The death of a relationship can sometimes feel maddeningly surreal. It should come as no surprise, then, that these experiences are best expressed through metaphor and fantasy, making horror cinema particularly well-suited to reveal the infestation beneath the surface of romantic bonds. Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is the latest entry in break-up horror that literalizes responses to psychological trauma into morbidly deranged or supernaturally violent forms. Movies like “The Brood” (1979), “Possession” (1981), “Antichrist” (2009), and “The Invitation” (2015) trail behind it, and explore the ways in which couples—usually straight, white, and monogamous—cooperate towards healing, or merely react, in ways that reveal the rot at the root of the relationship.
In “Midsommar,” psychology grad student Dani (Florence Pugh) and her spineless boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are the spitting image of a bad couple. Christian’s bros (William Jackson Harper and an abrasive Will Poulter) heckle him whenever Dani calls. What does she want? There are other girls out there—chill girls—with more active libidos and significantly less emotional baggage. Dani suffers from anxiety, and her sister, diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder, is a constant source of worry. Christian agrees with his friends. He’s tired of the relationship, but lacks the balls to break it off. And the matter, of course, becomes terribly more complicated after a hideous tragedy leaves Dani orphaned and reliant on support that Christian proves thoroughly incapable of providing.
Months later, Christian is set to fly to Europe to attend a remote Swedish community’s midsummer festivities with his crew of dudes. Naturally he fails to mention anything to Dani until the last minute, and beats around the bush with half lies and convenient lapses in memory. Rather than own up to his emotional laziness and overall crumminess, he ends up inviting her to save face, convinced she’ll deny the offer. She doesn’t. And so begins Aster’s sophomore feature, an excavation of codependence, cowardice, and failed communication exacerbated by the triggering brutalities of a pagan festival. Today’s audiences might recognize Dani and Christian’s relationship as an exemplar of the particular toxicity of millennial couples, wherein a heightened consciousness of feminist issues softens the more blatant misogyny of the “Mad Men” days into a passive-aggressive tip-toeing meant to preserve a man’s verified “good guy” label. But horror has long been a vehicle for expressing the ways in which relationships of different generations crumble, and when the divorce rate in the United States more than doubled over the period between the 1950s and 1970s, the stories being told by the film world soon after followed suit.
The same year that the Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman-led divorce drama “Kramer vs Kramer” was released to critical acclaim, David Cronenberg, the maestro of bodily ick, issued his own “more realistic” take on the still-taboo phenomenon of broken vows—“The Brood.” Like Aster, who has admitted that “Midsommar” is an excision of his own particularly bad break-up, Cronenberg was himself going through a divorce while making his deranged tale of marital malaise.
Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed) is the creator of “psychoplasmics”—a form of cathartic therapy achieved by the physical manifestation of buried emotions. For Nola (Samantha Egger), this procedure proves particularly successful as her rage materializes in the form of grotesque mutant versions of her daughter, Candy, that go out into the world and wreak havoc. Her ex-husband, Frank (Art Hindle), suspects the murders of Nola’s mother and father, and Candy’s school teacher, has something to do with Raglan’s institute, and takes it upon himself to investigate in hopes of having one leg up in the ensuing custody battle.
Cronenberg’s disdain for “Kramer vs Kramer” was a dismissal of its supposed realism, which he found fraudulent because it captures so very little of the emotional turbulence and anger involved in the upheaval of divorce. While many understand Cronenberg’s clear delineation of the monstrous, at-fault woman and the heroic man singularly concerned in the welfare of his child, as narrow-minded in its gender politics, and a low-blow expression of Cronenberg’s own fury with his ex-wife, so too does “The Brood” speak to the ways in which people recoil at the challenges offered by their partners when things, in short, get real. In the outrageous concluding scene, Frank confronts Nola and falsely proclaims his willingness to love her again as a means of keeping Candy safe from the brood. Men, in this case, can so often love superficially, and when Nola lifts up her white gown to reveal a gruesome exterior womb, she puts that love to the test by baring herself entirely, with all the blood and horrid mutations of her body on full display. What makes a woman unloveable? Nola comes with baggage, the psychological scars of being raised by alcoholics. But in Cronenberg’s science fiction world, like Aster’s trippy pagan fantasy, the resulting deformities of the mind for both Nola and Dani lead to a violent lashing out against the realized dishonesty and incompetencies of their partners. A relationship can fall apart for a number of reasons, but the manner in which one partner responds to the other’s pain might very well be the beating heart (or the desiccated core) of any romance.
