of a cult (I’d gladly join Lana’s cult if she’s offering).
Interestingly enough, Ari Aster doesn’t seem to consider the Hårga as a cult, explaining to Vox: “No, I don’t see them as a cult. They might be. But I never called them a cult. For me, they are a community, and they are a family. I wanted them to exist as a place with a history and a very clear laws and rules and traditions.” Uh huh…a family. Sounds like a cult to me. And in the film, Aster uses some of the imagery of infamous cults, including a range of mysterious drug-filled liquids. One scene, for example, begins with an abject splash of herbs being swirled around a large jug before the May Queen dance-off. Sure, it’s not the vat from Jonestown, but I’d hesitate before slurping that down.
Speaking of family, the patriarchal nuclear family too is a cult, a bold observation explored in Aster’s previous film Hereditary. Unlike Hereditary, though, Aster destroys the nuclear family within the first ten minutes of Midsommar, replacing them with a strikingly different vision of family with the Hårga. The Hårga is a matriarchal cult, and one based on a more communal, egalitarian values, even though they may murder people every 90 years. Hey, those crops gotta grow! Speaking to Dani, Pelle questions her life with her last resort boyfriend Christian, asking: “Do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?” In contrast, the Hårga have a sense of collectivity that Aster juxtaposes with the searing emptiness of everyday American life.
And sure, in contrast to its attractiveness, romping around the woods on psychedelics and watching old people jump from cliffs, most of the horror of the film is derived from the mass hysteria of the cult mindset. Much more than the violence, the most terrifying parts of the film were, to me, when the Hårga would begin wailing in unison with either the dying or Dani’s panic-driven screams. It is, at once, cathartic and truly disturbing.
But, what makes Midsommar such a jarringly depiction of the pull to cults is how Aster masterfully uses Dani as a stand-in for the audience as we experience the Hårga’s midsommar festival through her perspective. There are closeups of Dani’s face with blurred backgrounds as she’s witnessing this horror with us. She’s our proxy, and as she gets further and further into the cult so do we. This is perhaps best shown through subtle yet mesmerizingly psychedelic flourishes, mimicking Dani’s mushroom trips. Flowers open and close with her breath, leaves flow up to her touch, grass grows through her hands and feet, and trees shudder in the wind. Often psychedelia is handled cheesily on film, transformed into a Peter Max nightmare, but in Midsommar, these hallucinations are done with such a light hand that it only serves to strengthen Dani and therefore, the audience’s fascination with the Hårga. Like Dani, it’s difficult to push against that magnetism.
Dani and her complete submersion into the Hårga, bringing the audience with her, is reminiscent of another D-name: Dorothy. Aster has asserted that the film is “The Wizard of Oz for perverts.” Not only is this the greatest description perhaps ever uttered, he’s not wrong. Even the drive to the Swedish village has a feeling of a yellow brick road and also indicates when we, like Dani, become transported. The camera, dizzyingly and a little nauseatingly, turns upside down with the car driving down the top of the screen. Suddenly passing a banner, the camera twists back, and we’ve arrived in a completely different world. It doesn’t take a spinning house, a tornado, and a witch to warp a perspective.
However in Aster’s The Wizard of Oz, Dani/Dorothy doesn’t click her heels and go home. By being so subsumed by Dani’s perspective, the audience is being groomed by the cult too, gas-lit into believing that final scene as triumphant. Dani’s flame-filled rejection of her previous life represents a complete submission to her new family to start anew. And it is strangely if startlingly satisfying. As Aster notes to Vox, “For better or worse, this is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. This is truly a spoiler, but: We begin as Dani loses a family, and we end as Dani gains one. And so, for better or worse, they are there to provide exactly what she is lacking, and exactly what she needs, in true fairy tale fashion.”
Wait for me, Dani! I’m coming too!