Ari Aster’s daylight-soaked nightmare Midsommar is never coy about the inevitability of its twisted fairy-tale ending. Quite the opposite: it lays out every step of our impending descent into pastoral hell in vivid, colorfully stitched pictures on quilts, long before the outsiders we follow into a quaint Swedish commune understand what they mean. Without context, they only see a girl becoming smitten, bright red hearts in her eyes. They don’t know they’ll soon be privy to a deliciously fucked-up courtship—or that it’ll climax in one of the most transcendently insane sex scenes in recent memory, as hypnotic and unsettling as it is just straight-up funny.
The Hereditary writer-director’s entry into the Wicker Man folk horror tradition was his way of processing “the ruins of a relationship that had just fallen apart,” Aster tells The Daily Beast. Midsommar paints a convincing portrait of a disintegrating couple—Dani, played by Florence Pugh, and Christian (Jack Reynor)—bound together by little more than habit (on her part) and cowardice (on his). A trip abroad to the secluded Swedish community one of Christian’s grad-school pals hails from exposes every fissure in their relationship to the midnight sun, forcing them to confront their unhappiness, to finally act.
They just happen to do so while high as kites on drugs and in the clutches of a murderous cult. It all yields a depraved sort of catharsis, the kind Aster hopes “people will have to contend with later.”
(Warning: If you have not yet seen Midsommar and want to go in as blind as a sacrificial lamb, turn back now. Light spoilers ahead.)
Christian, who’s long been looking for a way out of his relationship with Dani, catches the eye of his Swedish friend’s red-headed younger sister, Maja (Isabelle Grill), though not for his sparkling personality. She wants his baby, not him—outsiders’ blood helps avoid the question of incest. One thing leads to another and the minute Dani’s attention is diverted, Christian finds himself tripping balls on hippie tea, tempted by Maja, who waits for him inside a half-circle of pagan women—young, middle-aged, and elderly alike, all nude and stroking themselves. Once the rendezvous begins, all begin moaning along in unison with Maja, creating a chorus of deviant cheerleaders.
It’s at once nightmarish, absurd, off-putting, and darkly comic. Christian’s mouth hangs agape, his eyes dilated in wonder as he stares around him and pumps away. A wrinkled old woman’s hands plant firmly on his buttocks at one point, literally pushing him on while she moans. It’s an unsexy interpretation of Christian’s fantasies, yet also a point of no return for the character, seeding the heartbreak and fury that motivate Dani’s final act.
And for a sex scene so disturbing it lands somewhere between Howard the Duck and David Cronenberg, it’s perhaps some feat that it was only Aster’s first as a director.
“It was definitely the scene I was most excited about when I was writing the film,” he recalls, in a conversation at film distributor A24’s offices in New York. “And then when it came time to direct it, it was definitely the scene I had the most anxiety about because I had never directed a sex scene before, and then I’d written this sex scene,” he laughs. “It was like taking a real jump into cold water.”
The visceral jumble of conflicted reactions a viewer might have to the scene is the goal. “It’s designed to be funny and uncomfortable and beautiful and strange,” he says. The rest of the film’s third act is meant to elicit “catharsis,” but not in a way that lets audiences off the hook. “The guy that you have been conditioned to not like is going to be humiliated for about 40 minutes and totally just destroyed. He is totally undressed, rendered completely vulnerable, used by these women for their own purposes. He’s exploited by them completely.”
For Aster, the folk-horror archetype in which a male outsider is tempted or manipulated into a vulnerable spot by some young, female cult member presented an opportunity to turn another horror convention on its head. “Even though Christian is getting what he thinks he wants, to play the field and live his life, so to speak, he’s used in a way that women tend to be in the horror genre,” he says. “Horror films and exploitation films are typically synonymous, and typically the people who are being exploited are women. And so there was something fun about dressing down this guy and kind of submitting him to this.”
Midsommar’s blindingly sunny aesthetic usually meant seven- to ten-hour days of “chasing the sun,” Aster says, but Christian’s scene was shot inside a Hungarian temple, affording the crew a rare chance to film past sunset. It turned out to be the film’s longest day of shooting—about 17 hours—and the final day, to boot. Perhaps to soothe his nerves more than anyone’s, he walked both actors and crew through the sequence “a hundred times over.”
Filming the actual sequence went “smoothly,” he says, though he strayed from his norm to pull it off. A meticulous planner who often goes beyond 20 takes per sequence, Aster swore to limit himself to “three or four takes” for this one, he says. “And for the most part, we were actually doing those as a series, so I was never even actually cutting, I was just going back to one. It’s action and then going through the scene and then we just bring the camera and the actors back to their original place.”
The result is likely to haunt viewers’ minds as much as it tickles them. But has he watched the sequence yet with an audience?
“Once,” he says, grinning. “It was nice to hear laughter. That was good.”
Stay Tuned: More from our interview with Midsommar director Ari Aster will run later this week.