The opening of Ari Aster’s Midsommar feels almost too real. Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian’s (Jack Reynor) relationship is on the rocks, but they’re clinging to each other while circling the drain, with arguments that go in circles and gaslighting that’s painful to watch. When tragedy strikes Dani’s family, Christian invites her on a would-be boys’ trip, mostly out of obligation.
The trip is to a village in Hälsingland, Sweden, where a once-every-90-years midsummer festival is taking place. At first, the village, with its near-constant daylight and harmonious community, seems like an idyll. That tranquility doesn’t last, however. Things rapidly start going south, with the cult-esque Hårga people revealing less peaceable intentions as the days progress.
You’ll be relieved to know that the cult at the center of Midsommar isn’t real, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t pieced together from very real influences.
“It’s a stew,” Aster said, during a talk after a screening of the film at the Brooklyn Alamo Drafthouse. “We’re drawing from actual Swedish traditions, we’re drawing from Swedish folklore, we’re drawing from Norse mythology.” The director also added that, as “[the Hårga’s] language is empathy,” he had researched various spiritual movements, though he refrained from specifically naming any — “I don’t want to mention them because I think that they’re beautiful and I don’t want to sully them.”
[Ed. note: Mild spoilers for Midsommar follow.]
That desire to be respectful of the real customs out of which the fictional Hårga are built comes through in the way they’re portrayed. “It was important for me that the people of Harga be really fair,” the director explained. “They are devoted to this philosophy of total reciprocity, which of course is something that’s missing in the central relationship.”
As for how the story came to be, Aster recalled being brought a “broad folk horror concept” four years ago, via the Swedish production company B-Reel. The idea, which featured Americans going to Sweden and then getting killed off, initially felt like a poor fit. But a way in soon made itself clear.
“At the time, [I was] going through a breakup, which was really fresh,” Aster said, “I saw a way of marrying the breakup movie with the folk horror sub-genre, and then making this big, operatic breakup movie. From there, it became very personal.”
Aster explained that he saw a lot of himself in the character of Dani, noting that he seemed to have, “almost inadvertently, at least tried to make [his] Dogville,” referring to the Lars von Trier film in which a woman played by Nicole Kidman is abused by, and then takes her revenge on, a small town. “I see the film definitely as this perverse wish fulfillment fantasy, where you have this woman who is having this existential crisis and she’s been deprived of her family,” the director added, referencing Midsommar’s violent ending.
The good news is that the gruesome parts of Midsommar are well-matched by Aster’s sense of comedy, which is born not out of characters attempting to be witty or funny, but simply the absurdity of everything happening around them.
“While I’m outlining [a film], I’m sure I am [thinking about playing against intention/genre],” he said. “Then as I get into the writing, I stop thinking about that.” Judging by the audience reaction at the screening, which included as many laughs as gasps, it’s a subconscious effort that’s worked out perfectly.