This Horrible, Hopeless Machine: Politics in Ari Aster’s Films
Spoilers for both Hereditary and Midsommar below.
Ari Aster does not want to be known as a political director.
“I’m sort of loathe to expound openly about these things,” he said in a July Forbes interview, “because I’m not making a polemic.” In another piece posted on Inverse, he elaborated: “I know that I never want to make message movies. But a movie doesn’t need to have a concrete message to make a deep and meaningful impact…If the movie’s agenda is transparent, that makes me resist. A question well-articulated is so much stronger (and more trustworthy) than an answer firmly stated.”
Aster’s films certainly pose questions. Debuting with the critically acclaimed possession movie Hereditary in 2018 and following it up just one year later with the surreal folk horror of Midsommar, he’s quickly established himself as one of the most interesting and innovative directors working in genre filmmaking. Taken together these films paint agonized portraits of isolated, troubled people beset by terrifying phenomena: a grief-stricken Utah family in Hereditary, a dysfunctional millennial couple in Midsommar. Unbearable loss is the driving current in both, incited by sickeningly extreme tragedies early on in the runtime. The central conflict, then—witches and pagan cultists aside—is how the characters cope, or fail to cope, with this loss.
Aster has stated that the appeal of making genre films, at least for him, is having “the scope of a story match whatever the characters are feeling” (linking them to the tradition of melodrama). His primary goal is to express the individual emotions and lived realities of his characters, a feat he pulls off admirably. Hereditary’s Paimon, a demon passed down from generation to generation by an insidious coven of witches, functions as a powerful metaphor for the horrors of inherited mental illness. And the pagan cult at the center of Midsommar, which seduces Dani (Florence Pugh) into its perverse rites with promises of empathy and affection, disturbingly echoes her unhappy, codependent relationship with manipulative grad student Christian (Jack Reynor). But the metaphors of these films aren’t purely psychological. On another level, they are also stories of people inescapably trapped by sinister social orders beyond their control.
Hereditary, for example, is at least in part about the constricting power of gender roles: particularly societal expectations for women, and the imposition of outside agendas upon their bodies. Annie Graham (Toni Collette), our protagonist, did not choose to be a mother. In one of the film’s most painful sequences, she dreams a conversation with her son Peter (Alex Wolff), giving voice to her unspoken thoughts: “I never wanted to be your mother,” she confesses. “I was scared. I didn’t feel like a mother. But she pressured me.” The “she” Annie alludes to is her sinister, domineering mother Ellen, who dies shortly before the advent of the film but continues to hold the household in her vise-like grip. The major twist of the film is that Ellen, unbeknownst to Annie, was the leader of a coven of witches, and that their designs have been on Peter—not Annie—all along. The entire plot has been an elaborate ritual intended to place the masculine demon Paimon, formerly trapped in the body of Annie’s daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro), into Peter’s more fitting male form.
All this is primarily meant to symbolize the passage of mental illness down through the generations, but it also has relatively self-evident gendered connotations that come into sharp focus when looked at through the right lens. Ellen forces her daughter into family life and reduces her daughter’s womb and her grandchildren’s bodies to chattel for the coven’s purposes. She’s a stand-in for a wider patriarchal society that pressures women to rear children and fit in their socially-ordained identities. Significantly, Paimon’s influence is transmitted through conventional moments of motherhood: we see photos and dioramas of Ellen's breast- and bottle-feeding Charlie, implied to be part of the long-running ritual carried out in the film. Motherhood, especially compulsory motherhood, is here depicted as a kind of unspeakable curse, part of a wider societal plan that does not have women’s best interests at heart. (In this sense, the film’s sizable lineage from Rosemary’s Baby is starkly apparent.)
The elevation of the very male Paimon as the object of worship here is also significant. Paimon, we discover, specifically desires a masculine body for possession, and becomes “livid and vengeful when offered a female host”. Charlie’s female body, his original home, is thus deemed insufficient, and her brutal death is engineered to place Paimon in Peter. Annie is similarly sacrificed, turned into a satanic puppet who saws off her own head in a grisly act of occult reverence. But Peter, far from a willing vessel, is also victimized by this design. He is deemed a suitable vessel not only for being male but being “vulnerable”: permanently scarred by his sister’s death, he is an ostensibly emotionally “weak” boy, evicted from his body to provide room for a more powerful entity. As in our own society, masculinity “is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others” (to quote a Michael Ian Black piece for The New York Times).
The twisted vision of a nuclear family we see in Hereditary, and the controlling faction that breaks their minds and bodies, is a distorted reflection of our own society’s conventional “family values” and oppressive institutions. (The fact that the coven is led by women—Ellen and Joan, played by Ann Dowd—has an eerie resonance of internalized misogyny in a time where 51% of white women voted for Trump.) The film upsettingly concludes with three generations of Graham women decapitated, their ambulatory corpses bowing to a ceremonially crowned Peter, himself nothing but a hollowed-out shell. Aster may be adding distinctly supernatural flourishes here, but the banal horrors of patriarchy are far from the stuff of fiction.
