Director: Ari Aster
Starring:Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Will Poulter . USA/Sweden. 2h 18m
Ari Aster has a bone to pick with our perceptions of folklore and his method is to scare and intrigue us by old practices which somehow feel familiar to us but also keep us up at night. By his own admission, his own personal demons and fear of germs helped centre him as the central character, something which might have spurred on his need to move away from horror, he loves musicals and rom coms, who’d have thunk it? Despite his love of folky cult themed horrors, he does have a great eye for colour and dramatics, so maybe his distinctive style will happily manifest in other dramatic and loud ways, but I don’t doubt for a second that whatever he dreams up next will be unmistakably Asterish.
After the highly criticised and delightfully thought provoking horror of the century , Hereditary (2018), he returns to the familiarity of the unfamiliar, after all he couldn’t lul a now woke audience into that false sense of security but on foreign territory anything can happen, but in true Aster fashion it’s not really just about a strange Swedish cult, as much as Hereditary isn’t about a dysfunctional family. Instead there’s a harsh lesson to be learnt for the ambitious males, while a young woman tries to recoup after a family tragedy and searches for a sense of belonging.
Opening with a gruesome suicide/murder, Dani (Pugh), now alone in the world begins to feel her relationship with tense boyfriend Christian (Reynor) slipping from her also, through some gentle persuasion she finds herself in Sweden with her lover and his friends. It’s Summer Solstice and the community are celebrating something special that only happens every 80 years or so, and the plucky Americans and a British couple are honoured to be guests, after a quick acid trip they blindly join in the festivities in the idyllic fairytale surroundings.
As the shrooms subside the group are welcomed into the bright community hall, given a handful of rules and we’re soon onto the first meal and ritual. Individually everyone is pleasant enough, really welcoming the strangers into the fold but there are hints of strange mummering and odd mechanical and mimicking behaviour it’s hard to know if they are real or if this is a Scandnavian version of WestWorld.
Everything that happens in Midsomma is forecast in the community’s folk art, it’s not a spoiler to tell you the spoilers are obviously there, I don’t know anyone who wasn’t scanning the walls and tapestries for clues, and Aster toys with our morbid curiosities as we see what looked to be impossible playing out in front of us, for our amusement?
Dani is given the least to do in her role of devoted girlfriend to an un-devoted man Christian does everything in his power to try and apsees her but only to keep her quiet, it’s plain to see that love doesn’t live there anymore. Everyone is herded along like a cruel tour as Asters camera rolls along showing real life as a moving bayeux tapestry. A Strange rivalry sparks up between Christian and Josh (Haper) both wanting to write a thesis based on this untouched culture, the intrigue blinds them to the possible dangers. Dani remains confused, and in her lonely state that numbs her to what’s obviously going on and Mark (Poulter) is just a prat who makes a terrible mistake of pissing on the elders ashes causing some death threats from the peaceful clansman, from this point onwards it’s clear that this will not end well.
Aster has this “thing” for throwing in one person who just looks differnt, in Hereditary there was the young sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) with and without her nut allergy he emphasis her striking features, along with her strange clicking noises and odd obsession with death and communicating with bright lights, Aster really made her “stand out”. In the flower filled meadows he’s amped up the game with a child who acts like the clans oracle, born through a process of incest in order to bring about malformalities but Aster held nothing back, but at least he used practicle effects for his tiny miracle.
Looks aside there’s a beautiful build up and warm welcome to Midsommar, everything is so bright and vivid and continues to stay that way even after the movie turns dark, there’s a internal shift in character as opposed to an atmospheric or tonal shift, Aster enjoys keeping his movies looking exactly the same while there’s something sinister lurking in behavioural patterns and his characters begin to unravel with fear and dissolution.
The film is far more preoccupied with its bright floral aesthetic than providing any real substance to its plot or character development but as the audience already knows what’s going on the only thing left for a director to do is make the journey pretty and engaging. Fair haired puppet people in stark white cotton garments scamper through the lush surroundings, everything seems so alive and vibrant until people start meeting gory and vile endings. Yet most of the grisly bits happen off screen, the aftermath is enough to get the message across, pain, fear and suffering are a part of life. I often wondered if it was all a slap across the face for Dani, yes she might be upset but suck it up there’s something worse around the corner.
Aster repeats several narrative beats and recycles numerous motifs from Hereditary, and while there’s certainly no harm in carving a niche for yourself as a filmmaker, after the tagging of Hereditary as the scariest movie of all time, I think the hype went to the young directors head, Midsommar was always going to his the hype wall and combust, but it arrived as a collection of arresting iconography that comes together but without that esoteric boost, there’s no mystery for the audience to sell, you merely have to look out for signs to see where you are in the plot already. The intriguing concept of the pagan festivities is never fully explored, and the gore feels oddly sedate, rendering Midsommar a pretty series of pictures. For genuine horror at the hands of collective madness, you’re better sticking with The Wicker Man or Kill List.