Ok. So I finally saw “the Northman” tonight, and I have to say I was seriously, disappointingly, underwhelmed. I really really wanted to like it but I found myself irritated all the way through.
Here’s what I did like:
1. Pretty much all of the female characters. This is unusual for me. Usually, I find most female characters unnecessarily shoehorned into stories, or irritating, foolish, or weak, etc. etc. I really don’t like the way women are written most of the time but in this movie, I liked all of the major female characters and Bjork’s performance was amazing (I’m not a fan of Bjork either, so for me to say this is something).
2. the Odinic scenes — the rescue by the valkyrja, the Tree of life, etc. The valkyrja was amazing.
3. the male shaman (and I seriously want the drum beater he was using).
4. the foxes. 🙂
5. That the seeresss of Freyr must have seen what was really happening when the first bodies showed up, but she said nothing, giving Freyr’s tacit consent to the just vengeance.
6. Across the board the acting was excellent.
7. The rituals surrounding the funerals — I won’t say more as I don’t want to give spoilers.
8. Some of the fight choreography — not a lot of it, but every once in awhile, esp. with shield and sword, there was a really clever move.
9. At one point, Freyr is referred to as “the God of Erections” and frankly, that just delighted me. It’s a great by-name for Him. I know some Heathens have complained about this part of the movie, but it’s an accurate description of Freyr’s iconography and also His power.
10. the clothing seemed historically accurate and one thing that struck me was the dim interiors. I don’t think we really “get” how dark indoor rooms would have been before gas light and then electric lighting.
11. I’m assuming it was shot in Iceland. I’ve been there and it really is that beautiful. The scenery was stunning.
12. The way the Christians were referenced throughout the movie made me smile. It was first to last a properly Heathen world.
13. There was a female fighter, a shield maiden shown in one of the battles, in the aftermath, and that was really cool. There wasn’t more than one, which is far more accurate than showing a ton of them. We have historical references here and there to female fighters– women have always fought — but they were never the norm.
Things I really disliked:
1. the way berserkers were presented (were we dealing with berserker or ulfednar?).
2. Amleth was foolish and this is what irritated me the most. He fought stupidly. There was no cleverness save when he was working with Olga. Also, that he was a berserker, earlier established in the movie, doesn’t come into play in the later vengeance-taking battles. I didn’t think he was written as a smart character and that bothered me intensely and to my mind, goes against the saga this is based upon.
3. Skarsgard’s posture. Like dude, get some help for that neck issue. his head was constantly shoved so far forward it made my own neck hurt. stand up straight ffs. (I’m a former ballet dancer who had a ton of martial arts training too. Stand. Up. Straight). This drove me crazy throughout the film.
4. Everyone was dirty. The Scandinavians were very clean. There’s a (7th c. I think?) bit of Christian writing from England where the Christians are complaining that the Vikings get all the girls because they bathe weekly, perfume themselves, comb their hair and braid their beards.
5. The ritual at the beginning with the king and his son barking like dogs. WTF was that supposed to be?
Overall, it just left me cold. It does have the same pacing and surreal atmosphere as “The Witch,” (which I liked — it captures something of the paranoia and isolation of Puritan New England). Across the board the acting is exceptional. The reveal with Nicole Kidman’s character — wow. I’m not saying anything about it, but it was very, very well done. But other than that, I was just like…meh.
It was with no small degree of both anticipation and trepidation that I went to see “Midsommar” this weekend. My gold standard for movies of this type is the original “Wicker Man” with Christopher Lee. I did not expect “Midsommar” to come near to this and happily I was wrong. It’s a beautiful, moving, brilliant movie about the emptiness and crass depredation of modernity coming face to face with deep, unshakeable piety.
This is the point that the Pagan reviewers having thus far written about this movie have aggressively missed. It’s a movie about tradition, values rooted in intergenerational piety, and the consequences of growing up in a culture bereft of community, and about the consequences of one’s choices good and bad. It’s not a perfect movie by any means (and I’ll be talking about the things that I particularly disliked below) but it comes close. It is not a horror movie nor, as so many reviewers on youtube have insisted, is it a break up movie. That happens yes, but it is the culmination of the main character’s spiritual and emotional journey, a natural conclusion to her transition out of polluted, disconnected existence and into tribe and family. (There is a powerful dream sequence where we see this visually depicted: Dani, the main character exhales and a huge billow of black smoke comes out of her mouth. I and my husband looked at each other and I whispered, “she’s expelling pollution” and from that point on, she begins integrating more and more fully into the community that eventually accepts her).