The cult or coven, as we see in Hereditary, will always function on some level as a metaphor for a predatory and warped social unit. This idea is amplified in Midsommar. Though Aster is hardly explicit about it, Midsommar is more overtly political than Hereditary: appropriately, since it’s a folk horror film, and folk horror almost always derives its terrors from the barbaric cruelties people enact on each other, generally in the service of some groundless and nonsensical belief. In Midsommar, the beliefs are those of Hårga, a seemingly ancient pagan cult living in the wilds of Hälsingland, Sweden. A group of college students, including self-satisfied anthropology major Christian, journey there to see a special iteration of Hårga’s midsummer festival, which only occurs once every ninety years. The trip is complicated, though, by the fractious and crumbling relationship between Christian and his girlfriend, Dani: an anxious, withdrawn psychology major who is still grieving the tragic loss of her family in a murder-suicide. As the cult’s ceremonies grow more and more extreme, so too does the couple’s bond decline, till both ultimately intersect in a fiery, overwhelming ending.
Much of the politically oriented discussion surrounding Midsommar has centered around the portrayal of Christian and his male friends. And indeed, a large part of the film’s emotional honesty and potency is how mercilessly it skewers the brand of shallow, bro-dude masculinity espoused by the grad students. As well as functioning as a metaphorical depiction of the “apocalyptic breakup” Aster hoped to convey, the cathartic ending has been convincingly read as a feminist triumph over toxically masculine victimizers. But Midsommar’s other dimension is one common to many folk horror films: that of race. From the moment the students arrive at the commune and the camera smoothly pans over the idyllic landscape, taking in a panorama of abstracted buildings and frolicking Swedish youth, one fact is blatantly unavoidable: Hårga’s (literally) glaring whiteness.
Contemporary paganism has always had a troubling relationship with fascism, and Midsommar drives home this relationship more than perhaps any other folk horror film. Hårga espouses a return to ancient traditions, an emphasis on “preserved bloodlines”, and specific ties to the land: ideas common to most fascist and ethnonationalist ideologies. Their primary colors are blue and yellow, echoing the Swedish flag, “to make the point of how wrong nationalism is,” production designer Henrik Svensson says. Their community, while seemingly utopic, is founded on brutish acts of euthanasia and human sacrifice—but, as Jenna Wortham writes in her insightful piece for The New York Times, Hårga never sees anything remotely wrong with their behavior. “[N]othing is too expensive if it means the preservation of their village’s purity, their rituals and their way of life: a perfect metaphor for the historical violence and legacy of whiteness.”
There are three people of color in the film: Josh (William Jackson Harper), one of the grad students joining Christian; and a London couple brought separately to the commune, Simon (Archie Madekwe) and Connie (Ellora Torchia). The latter are the first to realize something is wrong, but their voices are ignored. After witnessing a gruesome ättestupa, wherein two elder cult members commit ritual suicide to the joy of the commune (echoing the cult of death, another component of fascist ideology), they immediately pack their things and attempt to leave, but individually disappear. Connie’s screams are heard echoing around the commune, and Mark (Will Poulter) even comments that he’d seen her running for the trees, but, pointedly, none of the white protagonists do much in response. Josh later disappears as well; not only do the remaining characters not seem to care, but the oafish Christian even sells him out to the cult elders and insists “we don’t associate with him in any way”.
The film hints at these tendencies with little Easter eggs and details that might be missed on a first viewing. On Josh’s coffee table in the pre-Sweden scenes, we see a bright yellow book titled The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark, an iteration of the runic alphabet. (In the director’s cut, this is even more explicit: during the car-ride to the commune, we see the cover, which features a large swastika encircled by a sea of runes.) Also on the car-ride, the students pass under a large banner, which, when translated from the Swedish, complains of “mass immigration to Hälsingland”, and urges the reader to “vote Free North this fall”—an obvious allusion to Brexit, and more generally to the anti-immigrant movements presently springing up across Europe and the world.
Before leaving off, it would be wrong not comment on Ruben (Levente Puczkó-Smith), the cult’s disabled oracle, who has drawn considerable commentary. A member intentionally bred of incest to write Hårga’s scripture, the character has been accused of ableism and insensitivity—but this seems to miss the point. Ruben is not an object of horror, but a victim of the cult’s purposes. He is an individual subjected to traumatic rites he does not fully understand (he is present during the sex ritual late in the film), born only to continue Hårga’s holy text, which the elders dictatorially interpret in any way that suits their motivations. Additionally, Ruben’s presence stresses Hårga’s obsession with their “pure” bloodlines, which ultimately extend to the point of inbreeding.
Even Aster, cryptic about it though he may be, acknowledges these aspects of Midsommar. From the interview cited at the top of the article, he explains: “if you also consider Swedish history, it is a very closed society and what does that really mean? There are things happening in Sweden right now that are echo[e]s of things that happened in the Second World War.” When discussing his own work, Svensson is even more direct: “[the sets are] pumped up, fascist architecture-style. I find it historically and traditionally oppressive, and this place breathes with it…It’s important to note that just because Sweden was neutral in World War II, that doesn't erase the fact that there were strong Nazi sympathizers at the time, from the people on the street all the way to the king. This is still in some extreme way[s] relevant in today’s Swedish political climate, unfortunately.”
It would be wrong to call Hereditary and Midsommar political movies, and equally wrong to call Aster a political director. Nonetheless, social messages seep in. No film exists in a vacuum, and in the stressful and intense atmosphere of the past several years, it’s inevitable that the spirit of times will be expressed in horror movies. It is easy to feel like we are all pawns in one horrible, hopeless machine: controlled by our government, our social standing, our cultural values. One doubts, based on his comments, that Aster will ever be an explicitly political filmmaker. But the peculiarly fatalistic attitudes of his debut features speak to the moment all on their own.