As I look back over the history of film, I become increasingly grateful that as an aspiring filmmaker, I grew up in the 2010s. Primarily, this is because the last decade has been amazing for movies. I am so fortunate to have grown up watching masters such as David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Christopher Nolan make some of the best movies of their careers while also witnessing the aspiring careers of many new directors such as The Safdie Brothers, Robert Eggers, and Greta Gerwig. However, of the last decade, 2019 has stood out as the year most saturated with incredible movies. Of those movies, my favorite has to be Ari Aster's Swedish folklore-inspired horror film Midsommar.
I have noticed, however, that a majority of people walk away from this movie, both confused and disappointed, most often citing "lack of a point" as the reason they disliked the movie. These comments are disheartening to me. Midsommar is a confusing film; however, it does not lack substance; in fact, the film is quite possibly one of the best representations of trauma and manipulation I have ever seen; only rivaled by Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master.
Midsommar by Ari Aster is a Swedish folklore-inspired horror film starring Florence Pugh as Dani, a young graduate student dealing with the gruesome death of both her parents and sister. When Dani's boyfriend, Christian, decides to go to Sweden to study traditional European Midsommar festivals with a small group of classmates, Dani decides to join. The majority of the movie focuses on the questionable and violent rituals of the Hårga people. Slowly, Dani's friends are picked off one by one until the film's third act, when Dani becomes the "Mayqueen" and is forced to decide whether or not she should sacrifice her cheating boyfriend. The film ends with the ceremonial burning of Christian, Dani's friends, and 4 Hårga members. A small grin is carved over Dani's face, implying that she has found both a new family with the Hårgas and successfully overcome her parents' death.
Let's start with the most fundamental aspect of my argument: why? Why did I watch the movie? What is the point? As many viewers may notice upon initial viewing, Midsommar is the exaggerated representation of a break-up, exploring the contrast in Dani's want to stay with Christian and juxtaposing it against her need to leave him. We explore how Christian handles their relationship in the wake of a traumatic event. We see Dani's struggle as she stretches herself thin for Christians comfort. We ultimately see her decision: to leave him, burning him in a raging fire to signify her complete removal from their relationship.
However, on a deeper level, the film is about manipulation. Of course, this naturally presents itself in Dani and Christian's relationship; however, more notably throughout the film, we see manipulation manifested through the Hårga's indoctrination of Dani. Elements of indoctrination and manipulation can only be observed after a second viewing. We start to see signs that the group was only brought to Sweden for sacrificial purposes or that Dani becoming the Hårga's Mayqueen may not have been such a coincidence.
And this is what leads me to the point of Midsommar. The film is about caution; it is examining our susceptibility to dangerous situations in times of grief. The Hårga's could even be symbolic of a new, more toxic, relationship for Dani. The film warns us to be careful, especially when we are emotionally vulnerable.
THe Message Presented tHrough Cinematic Elements
And this is where I explain why Midsommar is not only one of the best movies of 2019 but also one of the best films of all time. Many people could write Midsommar; however, bringing it to screen takes an absolute mastery of all aspects of cinema. To relay its message correctly, the film is tasked with bringing the audience into Dani's shoes as much as possible; our experience visiting the Hårga's for the first time should mirror Dani's. Cinematic elements are used to emphasize the beauty of Hårga and therefore show us, first hand, the danger posed when someone unsuspecting comes into contact with a manipulative person and/or community.
Director of Photography, Pawel Pogorzelski, was brought onto the project as a frequent collaborator of Ari Aster. He understood the importance of cinematography in the project as it would be the audience's first interaction with the Hårga. Pogorzelski faced several challenges while filming. Most of the picture is shot in wide daytime exterior shots, which is hard to light without equipment peaking into the frame for those who don't know. Some of the setups which he had to come up with were borderline genius and deserve to be analyzed all on their own. However, for this post, I'd like to focus on Pogorzelski's camera selection.
Before principal photography began, the team did three specific camera tests. They focused on how light interacted with the Arri Alexa's censors, traditional 35mm analog stock, and the Panavision DXL2, which uses a RED Monstro sensor. Pogorzelski decided to go with the DXL2 due to its handling of the lighting conditions that would be present in the open fields of Hungary, where the film would be shot. This was a departure from the use of Alexa on Aster's freshman film Hereditary.
One of the main advantages of the DXL2 is that it is a large-format camera, meaning that the sensor is 65mm rather than 35mm. This has one significant impact on the final image and informs the cinematographer's lens selection throughout the film. This is because a larger sensor is capable of capturing more. Special lenses are engineered to make use of the full sensor size. Because the sensor can capture more, lenses will present a wider field of view in the final image. For example, a 50mm lens on the DXL2 has an equivalent field of view as a 25mm lens on traditional 35mm cameras. However, the advantage to a large format is that the image will have the same properties as a 50mm lens, such as more compressed features.
Pogorzelski uses these properties to his advantage, shooting the beginning of the film in a traditional 35mm format and transitioning to a wider large format camera when Dani and her classmates arrive in Hårga for the first time. This effectively "opens up" the world and gives the charachters some room to breathe. The effect is used to show the immediate difference to Dani, presenting Hårga as a potential place for Dani to improve and overcome her family trauma.
Pogorzelski also uses this camera, which has a large dynamic range (14+ stops), to overexpose the image by one stop giving a brighter, more welcoming feel and giving the atmosphere of the Hårga commune a warm and inviting quality.
Another cinematic element used masterfully throughout the film is Ari Aster's directing. The aspects of Aster's directing I will focus on primarily are his shot choice and blocking; both used brilliantly to further immerse us in the world and atmosphere of the Hårgas.
As I mentioned earlier, a fair amount of the film is shot in lengthy, wide, moving masters. Aster opts to hold on shots rather than cutaway, keeping much of the world in frame. We see several scenes played out in long, wide camera angles; Dani and Christians picnic while the Hårga's nordic conga line dances in the background immediately comes to mind as an example. I forget who said it, but essentially, a cut is a cheat; it is fake emotion; the longer you can hold on a single shot, the more real the emotion becomes. Naturally, sometimes the cheat, the fake, is the better option; however, if you can successfully hold on a long shot, the emotion comes across as more natural, the audience believes it more. Therefore, by holding on shots for longer, Aster helps the audience believe both in the Hårga and Dani's struggle throughout the film.
Aster also uses blocking to enhance the realism of the story and the emotion. Throughout many of the film's long shots, various background actions occur from different members of the Hårga, implying a larger world and culture than that which is commented on in the film. For example, in the scene where Christian asks his friend Pele whether or not he can do his thesis paper on the Hårga, we can see several made-up rituals occur in the background. A small group of Hårgan women walks backward, picking flowers out of the ground, another group of individuals chop a wooden goat in half after chanting a short song in a foreign language, we see another group conducting a yoga-like ritual elsewhere in the background, we see men and women weaving, a group standing around a small firepit, the list goes on. Focusing on background action allows Ari Aster to enhance the realism of the emotion in his story, giving us more empathy for Dani and a deeper understanding of why she makes the decisions that she does.
Midsommar, by Ari Aster, warns its audience of falling victim to toxicity in times of grief. He uses many traditional aspects of cinema in new and innovative ways to further convey his story's emotion and emphasize the message of the film. It is through the masterful telling of a fundamentally simple story that I see Midsommar as one of the best films of all time. It is a story that would not work in any other medium. It is a story that is so simple that to be compelling, it needed to be made into the perfect film.