Spoilers ahead. You have been warned.
The movie begins with Dani and her boyfriend Christian on the verge of a break up. That is postponed when she suffers a terrible personal tragedy and Christian, out of his depth but not wanting to be a total dick, decides not to break up with her. From there, a Swedish friend Pelle invites Christian and some other doctoral students to his hometown for a special 9-day celebration that only takes place every 90 years. Dani eventually comes along with them. It is clear from the beginning of the flight that Dani is disconnected not just from Christian but from everyone and everything around her. That’s a recurrent theme: disconnection vs. connection. It’s particularly well expressed when you see her six months after her personal tragedy staring out at the bleak, isolated city scape. This is later contrasted with the healthy, bright, and vibrant Swedish landscape. On the plane, Pelle, their Swedish friend connects more to her by addressing her grief than Christian or any of her other peers do or try to do. He shows compassion and shared suffering. It is clear that, as so many people in the modern world are, she lives in emotional isolation.
That isolation begins to change when she and her friends arrive in Sweden. Pelle drives them to his village but they stop before they get there and he offers them mushrooms. This is their transport from mundane headspace to sacred, ceremonial states of being and its effect on Dani is remarkable. Immediately, we’re given a visual sign of the land accepting her (grass growing through her hand, uniting her with the earth). This also begins her journey from emotional brokenness to wholeness, healing, and strength.
Upon reaching the village, they’re immediately welcomed by the elders. On the way, they meet up with two other foreign guests, a rather obnoxious British couple. Things do not go well for the majority of the group. I’m not going to give a long breakdown of the entire film – I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t yet seen it; but I will offer a few highlights.
Dani tries from the beginning to understand and acclimate. Her friends do not. They behave with arrogance from the beginning. The most egregious example of this takes place after two elders have sacrificed themselves (in this community it is customary for elders to commit suicide ritually at 72, giving their life force back to the community). Not only does the British couple desecrate the ritual, possibly causing it to go somewhat awry with the elderly man, but afterwards, when the bodies have been cremated and the ashes spread about a sacred tree that serves as a communal ancestor shrine, one of the young men, after watching the spreading of the ashes, decides he has to take a piss on that tree. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic. He was incapable of recognizing it as sacred, even when they attempted to explain it to him. (He gets exactly what he deserves and I cheered out loud when that happened). There are several instances of desecration and violation of sacred spaces by the group, each one bringing the appropriate penalty.
Dani, on the other hand, tries to make herself useful and while obviously out of her element, participates in tasks and even in the ritual, winning the role of “may queen,” a ceremonial role that involves blessing the fields and land. In the end, it is Dany who chooses the final sacrifice indicating her new role as a functioning member of this Pagan community, and that she has left her old, dysfunctional life behind. It’s powerful and moved me to tears more than once. At the end, she is robed in a glorious cape of flowers, bright and indicative of growth and new life.
There were things I did not like. Firstly, until a certain age, all members of the tribe live communally. I thought this was ghastly. Of course, I also find the idea of being out in nature ghastly. Lol Thank you, no. I’ll take a hut on the edge of town, if you please. They also have a particularly bred line of deformed, mentally challenged children, ostensibly one per generation that serve as a type of oracle. My husband wasn’t bothered by this, but I was. I found it inappropriate. At least the elders made it clear he wasn’t the only oracle and he is given an important and functional role in the community, which was good. There were no “throw away” people like we have so often in our culture. I did think he was creepy-cool too. Finally, the Gods weren’t really mentioned. Their symbols were everywhere and if you knew how to read them Their presence was clear as letters on the page of a book but They weren’t actively mentioned save two times very vaguely. They should have been front and center.
On a positive note, the imagery is consistently beautiful. The community is assigned work as adults based on traits they show as children and there are several instances of boys and girls being shown apprenticing to adults. That was lovely. Pay attention to the illustrations on the walls and wall hangings. They tell you exactly what is going to occur. There is one tapestry hanging outside that shows the entire progress of a love spell…a very traditional spell involving pubic hair and/or menstrual blood found in more cultures than I can count and literally one can read it like an open book. (My second outcry in the theatre was to Christian when the girl working the spell makes him a little pie… LOL “Don’t eat that pie!” because I know that spell. Also, in the same scene, his drink is slightly darker than everyone else’s which indicates that the girl probably added her own special ingredient to the drink too!).