Though all relationships don’t neatly disassemble by a pointed event of discovered betrayal, sometimes the dissatisfaction is contained within the structure of modern romance itself—in the parameters of marriage and motherhood, the sanctioned expressions of desire and sexuality, and the suffocating veneer holding it all together. Andrzej Żuławski’s “Possession” gives no triumphant sense of empowerment to either Isabelle Adjani’s Anna, or Sam Neill’s Mark. Żuławski’s raving deconstruction of a marriage is less interested in guiding audiences through the emotional journey of its breakdown through narrative, than it is in giving visceral expression to the subliminal urges and mental swings that it can induce. When Mark comes home to his apartment in an eerily sterile West Berlin, his wife Anna is inexplicably frigid—she wants a divorce, and she won’t say why.
Mark degrades into a cold-sweated psychosis in his frustrated reaction to his tight-lipped wife, whose comings and goings remain a mystery. Even when he manages to track down her bizarre, flamboyant lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent, oddly reminiscent of Christoph Waltz’s coy shtick), Mark’s efforts are frustrated by the revelation that Heinrich is merely Anna’s peripheral distraction. Something festers within her—a grotesque lustiness, it turns out when it’s revealed she’s having sex with a bloodied, and many-tentacled creature that she keeps hidden in her emptied apartment; a violent streak, perhaps born of her motivation to ensure the continued safety of her affair with the “thing,” which requires discretion, and it seems, fresh food; and a desire to self-mutilate, perhaps a terrifying expression of her will to tear apart from her former identity as mother and wife through bodily shredding, the height of which is the film’s metro underground miscarriage sequence, which features Anna throwing herself against the walls, howling and wailing in a hysteric frenzy before falling down into a white puddle of her own making.
But coded in such starkly outrageous terms, Żuławski makes a conscious decision not to bog down his “domestic drama” with particulars or any footholds of cause and effect. The mystery of his wife’s behavior is part of what drives Mark insane, as she refuses to talk to him and without explanation expects him to consent to her whims, in many ways, reversing the roles often allotted to stay-at-home wives hungry for conversation and husbands inclined to keep their business affairs (and often their separate “public” lives) on the hush. This required secrecy might not be so different from Mark’s, whose profession is that of an international spy. Flipped on its head, however, as a means of excluding a husband from the means of controlling his wife, and as a willful sabotaging of a family’s neat nuclear form, Mark’s rancorous probing snowballs into a nightmare thriller perhaps not so unfamiliar from the espionage meddling he’s so accustomed to—of high body counts, double crossing, and shootouts.
The break-up horror sub-genre often capitalizes on female madness and rage, both complicit in the faulty notion of biologically-culpable feminine hysteria, and subversive in its breakdown of feminine politesse that poses a tangible threat to their male counterparts. Revenge of course, is an expected pathway, which plays out in “Midsommar’”s climactic sacrificial pyre in “Midsommar.” After the other Americans are ceremoniously picked off one by one, Dani and Christian are left alone with the rest of the big Swedish family. They’re fed some trippy tea that primes them for what follows, massaging their brains into states that, while not entirely rational, give expression to what they’ve been feeling and yearning for all along. Christian is easily lured away into a disturbing mating ritual with an aggressive red-head fixated on harvesting his sperm. Dani, the newly-crowned may queen, overhears the moaning and chanting from afar, and pauses to inspect. Through a keyhole, she witnesses the primal scene. And through dilated pupils, it’s not merely an act of infidelity, but an existential betrayal, the undoing of all the lies she’s been telling herself regarding Christian’s devotion, and the painful realization that she’s been all the while living a nightmare completely alone.
Trauma complicates the conditions of love, and in films like Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” (and again, “The Brood”), women are driven into forms of raving madness by these demons. The unwieldiness of their pain materializes in the form of corporeal violence and monstrosity, making them literally unmanageable to their partners (and a far cry from the supposedly unbearable baggage of Dani’s anxiety). “Antichrist” deals with the emotional fallout resulting from the death of a couple's child. The film’s bravado opening scene shows She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and He (Willem Dafoe) in the throes of lovemaking (to put it much more politely than how it’s graphically depicted) while in the other room, their toddler sneaks out of his crib and plunges to his death out of a window. The high romance of this scene, colored in luxuriant black and white and swept up by the operatic vocals of a Handel opera, give way to a muted grey-blue color palette that connotes putrid supernatural fantasy, the change in mood to crippling despair made visually tangible.
