Written and directed by Ari Aster
An aesthetic guide to traditional Norse grief counselling.
Losing those closest to you is a fear few dare admit to lest they speak it into existence, and having it actually happen is sure to open a deep, dark place for one to fall into. Deep in this despair we find Dani (Florence Pugh) early on in Midsommar after losing her sister and parents to the former’s gruesome suicide. Her cataclysmic grief is only made worse by her distant doofus of a boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), a man we learn was on the cusp of breaking up with her before disaster struck, and who provides little support with his unhappy companionship.
We catch up with them months later as Christian reveals to Dani he’s about to head out on a eurotrip with his friends, including a stay at a Swedish commune one friend hails from. A microaggressive exchange follows, which I’ll paraphrase below:
Dani, mad: “I’m not mad, I’m just surprised you didn’t tell me.”
Christian, apathetic: “Well, I’m sorry.”
Dani, wanting him to apologize and so much more: “I don’t want you to apologize.”
Christian, bluffing hard: “Why don’t you come? The guys are cool with it.”
Dani: “No, it’s fine, I don’t want to intrude.”
So Dani soon finds herself in sweeping green hills swarmed by blonde children, white-haired elders and their effusive sing-song Swedish welcomes. A haven. It’s idyllic, and its inhabitants charming, if only a little overwhelming in their sincerity, as men hug each other with closed, contented eyes, and women hold you firmly in their gentle motherly command.
Dani and co. arrive at the onset of a rare nine-day festival, and things soon take a turn for the worse with ceremonies that grow increasingly foreign and gruesome, turning Midsommar into a sunlit, shrooms-induced nightmare and an unravelling experience where people are both massacred and uplifted by the same brutality.
Altars, costumes and rituals all combine to provide a bevy of arresting scenes and to list them would be a disservice and convey none of their quality, so take my word for it and know that there’s never a dull moment, and that they all fall somewhere between quirkily bemusing to stomach-churningly WTF. It’s a Salò-esque horror in its blend of high formality, ritual and escalating depravity, but beneath the chaos Aster poses questions about how we care for ourselves and others as part of couples, families, and communities.
Horror films that draw on impenetrable religious rituals to terrify white westerners are of course not new, as Caribbean voodoo has supplied the fear factor in everything from blaxploitation films to Live and Let Die. But the terrors of Midsommar, set under the midnight sun, is a refreshing take, and in Aster’s hands, Swedes’ gregarious and twinkle-eyed amiability is its own brand of sinister.
Nothing that happens on screen, however, can outshine how it’s presented as Midsommar is an overpowering aesthetic pleasure where cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski brings out the full colour spectrum in the villagers’ daisy-chains, dresses and dinner tables. All of it carefully arranged in overhead drone shots, symmetrical compositions and fixed angles in order to keep the visual splendour under control. All presented in what must be pioneering LSD-vision, complete with swirling grass, flowers and faces. A pleasure throughout, even if the pictures make you flinch.
It’s enough to blind you to the film’s faults, most of which lie in a disappointing cast of characters, save for Dani. It’s a little damning when what’s interesting is not the characters, but what happens to them, and many of the secondary characters are either lazy caricatures, or left by the wayside after the first act, acting simply as (for some, literal) plot manure.
A high art example of a gritty subgenre, Midsommar over delivers on aesthetics and keeps you entertained for the rest. A social sciences dissertation ornately written in blood and bound in flesh.