The runes were quite correct in every instance of their use. They could, as I said, also be read like an open book to tell you what was going to occur. At the beginning, for their opening communal meal, they have the tables set up in a huge othala, the symbol for home, inheritance, and a healthy community, which is then later changed to gebo as the time of sacrifice approaches. In one instance, Christian (and I don’t think his name was accidental, though the main focus of the movie is the grossness of modernity versus the beauty of tradition and community rather than explicitly Christianity vs. Polytheism) is about to have ritual sex with one of the village girls (approved by the elders because as a small community they need new breeding stock. I thought this qualified as cheating on Dani because he’d never had the courage to actually break up with her, but at the same time, they’d not visibly been behaving like a couple so it’s possible the young girl didn’t know. Then again, there’s always one in every community…). He comes in wearing a shirt with two inguz runes on his chest. In one is the rune tiewaz, which has a secondary meaning of masculine potency and in the other, a reversed algiz, which tells me he’s not living out the end of the movie. Lol. Inguz itself is indicative of fertility and Freyr – which tells you everything you need to know about how that scene is going to play out. Dani at one point wore a dress with a reversed raido and a dagaz on its side. I would have interpreted that as her journey ending in this place but how it ends and what that means as lying within her own power to determine. When Dani finds out what Christian has been up to, she breaks down but unlike her modern world where she would have been left to deal with this grief alone, the other women surround her, hold her, breath with her, mourn with her, and guide her through the pain. It was one of the most beautifully moving moments in the entire film.
The numbers mentioned in every instance add up to nine, (18, 36, 54, 72 – numerologically they add up to nine) which is very Odinic. The sacrifices made were also Odinic, particularly with the bear being such a potent image during the final ones; however, the holiday itself was the summer solstice and one would have expected it to center around Freyr far more. It was very cool that the Deity imagery was there but I kept finding myself confused because where I expected Vanic things, I got instead Odinic and vice versa. The was a nod to Nerthus in the role of the “May” Queen (ostensibly a May queen in June because it was still too cold to crown a May queen in actual May?): she’s put in a carriage and escorted around the perimeter of the village and fields and gets to bless everything. The names of the Gods were never, ever used though, as I’ve already noted, which was off-putting. I did like that offerings were buried in the earth: seeds, eggs, raw meat, etc. It reminded me of the Acerbot rite.
Finally, there are two willing sacrifices from the community and while they are given a drug to ease their way at the end before being burned, I think they should have had their throats cut to ensure they died cleanly and did not suffer. Still, the ending was beautiful and powerful and culminates with Dani ostensibly becoming a member of the community.
The biggest things that stood out for me were the examples of modern impiety in the face of what is obviously sacred. With the exception of Dani, every single one of her companions behaved in a way that was self-centered, rude, and just horrible when simple respect and hospitality of the guest would have carried them through had they thought of it (Christian also steals his friend’s dissertation idea, which shows his general lack of character. That’s a killable offense to an academic, or should be lol). They had no respect for the fact they were being welcomed into a sacred space for a very, very special series of rituals. Now that brings up a question that the movie leaves unanswered: namely, did Pelle select the group because he knew they would behave badly and thus render themselves lawful prey to be sacrificed, or could it have gone either way dependent on their behavior? (Dani was an unexpected addition so she was a wild card from the beginning). I like to think the latter.
Overall, the message of the movie was one of the value of piety and tradition against the way that modernity isolates us from all that is wholesome. It was the story of one woman’s journey into health and healing, into sacred consciousness, and joy culminating in her turning away from destructive modern attitudes and the pollution they so often bring and finding acceptance in a family rooted in caring for the land, honoring the Gods, remember the ancestors (and not pissing on their shrine >_<), and celebrating each other. It is every bit as powerful as the “Wicker Man” (though I still prefer Wicker Man for reasons of pace and some stylistic elements. Also, in the “Wicker Man,” the Gods are named, which adds to it immensely).
I highly recommend this movie and give five out of five hallucinogenic mushrooms. 🙂