Ari Aster takes horror to a completely new level in his latest film Midsommar. Inspired by The Wicker Man and horror folklore, this film tells of Dani (Florence Pugh) who reluctantly decided to accept an invitation and go with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends to a festival that celebrates a midsummer in Hårga, Sweden (originally, the Midsummer Festival was a pagan holiday to commemorate the arrival of summer). On location, we, through the unsuspecting group of friends, slowly become immersed in the odd ways of life in this rural village in Sweden, slowly discovering its strange residents and their disturbing rituals. Welcoming and friendly villagers are only too happy to show their visitors around, as well as introduce them to their traditional midsummer celebration, but will our group of friends, as well as we, the audience, stomach what the villagers prepared for them and presented on their silver plate? In this gripping, “hallucinatory” film, we soon discover that, for the emotionally-vulnerable Dani, the stage has already been set for a showdown of her life.
Midsommar has the same plot structure as the director’s previous film Hereditary (2018). The story starts innocently, paying attention to the female character, before progressing to display sporadically some shocking scenes, which play out in one truly unsettling atmosphere, with the final twenty or so minutes of both films containing scenes where “all hell breaks loose”. Magnificent Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth (2017)) really gets into her character of Dani, a girl who craves connection and understanding after just experiencing a traumatic life event back home. Dani’s distant boyfriend Chris, a student of anthropology, provides little relief, and she feels distant from both Chris and his friends. Then, Dani’s hopes begin to be pinned on a festival in Sweden during which she hopes to forget all her trauma and anxieties, and to mentally recover. Little does she know that she is about to undergo “a therapy” like no other. In a “slow-burning”, suspenseful fashion, Ari Aster ensures that it is both scary and fascinating to step into this world of odd traditions and macabre celebrations, into a place where the sun hardly sets, where the idea of communal living is taken to a whole new level and where morality has no adherers.
Ari Aster is a clever director/writer. It is true that Midsommar relies on outrageous displays to produce a reaction, but there is much subtlety in this film as well. The true horror in this film comes not from some shocking scenes, but from the main character’s slow realisation of the danger which until now has been cloaked in the strangers’ goodness and friendliness. Chris and Dani’s Swedish friend Pelle is one of the members of this strange commune and, if they trust him, they should trust all the others. Even when Chis and Dani cannot find some members of their initial group, there are no alarm bells immediately ringing. Chris also has a professional/academic interest in the activities of this village since he wants to pen his PhD dissertation on village activities. From the “innocent” taking of magic mushrooms to the witnessing of a cold-blooded murder, the director would like to explore what impact some “celebratory” and ritualistic activities presented have on the main characters – as well as on us – his audience – since this film is a very immersive experience ,which will not leave anyone indifferent to what takes place on screen.
The power of a cult and brain-washing, psychological meltdowns, sex rituals and practices that have devastating consequences – the film is not for the faint of heart due to all of these aspects, and the director naturally leaves no theme unexplored in the film’s running time of two hours and twenty-seven minutes. Unapologetically long and uncomfortable to watch, Midsommar can even be viewed as a barely perceivable allegory in which a person tries to, distance herself from one unhealthy relationship; overcome grief; and to reach higher levels of self-awareness/discovery. Of course, the film would not have been as good if it were not for Florence Pugh, a real star giving the performance of her early career that can only be described as “devastatingly” brilliant.
Another notable feature of Midsommar is how immersive the film really is. In a way, the audience is invited “to participate” through the film visuals being tweaked giving the appearance as though we, as well as the characters, have drunk a concoction laced with hallucinatory drugs. The cinematography of Pawel Pogorzelski is stunning, and I was in love with each and every one of the shots in Ari Aster’s masterwork. A colourful palette of blue, green and white gives the effect of stepping into a fairy-tale that just about to take on more grotesque and macabre contours.
The ending of Midsommar is as revealing as the one in Hereditary. I especially appreciated the contrast between the beginning of the film and its end. The jokes that we see in the beginning coming Mark (Will Poulter) seem shockingly out of place in the final part of the movie, and Midsommar suddenly appears far from a romantic drama it was at first. At the end, it feels like the world, one’s perception of it, has changed in the process, values have been reversed and everything has been turned on its head. If in Hereditary I found this “change” coming too abruptly and events that follow “too unbelievable”, in Midsommar, it was all strangely “convincing”. Perhaps, as in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the events that start to take place at the end of the movie are so horrific as to somehow ring true. Also, if in Hereditary all supernatural elements were too fantastical for me, the horror that emerges at the end of Midsommar strikes home and its presence becomes painfully undeniable.
Midsommar is a horror film executed to perfection. Its visual brilliance is matched by its macabre atmosphere and gripping, even if slow to be presented, turns of events. The visionary director immerses us into one reclusive community whose celebration is at first a feast for our eyes and later a conglomeration of disturbing elements. Florence Pugh’s committed performance ensures that Midsommar is a truly insane ride into the dark recesses of a society where one could find hope at the cost of losing everything. Shocking, provoking, but also deliciously “hallucinatory” and mesmerizing, Midsommar just needs to be seen to be believed, being one of only a few films out there watching which can really be equated with having an experience. 10/10