I felt a strong sense of deja vu watching Ari Aster’s second feature film Midsommar. It’s the story of a woman who has dealt with unbearable trauma and emotional pain that no one around her seems to want to understand. Her boyfriend has minimized her behavior to the rantings of a deeply insecure woman, painting her as needy and hysterical to his friends. She has no friends of her own, except her boyfriend and a friend group that is conditional on her relationship with him. If she loses him, she loses all her friends. Every moment of the film, you can feel that tension. She wants to be liked, so she hides her anguish behind closed doors. Any time her wants and needs get in the way of the group, she yields to the whims of the group. Eventually, her concessions pile up, and all she has left is her anguish, her sadness, and her anger.
This is the sort of situation that many young women, including myself, have found themselves in over and over again. We are trained to emotionally support men and assume that women have the tools to emotionally support themselves. Midsommar is about that misconception, and the pain and abuse that springs from it. Florence Pugh is appropriately devastating as Dani, with her cherubic expressive face and a voice that cracks with heartache. And as Christian, Jack Reynor executes perfectly the neglect and indirect emotional abuse that often characterizes bad boyfriends.
Passive neglect and indirect abuse are topics that media and media criticism tend to struggle with. Watching Midsommar, I couldn’t help but think back to every time a man had passively abused me, in a way so subtle that I didn’t realize something was wrong until much later. The Aziz Ansari story from last year also ran through my mind. The encounter described in the original Babe.net piece is one of convenient emotional neglect, the kind that one can easily feign ignorance when asked about it later. Masculine culture doesn’t encourage men to engage with their emotions, which in turn doesn’t give them the tools to engage healthily with other people, especially during sexual encounters. Talking through sex and desire is a relatively contemporary exercise, the nuances of which are often isolated to media and literature marketed towards women. How Ansari behaved and the repercussions for his behavior exemplify the downside to “be a man and take control”. That assumption suggests a man knows what a woman wants and therefore doesn’t have to ask her.
In Midsommar, Christian thinks he knows what Dani wants. He thinks that as long as he remains her boyfriend that he is performing his function, regardless of how much he actively helps her. Dani keeps trying to communicate with him that she needs and deserves more, but her grief and isolation make it difficult for her to truly demand support. And so, Christian takes advantage of her vulnerability. And then the morality machine that is horror begins to spin its wheels.
Aster seems to have a very keen understanding of men and the way that they hurt women, both intentionally and unintentionally. But he seems to have trouble gleaning insight from this knowledge, leading to a slow and ponderous film that doesn’t really ponder all that much about gender dynamics between men and women. With the backdrop of a festival in a very closed off community, you would think that gender and sex would be examined much more closely. But Aster paints all his characters with a broad brush and doesn’t seem interested in taking a journey into their minds. The set-up is intriguing, but the execution feels undercooked. We never get to know anyone aside from Dani. And so the film becomes static with only one character moving and reacting.
Much like in Hereditary, the horror of Midsommar doesn’t match up spiritually with the emotional story we are being told. That is where the film suffers. The carnage within the festival feels disconnected from Dani’s anguish. For a film about female suffering, the festival itself only serves to reinforce a traditional patriarchal worldview. In the end, Dani’s eventual catharsis seems entirely accidental. Nothing about Dani or the world around her changes at all. There is a way to marry horror with real experience and emotion, but Aster has yet to crack that formula.