Midsommar movie review: Ari Aster disguises a break-up movie as folk horror in Hereditary follow-up
Where Aster’s Hereditary used the American horror playbook to tell a story of trauma and grief, his follow-up Midsommar steps outside those aesthetic constraints while zeroing in on similar ideas.
castFlorence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter, Archie Madekwe, Ellora Torchia
Note: This review contains spoilers.
In its writing stages, Midsommar began as a straightforward slasher film against a backdrop of Swedish cultism. You can feel this DNA in a couple of scenes, though according to writer-director Ari Aster, the project morphed into its current form — something far more bizarre — after he had a particularly terrible breakup. In effect, Midsommar is kind of a break-up movie. It’s perhaps the most gratifyingly petty break up movie since Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, but despite centering a quarreling couple, the film delves deeper into headier, heavier ideas, most often successfully.
Where Aster’s Hereditary used the American horror playbook to tell a story of trauma and grief, his follow-up steps outside those aesthetic constraints while zeroing in on similar ideas. But where Hereditary used grief as part of its texture, colouring in the character of Annie Graham (Toni Collette) as she comes face-to-face with personal horrors, Midsommar treats grief as something more unsettling; something inexplicable and overwhelming. At times, grief is the horror itself.
American college students Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a mis-match right from the get-go. Dani’s worries and anxieties often spill over onto Jack, an aloof anthropology student who just wants to hang out with his friends. It seems the duo is destined for a breakup, sooner if not later, but things are forced into limbo after the horrifying double murder-suicide of Dani’s sister and her parents in the dead of winter. Dani’s reaction, understandably, is a full-throated wail as she curls up in Christian’s arms, but her scream seems digitally filtered, almost garbled. Right from the get-go, there’s something off about the way she processes grief.
Christian is kind of a dick, but he’s not a monster, so he sticks around. Months go by. Dani spends them floating, untethered from anyone around her and with nowhere to put her grief. Christian, on the other hand, seems to be riding things out until his summer trip to Sweden with brash best friend Mark (Will Poulter), anthropology rival Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Swedish international student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Pelle’s commune, the Hårga, is the group’s final destination, and its week-long summer festival is Josh’s thesis subject. When Dani is around Christian’s friends, she sticks out sorely. The dynamic becomes all the more awkward when she accepts their sympathy invite to the bro-time summer escapade, which happens to coincide with her birthday.
Pelle’s minimal, middle-of-nowhere village is the setting for most of the film, but the characters don’t actually get there until nearly an hour in. While their arrival and stay are cinematically rewarding, the buildup is necessarily meticulous. The simmering, passive aggressive non-arguments between Dani and Christian are especially discomforting. You get the sense they’re not even speaking the same language, and of Christian’s friends, Pelle, who lost his own parents and was raised by a village, is the only one who even begins to reach out to Dani.
Whether she’s dead sober, or tripping on ’shrooms en route, Dani is bogged down not only by her grief, but by the isolation which sits comfortably atop it. She’s never truly part of the group and their conversations. Even during their hillside detour, she sits apart from them. In her hallucinations, she’s trapped in the dark with suffocating visions of her dead sister, but it’s not all that different from when she’s alone with her thoughts, even in Christian’s presence.
The group finally arrives in Hälsingland and begins acclimating to Pelle’s old-world roots. Modernisation seems to have missed this town; rather, they seem to have avoided it. Soon, things become even more disorienting thanks to the seasonal “midnight sun”: twenty-two hours of daylight. Windows need to be blacked out when the characters sleep (in a large, barn-like dormitory with dozens of other residents) but the lack of outer darkness is hardly a respite for Dani. The town is mostly a field, and its wide-open spaces are reminders of emptiness; the surroundings are almost blindingly bright, so it’s impossible for her to hide.
The specifics of the plot are best left un-spoiled, though given the cult setting, and the fact that this specific iteration of the festival only occurs every ninety years, it’s safe to expect a rowdy pull-and-push between the expected and unexpected, if you’re familiar with folk horror. Pelle doesn’t quite come from a “death cult,” but rather, a cult with very rigid, very specific ideas of life and death — ideas that liken the stages of life to the changing seasons, offering a more structured acceptance of mortality — but also, ideas in which Dani might be able to find some sense of liberation.