The mother falls into a deep, clinical depression coded with sexual guilt, and for whatever cock-swinging, macho-possessive reason, her husband thinks it wise to act as her psychiatrist. He decides she needs to confront her fear: nature (a bit of an on-the-nose metaphor for femininity and all the associations with cruelty and violence that a stormy mother nature entails). And so the two stow away to a cottage in the forest, the same one she spent the past summer with her child. There, she gradually slips into a murderous state of psychosis. What is perhaps the most troublesome aspect of “Antichrist,” an element of many of von Trier’s films that feminists are opposed to, is the film’s graphic sexual violence, an expression of Gainsbourg’s character’s feminine hysteria. Convinced of the essential evil nature of women, she brings her body the closest she can to abjection as an expression of disgust with herself and her desires, an abandon to her deranged bodily impulses warped by grief. Caught in the crosshairs, He is subjected to sexual mutilations (bloody ejaculations, rusty piercings), but thrown back and forth between her desire to experience pleasure from his body (rendered a mere utensil) in increasingly deranged erotic expressions, her will to destroy him entirely as a manifestation of her guilt, and occasional signs of regret wherein she seeks to preserve him, glimmers of a potentially persisting love beneath the muck of complicated feelings.
A sense of unease common to the building up of suspense in horror requires a change in perception, whether it be a heightened state of depression that yields to general madness, the synthetic shifts induced by drug-use, or the adoption of radical world views. In the case of “Midsommar,” there’s shared knowledge among folks that indulge in psychedelics, that the state of your mental health can determine what sort of trip you’ll have. Recently losing your family to a freak murder-suicide would seem to be an obvious red flag, but Dani, who is already self-conscious about spoiling Christian’s dude-cation, goes through with it anyway (you’d think one of the seasoned bros could dissuade her). What can make a bad trip so terrifying and disorienting is how it adjusts your perception to detect the threatening possibilities of ordinary, perfectly non-threatening things. The constant daylight becomes oppressive. Smiling blonde Swedes in billowy white clothes become suspect. Grief pervades the quaint green pastures, bursting and terrifying with bright natural splendor. As the group makes the drive to this folk colony, reality is literally flipped in a continuous upside down shot, suggesting that Dani’s disturbed magic mushroom version of the world will typify the experiences that follow.
It’s a lot like Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation,” about a man revisiting the home he once shared with his ex-wife before the accidental death of their only child. The former couple seems to have moved on with their separate lives as best they could. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is in a healthy relationship with the grounded Kira, while Eden (Tammy Blanchard) has coupled up with a suspiciously friendly man by the name of David, whom she met in some sort of counseling group for the traumatized. Eden’s home, a slick mansion nestled deep in the L.A. valley where cell phones lose service, brings back painful memories for Will. He has visions of his son at play in now-emptied spaces, and observes the bathtub where Eden once attempted a spectacularly bloody suicide. Against such pervasive and agonizing memories, so too do things seem eerily unfamiliar. There are walls where rooms used to be, and Eden, once entirely crippled by devastation, is jarringly chirpy, and magnificently dressed in a silky floor-length gown.
It’s suggested that Will and Eden, both marred by grief, separated because staying together was a constant reminder of their shared tragedy. Will, stunned by how emotionally untarnished Eden appears in this gathering of old friends, grows suspicious of some peculiar inconsistencies: David locks the front door, an expected friend never arrives, certain cars are blocking the exit, and a strange, older buddy of the hosts (but not known to any of the other guests) confesses to killing another man in a boozy party game. Will is the only one to suspect that things are not what they seem, but the other guests dismiss his instability as a natural, triggered response to the location.
Just as the increasingly alarming actions of “Midsommar’”s cultish Swedes are initially respected, and viewed as merely the odd traditions of foreign culture, Eden’s guests are understanding of her peculiar coping method—her abidance to a spiritual philosophy called “The Invitation.” Both seemingly innocent scenarios yield chilling results. The townspeople consider sacrificial suicide a joyous honor, viewing death as a means of initiating the cycle to create life again. Eden and David plot to mercy kill all of their visitors under the brainwashed notion that they’re granting them eternal peace from a life of suffering. Of course, opposite Will, Eden is characterized as the misguided villain, whose catharsis comes at the expense of other lives. But although Kusama understands Eden’s reckoning as something fundamentally screwed up, so too are the parameters of her grief and vulnerability sympathetically apprehended, a fact perhaps more chilling than the very nature of the Invitation’s encouraged form of release. Indeed, it's not just Eden, but a whole cult of tortured individuals whose suffering, and inability to find solace in healthy emotional companionship, hints at a broader disaffection that even the bonds of love and marriage are ill equipped to assuage.
The boy-girl break-up is a classic, potent way of articulating the emotional inadequacies of a partner unwilling to see us and our suffering for what it truly means—yet why does popular culture continue to relate unhealthy psychological distress as a feminine trait? A type of modern romance, then, is under interrogation in the break-up horror film, including our expectations of what a relationship entails and how this differs along gender lines. Even more intuitively, these movies both explore the politics of what makes a woman desirable and what makes her hysterical.