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Posted on the 04 November 2019 by Cathy Leaves @cathyleaves
I went into Midsommar by Ari Aster with no preconception or spoilers about what was about to happen. I think that's a good way to watch the film the first time, and the same applies to his previous film, Hereditary. It might be worth considering re-watching it with the knowledge in mind that Aster's key to the writing of the film, the point where it all came together, was a break-up. To see the break-up as the emotional and narrative center of the film, and the elaborate story and setting woven around it as a way to emotionally process that break-up, adds a whole new layer to what is already a film that is hard to shake. 
The Director's Cut is a three-and-a-half hour long tour de force about a relationship that is already broken when we meet the two people in it first. The film first shows us Dani (an unforgettable Florence Pugh), who slowly reveals in a phone call to her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) the drama that is her family, and they way in which her own mental health has been suffering. Her concerns about not being able to contact her sibling sound trivial, her panicking inappropriate for what has happened, and we see that Christian and his friends agree with that judgment on the other side of the phone call: they tell him to finally break up with this girl who is too needy, emotionally, so he can go into their planned Scandinavian adventure unburdened. Dani knows she is perceived as a burden, that she is relying on someone who is ultimately, inevitably, unreliable because he isn't in this relationship emotionally as much as she is - but then comes the first twist in the story. Dani's concerns about her family's well-being were valid, that her sister has committed suicide and taken their parents with her. In the fall-out of the crisis, of Dani's break-down, the break-up becomes impossible. Christian doesn't delay it out of concern for Dani, he delays it because he is essentially a character who wants to avoid conflict, and staying with Dani is easier than leaving the relationship. It's an important thing that we learn early on about his character: he does not feel empathy for her suffering, but he is unable to make decisions by himself when he isn't being pushed by someone else. The same will be true of his academic career - later, his friend Josh (William Jackson Harper) will accuse him of stealing his dissertation topic after relying on his help for the entirety of his studies, with no drive of his own, or the willingness to learn anything by himself. 
When Dani more accidental than not joins Christian's trip to Sweden, which he attempted to keep secret from her, all the pieces are set for Midsommar to unleash its horror. Christian, Josh and their friend Mark (Will Poulter) are invited by Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to attend a once-in-a-lifetime cultural festival in the isolated commune that he grew up in. Pelle is excited to share his culture with his friends, he is welcoming to Dani where Christian's friends are stand-offish and cold. He seems like the kind of guy you can trust to guide you trough a foreign place. The foreignness of Hårga and how it evolves from an aesthetic, twee place to the setting for incomprehensible violence and terror is one of the greatest accomplishments in this film, especially because Aster decides to make two of his character cultural anthropologists. Especially Josh, who intends to write about the place that he is visiting, regards it through the specific lens of an academic who approaches his subject from the outside, as a fascinated but ultimately uninvolved stranger. It is an approach that is in dire contrast to how Hårga and the rituals of the Midsommar festival function: they require full involvement, and at first the community welcomes the outsiders warmly and happy to share. The aesthetic of Hårga is all-encompassing: it is architecture, fashion, dance, singing, cooking. It appears nonthreatening (perhaps because it sometimes looks like an IKEA version of otherness). But it soon becomes obvious that there is a dangerous divide between Josh' and Christian's outside fascination and their greediness to publish about something that has not previously been academically published about, and Hårga's community's obvious intention to involve these outsiders as more than just welcome visitors. 
 Josh goes into the festival with previous knowledge that is not specific to Hårga, so he interprets as he goes, based on what his academic assumptions are. Christian goes into it untarnished by academic knowledge, since he hasn't found his focus yet. Both are ultimately clouded in their judgement, especially once fascination with what they are experiencing overshadows everything else. Within the group, Dani seems to have the most acute sense that things are going awry - but at the same time, she is the character that is welcomed the warmest, and that is craving the promises of an empathetic community the most. The turning point comes when the outsiders become witness to what happens in Hårga when its community members turn 72, and reach the end of their life cycle. What to the Hargans appears to be a celebration of the circle of life, a celebration of their sharing of joy and grief, of pain and ecstasy, to the outsiders looks like ritualistic, violent, community-mandated suicide. Dani approaches it the way you would expect an empathetic human to approach it: with horror, and a keen sense that their witnessing of the ritual means that they will not be allowed to leave, lest they share what they have seen with authorities who would intrude upon Hårga. Josh and Christian (for whom this seems to be a turning point, almost as if the violence inspires him to find his focus, to push him towards something) approach it with the cultural relativism of the anthropologist, claiming that Dani should not judge what she sees with her own cultural norms. They also fail to sense the danger that they are in, perhaps most of all because they see Pelle as a friend, as one of their own. They misinterpret what is happening around them because they regard their studies and their friendship as a protective shield that will allow them to approach this situation and leave it unchanged, whereas Dani knows that everything always leaves its marks. 
Josh and Christian also get distracted by their contest over who will get to write about this, who will get first dibs on academically publishing about a remote community that hasn't previously been threat upon. Not only does this contest make them blind about what is truly happening, it also motivates them to take the kind of risks that reveal how the community reacts when it feels threatened. While their friend Mark, with no academic ambition and only on a holiday, stumbles around like the clueless tourist that he is (and dies first), Josh dies second because he is so hungry for academic prestige. And it is even more fitting that the drive to comprehend Hårga from the outside, and from the perspective of an outsider, is what gets all the boys killed, whereas Dani both understands the danger she is in intellectually and fits in with the Hargans emotionally, because the community's traditions are shaped around the idea that every emotion is shared, that nobody is alone in their pain. She finds here exactly what Christian has withheld from her, and when she is asked to symbolically choose between Hårga and Christian (when she is asked literally whether Christian or a Hargan will be killed), after assuming her role as the May Queen, she chooses against the partner who has betrayed her, and for the community that has welcomed her. This is of course precisely why Pelle, tasked with bringing new blood into this community that needs it to prevent in-breeding, chose each and every one of them. 
2019, directed by Ari Aster, starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe.

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