Now that we’re almost to midsummer, it makes perfect sense to, y’know, review Ari Aster‘s second film, Midsommar. However, just as Jim and Teal have mentioned double-features in recent episodes, a film like Midsommar really needs a companion film to go along with it. Jim’s recommendation was to view this film in conjunction with David Robert Mitchell‘s Under the Silver Lake. Frankly, neither film disappointed, but boy was that some uncomfortable viewing.
Beware: beyond this point are major spoilers for both films.
Much like Aster’s first major film, Hereditary, the film opens to our main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), as she experiences a heart-wrenching loss (though both films deal with grief in remarkably different ways). Dani becomes heavily reliant on her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), for emotional support. However, Christian is trying to find a way out of the relationship as pain-free as possible thanks in part to the pressure of his college buddies. They see Dani as a clingy and melodramatic girl with too much emotional baggage.
Following her loss, Dani invites herself to go with Christian and his friends to Sweden, where one of their friends, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), is from. The draw to this Swedish commune is that of the Midsommar festival — a garish display of flowers, rustic hospitality, dancing, and human sacrifice (purposefully omitted by the locals).
The Murals Tell the Story
The greatest strength of the film is Aster’s usage of visual storytelling by way the use of culturally-relevant murals. Throughout the film, the camera pans around to show various murals of macabre displays, each an overt foreshadowing of events to come. The murals also play a key role supplying the folktale genre expression in the film.
The film opens with a “three-act” mural; each section of the mural effectively tells the audience the story. However, we are resigned to deciphering the symbolism behind things like a skull emitting smoke, a throne in the clouds, and a dance around a maypole. As the film goes on, each of these prominent symbols, among others, get their own “a-ha” moment.
Dani’s apartment features a prominent mural: a girl wearing a crown with a hand on the head of a kneeling bear. While seemingly innocuous, it speaks on multiple levels to her relationship with Christian. As seen above, Christian meets with Siv, one of the leaders of the community. Upon entering her quarters, Christian sees an image of a bear wreathed in flames. The audience knows there is a bear in a cage, but with no other context it all seems very cryptic.
Just Dump Him Already!
The third act of Midsommar is nothing short of chaos.
Once in the encampment, Maja, Pelle’s “sister”, constantly tempts Christian with sex. Despite his suppressed feelings, Christian gives in. Dani earns the “May Queen” title, which carries great implications. When she returns, Dani hears the moans of her boyfriend and Maja. She peeks through a keyhole, sees them together, and has what might be her nineteenth nervous breakdown of the film. The followers of the May Queen empathize with her and echo her cries. This leads to Dani’s assimilation into the community and furthers the audience’s general dislike for Christian.
The final sequence shows the implications of Dani’s new crown, Christian’s consequences, and his transformation. Understanding what he has done, Christian bolts from the chamber with Maja naked. He tries hiding in a barn and encounters the flayed body of Simon, another foreigner lured to the commune. Christian is found, drugged, and taken away. Dani’s position as May Queen comes with a critical decision: does Christian get sacrificed in the name of the festival? Yes.
The mural in Dani’s apartment directly foreshadows Christian’s demise. Christian literally becomes the bear, bowing before the May Queen, as the Swedish cultists surgically sew him into the body of the caged bear and burn him alive along with the other sacrifices. Christian’s transformation is penance from the community’s elders, claiming his “wickedness” will be justly met with fire. The “wickedness” isn’t just cheating on Dani, but all of his misdeeds seen in the film (stealing his friend’s thesis topic, forgetting her birthday, etc.).
Ultimately, Dani finds solace in sacrificing Christian to her new Swedish community. Christian’s infidelity is both the last straw for Dani and partially his way out of that relationship (if we ignore how guilty he was afterward). The drawn-out and inevitable breakup is complete and Dani is the only “winner.”
Overall, Midsommar feels drastically different from Aster’s Hereditary. While each film deals with concepts like grief, loss, faith, and coincidentally Paganism, Midsommar elicits an uncomfortable amount of laughter. It’s a film that takes itself seriously, but not too seriously. Even as characters on screen repeatedly make stupid decisions, we don’t ever feel the need to yell, “Don’t!” Time and time again, we feel vicariously soothed like these characters (without the psychedelics). Dani’s transition into her new family feels like a reward.
However, we aren’t lulled into a false sense of security. We know exactly what’s going to happen. That is why we are here to see this. If anyone tells you this movie is like the Hostel franchise, you can kindly tell them they are wrong.
You should see Midsommar to get lost in it’s beauty, illusion, and be in the presence of another great film by Ari Aster.
Under the Silver Lake (2018)
Speaking of psychedelic trips, DRM’s follow-up film to It Follows is a different kind of gem. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a movie of the same caliber or tone as Midsommar, but it does offer another take into the male psyche amidst chasing a girl. However, never assume this film is that simple. Ever.
