Midsommar and the Terrifying Complex of Daylight
Horror films are generally associated with darkness, small spaces, and nighttime. After all, it is in the shadows of the night when there is no safety nor comfort where situations seem the most terrifying. Ari Aster’s 2019 film, “Midsommar,” challenges these classic horror tropes by providing a bright and colorful cinematic experience that is beautiful to watch while just as unsettling. Set in a rural Swedish town where the sun never sets, the film features a group of American graduate students who partake in pagan festivities and become entangled in its dangerous rituals. The creators used a variety of unconventional camera techniques to display horror, uncertainty, and helplessness in this film that takes place almost entirely outdoors.
Distorting Our View
One of the many ways in which “Midsommar” can disorient viewers is in the filmmaker’s extensive use of nonlinear distortion to place them into the shoes of the characters. The clearest example of this is in a scene where the protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh) takes hallucinogenic mushrooms shortly after arriving in the Swedish countryside.
The camera tracks Dani as the effects of the drugs can be seen on her face, and the camera moves to wherever she seems to be looking. At one point, Dani looks at a tree, and the leaves seem to be warping and moving in a way similar to that of a real psychedelic experience. When the camera focuses back on Dani’s face, we see her figure selectively focused while the rich background is in constant flux in the form of dizzying, swirling patterns. While there are other characters present in the background, Dani seems incredibly of a place. She is the odd one out as what started as a pleasant experience quickly turns into a bad trip.
Staring a Little Too Long
Counterintuitive to most horror movies, bright sunlight is used in “Midsommar” to isolate the leading group of characters and put them out of their natural element. In one particularly disturbing scene, two members of the pagan cult perform a ritual suicide by jumping off a cliff, while the protagonists watch in disbelief, and the rest of the townspeople rejoice. During the ceremony, bodies fall into the rocks below, and the faces of the deceased are crushed to bits.
This scene is incredibly well lit and raw as the shots linger on the screen for an uncomfortable amount of time. The deaths happen in broad daylight, and the camera never pans away from the depiction of violence, instead of getting closer to the gore in a series of close-up shots. Aster uses lighting in this situation to leave nothing up to the viewer’s imagination, often leaving the audience almost pleading for darkness to come and hide the gory mess. When the ritual is over, the scene moves back to more beautiful shots of flowers and children playing, showing that the bloodshed was just a part of life in this town. This scene is hard to forget, and the lighting and lingering camera ensure that it is absorbed in its entirety.
Death by a Million Frames
There are several shots throughout “Midsommar” that are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of visual content in the frame. Some of the most striking examples of this occur during a sex ritual, where Dani’s boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is encouraged by a singing group of naked women to impregnate one of the Swedish girls before their eyes. When Dani discovers what her boyfriend is doing, she begins maniacally screaming in sadness and anger while the other women in the cult mimic her. The director uses parallel editing here to alternate between both Dani and Christian, juxtaposing the two characters with light and darkness. When the scene shows Dani, she is in a room flooded with light, surrounded by women wearing white floral garments crying in unison.
When the scene cuts to Christian, he is in a dark barn surrounded by shadows and seemingly isolated from the other women in the scene. These shots aim to subconsciously tell the viewer that Christian was in the wrong, that he is all alone, and that he is doomed. Dani, on the other hand, has found a new life and a new family as a result of her grief.
Foreshadow, Foreshadow, Foreshadow
The photography in “Midsommar” does not only help explain the plot but often foreshadows it. It is difficult to miss the murals throughout the film that preemptively explain all the events that will unfold as part of the festival. This imagery can be seen everywhere from the cult’s manuscripts to carvings in a wall, books, runes, and even posters in bedrooms.
Aster uses deep focus every time these harbingers are present in the scene, with the prophetic drawings always in clear sight — if only the viewer’s eyes were to wander away from the foreground. The Swedish villagers also command attention in the background of many shots. These rural dwellers are draped in pure white clothing wearing gorgeous floral arrangements that stand out from the modern, disheveled, and “impure” American characters. It is no irony that by the end of the film, Dani adopts the look of the pagans, symbolic of her purity and acceptance into the cult.
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
The opening sequence is the only time in which darkness is present, which provides a contrast to the bright warmth of the rest of the film. The movie opens with Dani alone, one snowy night, concerned about a troubling message she received from her sister. When she learns that her worst fears are confirmed, and her sister has killed herself along with her parents, Aster uses a long take to depict the grisly murder-suicide.
The scene begins with the camera inside a car in a dark garage lit up only by the red flashing lights of an emergency vehicle. The camera then moves outside of the vehicle. It pans around the garage to reveal several firemen checking smoke detectors, before settling on the exhaust pipes of the car which are connected to hoses. The camera then proceeds to track the fireman as they follow the tubes through the house to the parents’ bedroom — which has become a gas chamber — and then finally moves into another room where Dani’s sister lays dead. A dolly shot is then used to move closer and closer to the body, then settles on an open computer scene where we see the warning message that was sent to Dani. The camera then moves through an open window. It seamlessly cuts to another location where we see Dani maniacally screaming in agony, then through another window to reveal the opening credits of the film.
This scene is useful in setting the tone for the rest of the film as it ties the entire first act together without using any words. The camera work and photography here provide the viewer with information regarding what happened, why, and how it affected the main character, all while maintaining the gritty and dark aesthetic that is commonly associated with horror movies. As this is a very traumatic event for the main character, Aster interpolates shots from this sequence as a callback whenever Dani experiences pain. For example, during the psychedelic trip gone wrong in the Swedish countryside, Dani begins to see images of her dead parents and sister. The purpose of this photography is to depict the psychotic experience and trauma the main character feels and is quite disturbing, as well as it appears very unexpectedly so viewers can share their discomfort with Dani.
Burn It All Down
The closing shot provides a direct contrast to the dark murder-suicide scene shown at the beginning. This ending sequence sees Christian burned alive in a yellow pyramid-shaped building, inside the carcass of a bear, alongside the mutilated corpses of the others who visited the village. As the temple is set on fire, Dani, adorned in a gown of colorful flowers, looks on as the villagers ritually scream and yell in unison. The colors in this scene are vibrant and full of life as opposed to the dark scene in the opening of the film. This imagery is symbolic of the story as at the beginning, we see Dani alone in her grief as she mourns the loss of her family, but now she is not only sharing her grief and pain but joy with her new “family.” In the very final shot, the audience is seen as a close up of the main character frowning with a myriad of emotions on her face. Slowly the frown fades and reveals a smile in a moment of catharsis when all the relics of Dani’s toxic old life have finally burned to the ground as she joins the rest of the villagers in their celebration. This photography also provides a contrast to the beginning of the film as Dani is not crying; the group she has joined is crying on her behalf.
The Bottom Line
Throughout “Midsommar,” director Ari Aster uses photography to make audiences feel as vulnerable and disturbed as the characters on the screen. Rather than haunt spectators with darkness and confinement, the filmmaker creates a reminder about just how terrifying light and open spaces can be. Horrific images are shown throughout both in dark and light, informing audiences that evil exists even in places where it may not seem so. By using various lighting effects, shots, and distorted imagery, Aster is able to provide an experience that is fundamentally different from most other films of the horror genre. This film is photographed to feel like a hallucinogenic-induced trip that is deeply disturbing yet so visually stunning that it is impossible to peel the eyes away.