By Lewis Robertson
The last scenes of Ari Aster’s premier horror masterpiece “Hereditary” (2018) take viewers through a winding middle-American manor, with dysfunctional family dynamics incarnated as demons in the eerie night-time environment. Aster abandons this classic horror imagery for a more subversive setting in “Midsommar” (2019), where his familiar formula of manifesting the characters’ resentments towards one another as violent retribution instead takes place in the long-lasting daylight of a secluded, Scandinavian commune.
At the time of its release, “Midsommar” garnered acclaim for its status as the most twisted break-up film in recent history, a label that Aster himself adopted during the picture’s press release, according to Vulture – But is a bitter feud all that has gone wrong in this psychological thriller, or does “Midsommar” embody some subconscious mythology in the western world, condemning an imagined golden age of femininity for its ruthless and outdated notions of summertime power?
Firstly, it should be obvious that the zealous Swedes that act as the horror props of “Midsommar” are a little stuck in the past. They denounce technology, resembling groups like the Mennonite or Amish faiths found in America, and practice rituals that seem alien to the viewer, going so far as to sacrifice themselves to stave off the decay of age – At their worst, they entrap, rape and murder deuteragonist Christian, securing the outside genes necessary to continue their commune, murdering him as they rejoice in their solstice celebrations, happy that their crops are as bountiful as their lineage shall be.
“[D]oes “Midsommar” embody some subconscious mythology in the western world, condemning an imagined golden age of femininity for its ruthless and outdated notions of summertime power?”
The prismatic lens through which fertility is addressed is Florence Pugh’s protagonist of Dani. Whilst the destruction of Christian might seem like Dani triumphing over her apathetic boyfriend, this cathartic moment is instead criticising the fertility cults of yore.
Before the patriarchal empire of Christianity steamrolled the civilisations of Europe, disconnected cultures shared motifs of fertility and femininity in their worship. One need only look at the number of Venus figurines, including the famous Venus of Willendorf, to realise a time when the feminine body was revered, as its ability to give birth and provide life was connected to fruitful harvests, ensuring the survival of the cult at a challenging time in human history.
Paintings and sculptures worshipping the fertile female goddess spanned from the Palaeolithic to the pagan era, and once the oppressive patriarchy of Christianity united Europe under an oppressive regime, the forgotten matriarch became a symbol of a feminist golden age, harkening back to a time when women were recognised as the heralds of new birth, children and crops alike, the figureheads of summertime exuberance.
Aster takes this dreamworld and exposes it for what it really is – An obsolete and primitive way of thinking, and the standard that we should avoid setting our current feminist movement.
Though gynocentric writers like Germaine Greer were celebrated in the 1970s and 80s for identifying this age and advocating its return, they have since fallen out of favour with the current social justice climate, after advocating that trans people be excluded from the conversation because of their inability to give birth, and that their lack of the sacred power of womanhood only works to steal the show from a more traditional feminist revolution. Critics pointed out that trans-exclusionary radical feminists, whose number has recently been bolstered by children’s author JK Rowling, reduce women to their reproductive capabilities, a mindset as patriarchal as they come.
Trying to deeper identify some of the hidden themes in “Midsommar” reveals commentary relevant to this discourse. The cult’s rape of Christian, paralleled with the coronation of Dani as their May Queen, is a metaphor made obvious by Christian’s apt name. This is the fertile feminism revolution in action, impregnating themselves with the next generation stolen from their male victims, and raised to admonish these values themselves. It’s prudent to remember that Christian is not innocent – Our two main characters were in need of a major relationship change, as do the unfair dynamics of gender politics in the modern age. But the horror is just as gruesome for women as it is for men, suggesting that without the proper feminist guidance, their matriarchal vengeance may be for all the wrong reasons.
“Whilst the destruction of Christian might seem like Dani triumphing over her apathetic boyfriend, this cathartic moment is instead criticising the fertility cults of yore.”
Take a look at the Oracle – A silent character who, at first, seems like nothing more than a problematic objectification of disabled peoples’ faces for the sake of audience shock and disgust. However, the Oracle is revealed to be the descendant of a line of prophets, specifically inbred to be attuned to the subtle spirits that guide the cult. The Oracle depicts the lack of sanctity there is attached to reproduction, suggesting that fertility might indeed not be the ultimate goal of all powerful women.
The shining sunlight and excessive flora that make up the setting of “Midsommar” is a successfully haunting environment, but only because it is deeply connected to the insidious values of the cult. Each blossoming flower represents the generations they have sired through deceit and murder, under the guise of the sanctity of fertility, and the power of pagan matriarchs.
“[T]he horror is just as gruesome for women as it is for men, suggesting that without the proper feminist guidance, their matriarchal vengeance may be for all the wrong reasons.”
Aster’s sophomore production does not chase viewers through dark halls like in “Hereditary”, but instead crawls across the screen with an immense runtime, making the viewers uneasy with the oppressive, lethargic season and the fertility-worshipping crazies that inhabit it. Pugh’s haunting coronation disarms the sanctity of the womb, making viewers as sceptical as they should be about rogue cults of misfired feminism, preparing a generation for an uncomfortable confrontation with exclusionary, elitist, and obsolete writers.