Staying home more than ever these days, I am watching a variety of videos: from opera to horror films. By chance, I came across Midsommar (2019), the second feature film from director Ari Aster, and watched it twice. Yes, it has some extremely gory scenes. But overall it is a hypnotic and intriguing trip. Terror creeps up on you unnoticed, although chilling elements are exquisitely revealed from the beginning and throughout the film in subtle visual details, which are fascinating to observe and all the more reason to see it twice. Its idyllic setting—the “Swedish” landscape (the film was actually shot in Hungary)—intensifies the horror. But it is not gratuitous horror. Midsommar is a karmic story in which payback for violating sacred laws—from those of a community’s spirituality to those of nature and of the heart—comes in brutal and sinister yet creative ways.
Then, I was curious to see Aster’s first film, Hereditary (2018) in which Toni Collette gives an incredibly harrowing performance. I do prefer Midsommar for its more gradual, unique, and refined means of unleashing the horror. Nevertheless, Hereditary is a remarkable first feature-film and announces the presence of a writer/director’s singular vision – a vision that reminds me a bit of Roman Polanski’s cinematic eye. In fact, two of Aster’s favorite films are Rosemary’s Baby(1968) and Repulsion (1965).
I hate spoilers, so I will reveal only a structural one, because I was captivated and provoked by it. Just as Polanski has a penchant for weird apartments and the sound of piano-scale practicing in the background, Aster has what I now think of as his upside-down clue. In each film, there is a moment in which he turns the camera upside down. In Midsommar, it is when the group of young Americans is driving towards the secluded Hårga community. Suddenly, the road is at the top of the screen with the car driving on it and the sky below.
In Hereditary, it happens when Toni Collette’s character goes to visit a newly-made “friend:” the corridor leading to the friend’s apartment turns into the ceiling. The world as the characters—and we—know it is about to be inverted. While Aster’s clue may seem blunt, it is profound because it transmits a subliminal message to the viewers. Yes, it is a sign of a reversal of fortune and of life, but it also poses more philosophical questions. Have you allowed yourself to consider all perspectives of a situation? Are you really sure that there is only one “right” one? What will happen if you and your world are turned upside down?
This reminds me of the Major Arcana Tarot Card XII: the Hanged Man. The figure depicted on it is hung upside down by a leg and contemplates an inverted world. In a reading, the card signifies patient acceptance of what is, sacrifice, suspension of action, reflection, and new angles of vision. We could say that the entire world is in a Hanged Man state at the moment. But, in the Tarot depiction, the figure often has a peaceful expression because he is allowing himself to absorb and consider the upside-down perspective. Whenever he will return to stand upright, he will do so as a wiser being. For me, Midsommar conveys this idea. Florence Pugh’s character is the Hanged Man. She has been forced to sacrifice so much and yet she stays open to the strangeness of her new situation without judgment. In the process, she discovers new aspects of herself.
This is not to say that I am seeing Midsommar as an allegory of today’s times. It is not. But it does succeed in triggering thoughts and reminders of what we already know and are living now: that anywhere, any time, our lives can be turned upside down. The question is, how will we choose to see, accept, and deal with the “inversion?”
Top photo: Florence Pugh
Photo by Gabor Kotschy, Courtesy of A24