As the group explores the commune and its strange religion, Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera rarely looks away from the unsettling and the macabre. Initially, the horrors they witness are willing sacrifices, akin to ritualistic self-mutilations. And yet, Pelle and the village elders assure them that what they’re witnessing isn’t just voluntary, but deeply spiritual. At times, the rituals feel like metaphors for painful sacrifices made by people stuck in doomed relationships, but Midsommar is far more interesting, and far more upsetting, when it focuses on the literal details of this physical brutality. The gruesomeness practically seeps through the screen.
Pelle and anthropologists Jack and Christian chalk up the trauma of what they witness to cultural differences. It’s crude, in a way, to expect someone as fragile as Dani to re-experience her worst nightmares, but what’s most unsettling is the fact that Pelle, Jack and Christian might be right. The white, flowing dresses and flower crowns of Pelle’s commune aren’t a mask for sinister intentions — at least, not at first — but rather, they’re part of a communal celebration of life, love and pain as collective burdens shared by their society. When one member of the commune is in physical pain (and boy, are they ever), everyone cries out; when a young girl loses her virginity, the older women pleasure themselves; when Dani’s emotional turmoil reaches its peak, the girls of the village kneel beside her, screaming and dry-heaving in unison. In these moments, there are no more garbled filters, as there were when Dani learned of her family’s deaths in America. Now, with the help of those around her, her screams are uncannily harmonised.
Midsommar is quintessentially American in approach, though not simply because its American characters fear and misunderstand an unknown culture. Rather, the film is knowingly American in its framing of individualism — a quintessentially American tenet — especially in the context of grief. American Christian funeral traditions tend to be more silent and stoic, compared to parts of the world where dealing with death is a vocal affair (this cultural difference was touched upon expertly in episode 1 of Six Feet Under). In American cinema, generally, noise feels like a disturbance within the highly regimented grieving process. Here, in the collectivist Hårga, where walls don’t seem to exist between people (neither physically nor emotionally), grief is accompanied by an unnerving hum: the confluence of hundreds of mourners collectively putting anguish out into the ether, as if to open up emotional veins and make the act of sharing pain almost too vulnerable an affair.
In Midsommar, grief can longer be compartmentalised.
As things grow more fraught between Dani and Christian — beginning with Christian forgetting her birthday — the danger they face seems to grow as well. However, the anxiety of watching Midsommar isn’t rooted in what might happen to the characters physically, but rather, what might transpire when they give themselves over emotionally to this strange society. The image of dozens, even hundreds of people writhing in anguish is chilling to think about, but that very collective pain-sharing is, in essence, exactly what Dani needs. It’s an alternative to Christian’s cold shoulder, and to the academic approach he takes to the commune. Soon, Dani begins giving herself over to the warmer, more welcoming (and more LSD-laced) rituals of the Hårga, though where it might lead her, or where it might lead the men she arrived with, is anyone’s guess.
Florence Pugh is magnificent. As Dani, she’s conscripted to play a game of extremes, from pummeling, hyper-realistic restraint, to back-row operatic projections of her most primal emotions. The journey she takes from the former to the latter, in all its uncertainties and revels, is the backbone of her story. Jack Reynor, on the other hand, remains stuck in the “restrained” phase of emotional processing, albeit by design. As Christian, he struggles to get his point across, often resulting in little tiffs and arguments with Dani that aren’t quite fights, but whose totality amounts to an anxious weight. (While we’re talking about performances, Will Poulter’s vaping, vapid, unapologetically douchey Mark is a marvelously funny touch).
For what it’s worth, the version of the film playing at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival this month is the original 147-minute release. This theatrical cut is still given plenty of room to breathe, though I can’t help but recommend seeking out the 171-minute “director’s cut” at some point, the one released in US cinemas shortly after the original. While the theatrical version doesn’t lose too much of the plot — if anything, it’s tighter — it lacks a chilling night-time ritual that fleshes out the commune’s deeply-held beliefs and, more importantly, a night-time argument that helps clarify the troubled state of Dani and Christian’s relationship.
Still, even without those additional scenes, Midsommar remains a uniquely conceived experience. Shadows are a vital tool in any horror director’s toolkit — any filmmaker’s, really — so by setting most of the film in daylight, Ari Aster also sets himself a challenge. The film rarely, if ever, relies on traditional jump scares, because most of the horror isn’t what you see, but rather, what seeps under your skin over two and a half hours. It’s likely to stay there long after you leave the theatre.
Midsommar will be screened at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival.
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