Occasionally throughout isolation, I’ve experienced that moment when two seemingly disparate films ‘talk’ to each other. Recently, I watched Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019) and The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, 1960) back to back. Both are set in Sweden. Both are portraits of devout communities living in pastoral hinterlands. And both are very different. One utilises the horror genre to show, with calculated restraint and control, religious devotion as a form of sociopathy. The other, an elegiac fable, is much more humanist and loving in its portrayal of God-worshipping protagonists.
Midsommar uses a palette of bright light and naturalistic colours to suggest bucolic wonder and harmony. But through a series of unsettling events that unfold over a 2hr+ narrative, Aster builds a sense of inexorable doom, revealing a dystopian society where the individual is subsumed by the whole. Our characters, mostly unlikeable college students from suburban America who have descended upon this strange universe, are like flies caught in a spider’s web. No way out. In contrast, The Virgin Spring’s narrative, running at 90 minutes, moves swiftly. A tight-knit extended family scrape out a bare existence in 14th century rural Sweden, sleeping on straw mats, eating slops from a shared pot, residing in a rustic barn. The organising principle of their lives is an all-powerful God, and their devotion runs through the fabric of their lives. At the head of the family is father Töre (Max von Sydow) and mother Märeta (Birgitta Valberg) who run the farm. Austere in manner, their hearts melt with joy at the sight and mention of their daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), the eponymous ‘virgin’ of the title. When she is raped and murdered by a pair of savage herdsmen while riding through the countryside, you feel every thread of their grief, fury and despair.
A cautionary fable, Midsommar suggests that society is in strife. At the beginning, a suburban home becomes a chamber of horrors as a slow-moving camera reveals a macabre display of death by suicide. Despite material wealth and free will, individuals in modern capitalism fall into despair and hopelessness. But what’s the alternative? A community that “holds” you when you are in a desperate emotional state but denies you your free will?
Bergman’s classic shows a strict dichotomy between pure and impure. The ‘virgin’ Karin represents purity whilst the pregnant-out-of-wedlock servant Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) embodies the latter. While The Virgin Spring’s narrative hinges on the deconstruction of this dichotomy, it also unleashes forces of deep emotion as its characters feel the greatest blows and face the biggest questions of their life. Bergman’s framing and silent cinema conventions powerfully convey his characters’ turmoil.
In Midsommar, the protagonist, Dani (Florence Pugh), must select a human to sacrifice and chooses her cheating boyfriend, signifying a feminist subtext. In The Virgin Spring, Karin’s death shakes her father’s devotion to God only to have it reinstated beyond measure. In return for his show of faith, a freakish, full-flowing natural spring suddenly erupts – the virgin spring.
Both films represent societies of strict value systems. At a time when we are faced with the question of what binds us as a society, both films spoke to me and that question: what values and beliefs do we cling to? Midsommar’s reign of terror provided no solace. Bergman’s love of his characters did the opposite.