Midsommar ★★★★★

As the credits rolled on Midsommar, I felt frozen. I turned my phone on, but was so absorbed in what I had just watched I didn't even look at the screen. All I could do was watch the names roll across the screen, distraught by what I had just seen. I walked all the way home, not wanting to have my thoughts or emotional state interrupted by getting on the bus or calling a Lyft.

Midsommar didn't scare me so much as force me out of my comfort zone, challenging me to rethink things I never expected to have my perspective on change so radically.

Ari Aster's latest is very much a spiritual sequel to Hereditary--to talk about one without the context of the other would be doing both a disservice, and now more than I ever I find myself wanting to revisit Hereditary. Both are movies about grief, and the effects of loss on the human psyche. Both movies feature strong occult elements. Both films, and this may be the most important similarity, were shot by Pawel Pogorlzelski.

These similarities are all essential to the emotional arc of the two films. Pogorlzelski, with Aster's direction, creates some of the most impactful shots in modern horror. Aesthetically, Midsommar is a departure from the pair's last work. The claustrophobic, dark interiors are largely replaced by open space, in a part of the world where summer means near-constant daylight. But Pogorlzelski's style gives the two films a degree of connective tissue--the slow pans, gorgeous wide shots, and tension-inducing close ups and zooms that made Hereditary so utterly terrifying are all present here. Off the bat, the stylistic similarities communicate a degree of continuity, if not of plot or character then of theme.

What I found so powerful about Hereditary, once I got past being unable to sleep thanks to the gruesome imagery and utter terror that film invoked, was the core story about processing loss. The Graham family had their share of dysfunction before the dual losses of Ellen and Charlie, but Charlie's death sent them spiraling. Her death was horrific, and the scene that sticks with me the most is Annie finding the decapitated corpse of her daughter in the backseat of the car the next morning, an event we only know occurs because we hear the car door open and then a vile scream of grief and terror.

In Hereditary, loss is experienced solely as a violent, soul-crushing negative. The opening act of Midsommar seems to go in a similar direction when Dani's parents and sister die in a murder-suicide. But as the plot unfolds, it reveals an entirely different understanding of loss, through the acceptance of death as a natural part of all life. Not something to be mourned, but celebrated as the glorious conclusion to a fulfilling existence.

The first time we see anything remotely close to the gore of Hereditary comes amid Midsommar's second act, when two older members of the Swedish commune where the film takes place commit suicide together. The two together jump off a cliff, and the soft violin music and gorgeous shots communicate the event not as a tragedy, but a thing of beauty.

Understandably, the act is a trigger for Dani, and the other outsiders react in revulsion. From this point on, however, Midsommar begins to treat loss differently. Up to this point, Dani's anxieties about loss--the fear of losing her sister, specifically--and experience of loss only served as a wedge, pushing her away from her boyfriend Christian and their friends.

In Harga, the pain rolled up in loss is felt communally. The pain of one is the pain of everyone, and as such loss brings them together through a shared experience. There's no room for anyone to retreat into themselves, as Annie and Peter did in Hereditary. In both films, loss isn't simply limited to death--Annie and Peter were lost to one another long before they were killed by Paimon. Later in the Midsommar, Christian is taken from Dani, and her pain is felt along with a group of other women, as they bring her into the fold of the community.

Where Hereditary is a brutal movie to watch, moments like these genuinely feel uplifting. Even more surprising is the sense of humor on display here. Midsommar is certainly a movie wrapped up in a lot of dark, heavy thematic content, but it also recognizes some of what is happening on screen is laughable. Again, this is a difference in how the movies treat their very similar themes--Hereditary took it all extremely seriously, and pulled it off. Midsommar has the same chops, but is far more willing to take the mask off and allow the audience moments of respite to laugh.

Midsommar certainly has its fair share of tension, and scenes clearly in the same vein as Hereditary. Ultimately though, it strikes a significantly different tone. There's no indication the movies are in anyway connected by plot or character. But Midsommar is at least a response to Hereditary, if not a full-blown rejection of its understanding of death and loss.

At the end of the film, as she watches Christian and virtually everyone else she knew burn up as the conclusion to the midsommar ritual, Dani smiles. In this moment, she acknowledges a new life for herself and an understanding of loss as a tool of moving on and adapting. It's not so much the ritualistic deaths of people that matters in this scene, but rather their symbolism of Dani cutting out the harmful parts of her life, giving up on her past and accepting a different, better future.

That final moment about broke me--not because it's tragic or sad, but because it is such a happy, beautiful moment. It's the final argument in Midsommar's case, not only that we should rethink our relationship with death but that the cyclical nature of life means we can't waste time not minimizing suffering and maximizing our own self-actualization. Which is ultimately what the movie articulates--not to lose sight of empathy or love but to incorporate them into ourselves so much as to feel everything others feel, their pain, loss, and anguish yes, but more importantly their moments of happiness and love.

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