Ari Aster’s Midsommar is as disturbing as it is compelling. With thought-provoking messages about empathy and a darkly comic undertone, the subversive brightness of its idyllic Swedish setting epitomises the sophisticated nature of contemporary horror cinema. The film opens with Dani Ardor (deftly played by Florence Pugh) suffering the traumatic loss of her immediate family. Prior to this, her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends dismiss Dani’s anxiety as mere melodrama, begrudgingly inviting her on their trip to a pagan commune in Northern Sweden. Once there, the group take hallucinogenic mushrooms and other psychotropic drugs. Dani’s experiences are visualised in a strikingly immersive way. With white figures dancing against a saturated landscape of open plains and a blue sky, it is a scene which reverberates with a profound sense of foreboding.
This perfectly illustrates how the horror genre has changed in recent years. Jump scares are out and thought-provoking arthouse films are in. The audience is lulled into a false sense of security by the utopian commune. The characters are not entering a derelict house on a dark night, but are out in the open air during the Swedish summer solstice when night passes in an instant. The commune members are certainly disquieting, but this is initially balanced by the considerate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). At first, only clues within a tapestry and the raspy violin score foreshadow the nightmare beneath the dream.
Similar to how Jordan Peele’s Get Out critiques systematic racism, Midsommar highlights societal ignorance of mental health. Dani struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, and if on the one hand she is surrounded by the non-sympathetic Christian and his friends, who embody a toxic masculinity uncomfortable with emotional expression, Aster also examines the opposite extreme. At one point Dani cries and hyperventilates, at which the commune’s female members kneel beside her and mimic her crying until they are all shouting in union. Among the many twisted rituals that Dani endures this seems to be a cathartic moment for her, as she experiences a perverse form of empathy within the deadly commune. Aster shows the dangers of both emotional repression and ‘primal scream’ therapy, evoking a sense of spiralling claustrophobia which is perhaps the film’s crowning achievement. It reminds us that even under the bluest and widest of skies, anxiety does not simply disappear.
Despite its serious commentary on mental health issues, the film is also peppered with comedic elements. Mostly this seems to be anything that comes out of Mark’s (Will Poulter’s) mouth, who only has eyes for the Swedish women of the commune. Meanwhile, Dani dons a flower crown that becomes increasingly lavish to the point that she is weighed down by a mountain of flowers. Such humour lightens the mood while also reinforcing the film’s overarching message: that one can suffocate in the open air, and that a silk noose strangles as fatally as rope.
Ultimately, Midsommar is a strikingly truthful representation of what it means to suffer from mental health issues. But instead of exploiting these for cheap scares, the film sensitively plumbs feelings of helplessness and claustrophobia that accompany extreme anxiety, as well as reminding us that a person struggling with their mental health may feel guilty for not enjoying beautiful things. Exploring these issues within the idyllic Swedish countryside among ostensibly happy people who want nothing more than for you to join them is a stroke of subversive genius.