Let the festivities begin
The cheap and easy shorthand for Midsommar is ‘The Wicker Man goes to Ikea’ but Hereditary (2018) director Ari Aster has more on his mind when telling this tale of unsavory folk practices in sun-drenched Sweden. Once again, the nascent auteur is using horror to explore relationship dynamics only this time, instead of exploring generational trauma, he’s digging into the collapse of an intimate partnership, and all the bloody bargaining, guilt, passive-aggressive bullshit and slow-dwindling death of love that entails.
But there’s plenty of brutal death and bodily mutilation along the way, too, so don’t be discouraged. This isn’t Blue Valentine (2010) — although its analysis of the petty lies and self-delusions that often go into shoring up a rocky relationship is comparable.
The relationship in question is that of Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), whose bond is already deteriorating when her mentally ill sister kills herself and their parents. Christian, who was thoughtfully eyeing the exits under the encouragement of his fellow anthropology student bros, scholarly Josh (William Jackson Harper), obnoxious Mark (Will Poulter), and cheery Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), can’t bring himself to break up with her under the tragic circumstances, and so that’s how Dani gets invited along on their summer trip to Pelle’s home country of Sweden.
Midsommar is starting from a dark place already — the murder/ suicide is depicted in quite a striking and unsettling manner — so it’s something to note that it only gets stranger and more unnerving from here on in. The gang is there at Pelle’s invitation to observe and participate in (heh heh heh) the quaint customs of the Hårga, the bucolic commune he hails from. It being mid-summer in Scandinavia, it’s daylight all the time, which means the horrors, when they come (and they come not in single spies but in battalions) are not cloaked in shadow but play out in full view of our hapless protagonists — and us.
We take a while to get to the meat of the matter, though. At first, everything is just delightfully off-kilter, and the sense of disorientation and slight unease is played largely for laughs — there’s a scene in which the gang are tripping on mushrooms in an idyllic field and Mark starts to freak out that is both hilarious and instantly familiar to anyone who has spent some time around psychedelics. However, things get stranger and stranger as time passes, twisting to the left, and the gradient of the descent is so subtle that by the time the real madness begins the point of no return is well behind us.
Midsommar tacks away from the visual traditions of folk horror in a number of interesting ways. The clean, white, homespun clothing and beatific smiles of the blonde and blue-eyed commune members stand in queasy counterpoint to the inevitable blood and bodily disfigurement, and while there are plenty of pagan touchstones — and rune stones — on display, the precise visual language deployed by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, Hereditary (2018), and production designer Henrik Svensson, so angular and symmetrical, lend eerily modern shading to the proceedings, drawing unsettling connections between the weird rituals of the commune and our own, largely invisible to us, social rites and practices.
Aster continually invites us to compare and contrast the Hårga and our own culture, and frequently we come up short. For all that the whole film is an extended metaphor for relationship breakdown — events in Aster’s personal life apparently spurred him to take the directing gig on the condition that he be allowed to include that very theme — it takes time to put all manner of social dynamics under the microscope. We see our American characters jockeying for position in their little social group, with Christian and Josh butting heads over the opportunity to write a thesis about the Hårga, while the effortlessly douchey Mark continually snipes and gripes his way through the proceedings until … well, that would spoil the fun. Hats off to Will Poulter, though — it’s a great performance.
The cast is pretty fantastic across the board, but you really must be impressed with Florence Pugh, Fighting with My Family (2019), who is having a Moment right now. The script asks her to do a lot of difficult, layered emotional work, largely in interplay with Reynor’s Christian, and she never hits a bum note. Reynor is great, too, and what’s really impressive is how organic and truthful their dynamic is. Dani has emotional needs that are perhaps beyond the ordinary — or at least they seem to be to Christian — and he’s just not equipped to give her what she needs. She knows that, and he knows that, and yet they’re both locked into their relationship for longer than is healthy, and both wracked with guilt over being a burden on the other, and neither is willing to just brutally cut the cord. I suspect where your specific sympathies as a viewer lie will depend on your own experiences in this particular area, but for my part? Well, let’s just say the whole thing rings painfully, awkwardly, horribly true, and I don’t think I’m alone in recognizing that.
But yes, let’s focus on the horror, which is a much less awful subject than actual emotional truth. Midsommar delivers in spades on the shock ‘n’ gore front, which veterans of Hereditary will no doubt expect. There’s no percentage in going into detail here — Aster’s use of suspense and sudden shock is simply exemplary, and the less you know going in, the more effective his work here is — but rest assured that, even when we’re being shown something we’ve seen before in other genre offerings, there are invariably details which lend it a new flavor, elements of design and ritual that make the familiar once again surprising and horrifying.
Which is why, even though Midsommar owes a great deal to works like Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), decrying it as a mere copy is missing the point, perhaps willfully. Aster acknowledges his debts but uses the foundational texts he draws from to build something new, sinister, and markedly different on the thematic and aesthetic level. Midsommar makes demands of its audience, but if you’re willing to engage with it fully, you’ll find the effort worthwhile. Besides, every relationship requires sacrifices.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson