Ari Aster returns to cinemas this month with his second feature film, Midsommar, a tale that throws the directors’ talents for showcasing the occult straight into the bright, blinding light of Summer.
Coming a little over a year since Aster’s sublime Hereditary, I am delighted to report that Midsommar is a nightmarish treat that will leave you satisfied and horrified in equal doses.
Early comparisons to The Wicker Man have done Midsommar an injustice, much like the early Exorcist comparisons did to Hereditary. Whilst both films share a folk-horror connection, the tone and execution of each film is completely different.
While there is no moment in Midsommar that quite matches the gut-churning terror of Edward Woodward realising what the islanders of Summerisle have in store for him, there is no film that serves up such striking and nightmarish images in the way that Midsommar does.
The story opens on an unsettling tapestry, divided into four distinct images that hint at where our tale may lead. It is a disquieting and off-kilter image that sets the tone for the waking nightmare our characters are to endure.
We meet Dani (Florence Pugh), an anxious young woman dealing with an ominous email from her bipolar sister. After a devastating pre-credits tragedy turns Dani’s life upside down, she decides to travel with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), and his friends to a remote town in Northern Sweden to witness their midsummer festivities.
We find Christian and Dani’s relationship hanging by a thread, with Christian feeling trapped by an outmoded sense of honour. The group are taken to the town by their classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a native of the commune who is delighted to share his peoples’ festivities with outsiders.
The locals are dressed in home-made robes and ceremonial, floral headdresses, welcoming our group with smiles and hugs as they open their traditions and their community.
Mark (Will Poulter, on terrific, mischievous form), the most acerbic of the group provides a much-needed dose of cynicism and incredulity, getting some of the movie’s early laughs. What follows is a descent into madness under a blinding, endless Scandinavian sun that hangs forever in the sky like a hungry God.
Midsommar is a gorgeous movie. Set mostly in the idyllic commune in a stunning summer meadow surrounded by ancient and imposing forestry, our core cast appear to have wandered in from a different film. The bright, multicoloured floral arrangements throb and breathe around our cast, with nature herself becoming an active participant in the story.
As our characters experiment with magic mushrooms and trippy herbal drinks, the flowers and trees take on a dangerous and almost hungry edge, pulsing and writhing of their own accord.
The film deals with themes of loss and family, of finding a place in a world that seems to have readily discarded you. It is a relationship drama that plays out in the most unexpected and at times oddly touching ways. Aster has a penchant for vivid, upsetting imagery, but never loses focus on the human elements in the stories that he tells.
Like Toni Collette in Aster’s last film, Florence Pugh provides a mesmerising central performance on which the entire film hangs. From the gut-wrenching depths of despair to almost euphoric levels of catatonia, Pugh convinces at all times as a girl broken by the horrors of the world before she even sets foot in Sweden.
Dani arrives at the commune almost as an empty shell, going through the motions of life as she watches all that she had held dear slowly slip away from her; haunted by visions of her sister and of the life that has left her behind. Dani is a woman whose connections to the world around her are being stripped away, but by the final act there is a hint that the horror all around her might just be leading her to where she was always meant to be.
The bright blue sky holds above the film for the duration of the runtime, with the constant daylight providing an unusual backdrop for the kaleidoscopic acid trip of terror that is to follow. The fact that the sun never sets seems to set places the commune in a somewhat un-moving limbo, with the characters and audience never really sure of how much time has passed or what time of day it is.
The films haunting score of Swedish folk music flits between quaint and sinister from moment to moment. We are never sure if the music is coming from the members of the community around our travellers or is simply part of the film’s soundtrack for the audience only, further adding to the chaos and the confusion.
The odd rituals and overly friendly locals hint at something darker, something older lurking beneath the clear blue skies, but Aster is in no hurry to show his hand.
We are allowed to spend time in this community alongside the outsiders; watching in confusion and slight embarrassment as they try to fit in to this odd little commune with quaint and unfathomable traditions. But beneath the white robes and kindly, smiling elders, we are never in doubt that a dark heart is beating.
As the festival becomes increasingly strange and grim, Midsommar slowly escalates the feeling of unease into a full-blown nightmare. For when the film removes the veil of normality, Midsommar presents the audience with a series of dark and horrific images that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
At times, the film feels as though it is playing out as a pitch-black comedy, and in its final reel there is a sense that Aster is very much enjoying walking that fine line between horror and laughter.
A raw and visceral film that does not shy away from blood and gore, Midsommar is never afraid to push the audience into weirder and weirder places as the final day of the festival ramps up. There are scenes as likely to elicit sniggers as much as gasps as Aster confronts us with a little slice of pagan madness.
For all of Midsommar’s horror trappings and its more truly shocking moments, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film I was watching play out in front of me was ultimately one of hope.
As I left the screening, I genuinely felt as though I had watched a film with an unusual but undeniably happy ending. The central relationship between Dani and Christian being a through line for the audience to hold on to as the world around them forever changes.
Midsommar lacks the true, heart-stopping fear that Hereditary could install in the audience. But this feels like a deliberate choice from the director; rather than repeating himself, Aster has presented us with that rarest of things; a truly original vision. One that will be seared into the minds of all those who see it.
By Hugh McStay
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