From Midsommar (courtesy A24)

Mainstream horror movies have long abided by a set of unofficial rules which govern what characters deserve to die, and when — “Don’t have sex” probably being the biggest cliché among them. Midsommar works differently. A film about a group of American grad students on vacation in rural Sweden, it ties survival directly to being a gracious visitor in another culture. Characters are condemned to horrid fates when they harshly judge a tradition they don’t understand, or when they disrespect a sacred site, or when they break the local rules of conduct. In this version of folk horror, the ancient and unsettling (and of course, ultimately murderous) rituals hold potential transformative value for an outsider, but only as long as they’re willing to give themselves over to it.

Here, that transformation is offered to main character Dani (Florence Pugh), who’s reeling in the wake of the horrifying murder-suicide of her sister and parents. Not helping things at all is her longtime boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who offers her about as much emotional support as a storefront dummy. He’s long wanted out of the relationship but is too cowardly to dump her, to the point where he plans the Sweden trip with his friends without telling her about it, and ultimately “solves” this problem by inviting her along at the last minute. Dani’s psychological tailspin dovetails with the increasingly creepy practices of the midsummer celebrations at the remote commune they’ve come to. There are elders walking off cliffs, pubic hair in meat pies, an inbred “prophet,” and flowers stuffed into places flowers should not go. And worst of all, the villagers are just so serene, friendly, and disrespectful of personal space throughout.

From Midsommar (courtesy A24)

Each member of the main group is a different flavor of ugly American abroad. Mark (Will Poulter) only wants to get laid. Josh (William Jackson Harper) is there doing thesis research, condescendingly viewing the locals as anthropological specimens. Christian was planning this as a Dani-free trip, and is at a loss for what to do besides gawk and ineptly try to care for her with her present. Every horror movie has to come up with some justification for the characters to not recognize what’s going on until it’s too late, and hilariously, here it’s their self-absorption and cultural illiteracy. Meanwhile, Dani’s emotional numbness precludes her from making any such missteps and actually facilitates her opening up to the spirit of the midsummer festivities. Beneath the odd songs and dances (and murder) is a message of total renewal — exactly what she needs. Midsommar can be seen as a dark parody of stories about Americans “finding themselves” in other countries. Eat (human flesh), Pray (to the harvest god), Love (anyone but that asshole).

Adding to that feeling is the cinematography, which frequently conveys the framing and overlit aesthetic of an Instagram video. In one scene, a host of female characters wear flower crowns, and the colors pop as if the shot has had the Lark filter used on it. Similarly, the vacay mainstay of a “food shot” is twisted by close-ups of questionable meat with flies buzzing about. And of course, many of the foreigners are themselves taking pictures on their phones the whole time. The idea of foreign adventurism is built into the look of the film. That it turns the Americans’s othering of the locals against them weighs it with even more ironic weight.

From Midsommar (courtesy A24)

Indeed, this is one of the most intentionally funny horror movies in many years. A similar vein ran through Hereditary, director Ari Aster’s debut feature from last year, but here he indulges it wholeheartedly. It embraces the simultaneous absurdity and grossness of old-world traditions (feeding a pubic hair to an unsuspecting victim comes from actual folk tales). The movie also mines a lot of laughs out of the characters sheer witlessness, or from how baldly Christian’s bad behavior escalates.

That sense of humor doesn’t erase the growing unease throughout, though. Another thing Aster loves is closing in on impressively realistic gore makeup, often forcefully blasting such shots right when you’re least prepared for them. Beneath the sunniness of the endless Swedish summer day is a growing rot. More than jump scares or general dread, Aster’s films can be aggressively feel-bad. The way Dani’s sister kills their parents and herself is so awful and elaborate as to be baroque. But the audience squirms more here under unrelenting interpersonal unpleasantness than any violence, with some harrowingly realistic depictions of gaslighting. When Dani tries to confront Christian over his hiding the trip from her, she ends up apologizing to him.

From Midsommar (courtesy A24)

Stretching out to two and a half hours, Midsommar can be needlessly self-indulgent at times. Horror especially can suffer under such stretching, and the finale doesn’t land as powerfully as it could have. But much of the film is keenly attuned to human failure and the ugliness of bad relationships, making for a magnetic but continually cringe-inducing ride.

Midsommar is now in theaters.

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Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is Associate Editor for Documentary at Hyperallergic. You can find his all his links and public profiles here.

8 replies on “A Horror Flick Parodies Instagram and the Idea of “Finding Yourself” Abroad”

  1. I love how non-americans get to make fun of american’s abroad while ridiculing americans for not traveling or getting (enough) experience outside of the usa. Imagine a film set with in the reverse fashion — american film makers poking fun at europeans visiting the usa and not understanding our culture. It would be penalized for being obtuse at a minimum. But, then again, I am an “ugly” american who had one of those “abroad” experiences listed above.

      1. Non-american (n): someone not living in or being from America; the United States of. The subheading for this article is “In Midsommar, being an ugly American could get you killed.” I am so over this slapstick anti-USA rhetoric. It’s trite at best.

        1. The Americas comprise the totality of the continents of North and South America. The country is called “United States of America” or USA. The film was made by a USA filmmaker born in New-York, yet you claim that “non-Americans” make fun of Americans in the film, so I asked you which ones. I claim people of the USA can often make fun of themselves either voluntarily, or involuntarily without any help from the outside. There are also a lot of USA films making fun at europeans, go find them since you’re bored. Every comment you lay on here is “Imagine if X did this instead of Z”, which only highlights your impossibility to distinguish between creative message and hatred.

          1. And everything you “lay” down (spill tea?) is an obtuse lean into identity politics; call-out feminism. Yes, I am bored with it. Off to Blockbuster to rent these “films” you speak of… chow!

          2. Just going on the internet to criticize everything you read and try to argue with other users isn’t the best use of your time. Why not pick a hobby instead? Play some tennis, go hike with some friends, learn how to bake a delicious cake. Visit Sweden? The minutes of your life are precious.

          3. Exactly! I spend most of my days being told that I am a “colonizer” a “#wypipo” a “man” a “male” a “cis” etc while just living my life. I actually do just want to bake a cake or play a sport but am terrified of being called out or canceled for just living my life in our current whirlwind of cal out feminism (am I allowed to eat Chinese food, drink tea, listen to Rihanna, wear a bracelet purchased from an Indigenous artisan, play soccer? — none are technically part of my ‘culture’). Yes, I am being hyperbolic but also I am really tired of the hyperbole cast from other folx and have simply leaned in (dramatically) to play along. Anywho… off to deal with my student loans so I can get to Sweden, adjö!

  2. This reading of the film ignores the English couple that was murdered first, despite the fact that the only tradition they “disrespected” was the murder of the two elders — an understandable reaction, imo. Or the fact that all of the foreigners, besides Dani, were brought to the commune with the express intention of being sacrificed. The “ugly American” assessment of Midsommar is a cheap read of a complex film that has more issues than just a “finale [that] doesn’t land as powerfully as it could have”.

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