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Performative Empathy: Ari Aster’s Midsommar

In Ari Aster’s nightmarish Midsommar, a group of graduate students travel to a remote Swedish community to study its unique religious beliefs. Eager to escape the tragedy of her parent’s murder/suicide perpetrated by her sister, Dani (Florence Pugh) asks her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), to go along. Afraid to break up with her because of her recent tragedy, he relucantly agrees to let her tag along.

The movie opens, however, with Christian discussing why he needs to break up with Dani with his friends. The murder suicide throws all of this off. Christian can’t bring himself to break up with someone grieving, but that doesn’t mean he’s staying with her for the right reasons. In one shot, Christian is positively miserable as he lamely tries to assuage Dani’s grief by resting his hand on her back. Dani’s sister murdered her parents in their sleep and then took her own life. This setup of being unable to act out of empathy, sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Christian only dutifully cares for Dani as he attempts to distance himself, but bringing her to the commune is a mistake from the beginning. As soon as they arrive, amidst a sort of return from rumspringa, take hallucinogenic mushrooms before entering the camp. Dani is peer pressured into taking the drugs and experiences a trip fueled by grief and anxiety, a terrible combination that not only makes the viewer start to hate Christian, it makes it clear that this isn’t your usual horror movie. The effects during the trip are eerily realistic, subtle in the way that only someone who has experienced hallucinogens will appreciate, and we delve deeply into Dani’s psyche.

The commune is welcoming, but it plays on all of the viewer’s xenophobic fears; trusting translations, not understanding and fumbling through customs, and the idea that someone else’s odd beliefs might be tapping into something that is more powerful than you’d like to believe. 

The commune unexpectedly offers the grieving Dani exactly what she needs.

In the most memorable scene in the movie, the entire village watches while the oldest people of the village, a couple at the age of 78, climb to the top of a cliff and perform a rite that involves leaving bloody handprints on a stone. Dani and Christian wait quietly along with the villagers, some of whom carry large mallets. When the woman jumps to her death, all the sound stops. Dani is in shock even though others try to console her. It’s not just gruesome, it’s disturbing to watch Dani be retraumatized. 

When the man jumps and doesn’t die on impact, it’s even harder to watch. He screams in pain, then all the members of the village, quiet until that point, begin screaming back at him. It struck me immediately as something out of “The Cask of Amontillado”, wherein the screams of Fortunato are aided, surpassed and doubled ironically, but something was going on.

In small pockets, you see it again, as a group of women huddle around a mother trying to calm a baby, all performing the same motion, as someone else experiences pain, and finally, after catching Christian cheating, the women surround Dani.

It’s not mocking, it’s performative empathy. After the fake niceness of Christian, after being alone for so long, it’s easy to see that there is an unavoidable draw for Dani. Authentic empathy is severely lacking in this society. We say we’re sorry but don’t mean it. We send mass manufactured sympathy cards and after the initial outpouring of support after a loss, the aggrieved often finds themselves alone, wondering if anyone really cared. 

It doesn’t mean it ends well. Midsommar is emotionally challenging from beginning to end, demanding viewers slip inside Dani’s mind, because it’s only through understanding her experience that the movie begins to make sense. Viewers should take note of the skill they need to interpret the film.

We could use a little more authentic empathy in the world right now.  

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