Under the Silver Lake Plot
The story follows Sam (Andrew Garfield), a young unemployed deadbeat of east L.A. who spends much of his day drinking, smoking, and spying on his neighbors. On a seemingly normal day, a beautiful woman, Sarah (Riley Keough), shows up with her dog at the pool at the center of his apartment complex. Sam becomes infatuated with her and visits her later that night. She seems aloof, but interested in Sam. They agree to meet the following day. However, when Sam goes to visit her, has disappeared with all of her belongings.
Sam’s adventure becomes similar to classics like Rear Window or Chinatown, as he attempts to piece together clues to solve the mystery of Sarah’s disappearance. However, where Sam is led is not exactly what he ever thought was possible.
Under the Male Gaze
As aforementioned, Sam believes he is destined to be with this girl. One would call it “obsessive.” This obsession may stem from his encounter with Sarah, but really the focus is his obsession with women.
At the start of the film, an actress friend of his (who is clearly in adult films) visits Sam after an audition. They have sex while the sounds of a breaking news story of a missing billionaire, Jefferson Sevence, are playing on his TV. The scene almost seems like a chore for him, showing his complex for using women early on. This complex continues throughout the movie, which certainly plagues his character.
Sarah shoos Sam away when her roommates come home that night, much to Sam’s nearly palpable disappointment . He hangs on her every word as they make plans for the next day. This acts as the catalyst for his search.
In another later scene, Sam finds himself at a party (at the cryptic beckoning of the one called “the Homeless King”) where not only does he see his ex-girlfriend (which is clearly distressing for him), but the daughter of the missing billionaire, Millicent (Callie Hernandez), from the newscast. She stands tall in a shimmering silver and gold dress and Sam starts up a conversation awkwardly. They leave the party and find themselves at a city reservoir. They scale the fence and swim naked together, only for him to find out that she “thinks [she’s] being followed.” She tells him to make it look like “they’re going to fuck.” Once again, Sam is dumbfounded now that he’s the one being used. Naturally, she is then shot and killed and Sam is forced to escape.
These feelings of using and being used by women seems to haunt Sam. There are several moments in the film where Sam imagines women barking at him (including Sarah). It seems like blatant misogyny because it is. It also suggests something more about the “Dog Killer.”
Beware the Dog Killer!
In his hunt for Sarah, it turns out that Sarah was an escort all along, one who was actually destined to be with the missing billionaire who was part of a secret cult aiming to “ascend” to a higher power. When Sam discovers this, he is completely distraught and betrayed. He is able to speak with her one last time before feeling the effects of drugged tea. He awakens chained up to a chair with the Homeless King towering before him. This might be the most crucial moment for the audience.
The Homeless King pulls a pair of dog biscuits from his pocket, asking Sam, “Do you know what you did wrong?” This is the moment when we, and Sam, realize that he very well may be the Dog Killer everyone is afraid of. It’s the moment of weakness where Sam admits his former girlfriend stopped loving him, but he kept the dog biscuits, hoping she’d take him back.
That’s the red flag right there. It reveals him as the Dog Killer without overtly saying it. The subtlety of the script here is brilliant and it certainly caught me off guard.
Under the Silver Lake is a film that I would also recommend, but perhaps less so than Midsommar. It’s obvious homages to the film noir genre entertains. If you’ve ever seen Chinatown, this film is similar except you can’t really get behind Jake Gittes or his plight.
Connecting the Dots
The connections between Midsommar and Under the Silver Lake are not terribly obvious (if they truly exist at all). Upon finishing both films, I came to the conclusion that they might both be breakup movies, but the jury is out on that one.
Sam’s journey eventually leads him to a breakup, of sorts, with Sarah. When he realizes that she’s gone forever, tucked away in a secret vault underground in Hollywood, he is resigned to understanding that he’ll never get what he wants from her…and thus moves on to his next door neighbor, an older, oft-topless bird-lover. Which then brings us to the point of wondering why should we invest in Sam’s desire for this girl. Of course, the movie really isn’t about that. It’s about Sam’s self-discovery as being this murderer of canines who belong to women, all because he’s been spurned too many times.
Christian and Dani’s relationship is more or less defined by his need to leave her, but sacrificing that due to the sudden loss of her family. The doubling-down of Dani’s going on the trip to Sweden solidifies Christian is in it for the long-haul…until he isn’t. The events that transpire in Midsommar break our expectations: Christian will dump Dani at the worst possible time. In actuality, Dani dumps Christian by sacrificing him to her new family in the Pagan cult. That’s part of the justice, and beauty, of Midsommar.
Thanks to Jim and Teal for inviting me on this trip to see these films together. I just hope no one ends up inside of a dead bear on the next one. And don’t forget to listen to Jim and Teal’s discussion on Midsommar.