By S.G. Jones
Midsommar, director Ari Aster’s bright follow-up to the darkness of his 2018 thriller, Hereditary, is a visually stunning folk-horror movie with an exciting score, expressive cinematographic moments, and a cramped frame for all that the new director tries to impose on the film. From a Swedish commune (read: cult) to the protagonist’s tragic loss of her immediate family to the infidelity of her boyfriend, the film feels confused about its own intention.
The film begins with female lead, Dani, acted by the superb Florence Pugh, losing both parents in the collateral damage of her sister’s grotesque suicide. Considering Aster’s skillful exploration of grief in Hereditary, one would expect this drama to be the emotional center of the film. And, when Dani accompanies her emotionally distant boyfriend and his group of graduate school pals to a festival in Sweden, the psychological weight of her family’s death is properly interwoven with the increasingly macabre festival rituals: A mushroom trip gone sour, a dark cloud abandonment nightmare, explicit shock and traumatization at the human sacrifice of two elderly members of the commune.
However, by little more than halfway through the film, the horrific deaths of her parents and sister seem almost forgotten in the light of insecurity about her relationship with the unfortunately cast Christian (Jack Reynor), a character whose shallow depth is based around his repugnance. By the end of the film, the loss is obsolete, and not for the sake of Dani having resolved or processed her grief—it simply seems that Aster couldn’t be bothered to continue bothering with it.
The fear of the film, apart from emotional horror and the explicit violence, is drawn from the all-too-familiar culture clash horror trope (see Hostel, apparently the production company’s inspiration for the concept). Notably, for example, we see the commune’s cliff-side suicide of two elderly members, a man and woman, who have reached the age for the ritual. And while elements of it work gorgeously, as a whole, the metaphor and narrative feel fractured and rushed—not a good sign, considering the movie’s runtime is just nigh of two and a half hours.
Aster has said that a Swedish production company came to him with their own bare-boned concept and, in accepting, he wanted to process a recent, messy breakup through the story of a group of Americans visiting a foreign cult and getting picked off one-by-one to serve the cult’s rituals.
But, on the matter of the Dani and Christian’s relationship, which wants to be the focus of the film and certainly is by its climax and finale — even this feels untidy and little more than a director’s revenge fantasy, post-breakup. And listen, I understand that desire—who hasn’t furiously scrawled a few poems about the delightful injury or death of an ex at some point or another?—but artists have the responsibility to self-edit, and some things should remain unpublished. I can absolutely attest that those poems I wrote will never see the light of day and (honestly) weren’t very good. Break-up art has an important place in our world, but it is not exempt from the standard of craft to which any other art is held.
Before Dani is told of her family’s passing, we see a telephone conversation in which she wonders to a friend if she’s too needy, too dependent on Christian — the tone of which heavily implies this relationship is new and lacks any intimacy. Sure, maybe we’re supposed to see that and infer that these two people shouldn’t be together, but it just doesn’t make sense when we learn later on that they’ve been dating for four years.
If Christian was truly family to Dani, as one would think a four-year partner might be, it could certainly be believable that she channels her grief into a deeper codependence. This would explain her ceasing to focus at all on her monumental loss and shifting instead to a very warranted concern about Christian’s flirtation with a young red-headed member of the commune. But it never seems entirely plausible that Dani would forget about the murder-suicide of her entire immediate family because her boyfriend might, and does, cheat on her. Each narrative line distracts from the other. The film seems split between dealing with the grief of mortal loss and confronting the pain of a partner’s neglect and betrayal, failing to integrate either into the whole of the film.
In addition, Christian’s character is made too irredeemable to have any sort of emotional pull in the narrative. His decision to write his graduate thesis on the commune, under the nose of his friend (portrayed by the talented William Jackson Harper) who came to study the festival for his own thesis, is a transparent play for his further unlikability. We’re supposed to root for Dani as she stands, laden with bright flowers, watching her boyfriend burn—and we do, I think—but Christian is barely humanized, so what does it matter if he dies? His character has little depth beyond the trope of Self-Serving Guy Who Doesn’t Deserve Girl, and he is acted as such, Reynor not giving us much more than either cold apathy or a confused, fish-like gape.
I already mentioned the flowers, so let’s talk about the flowers: the visual direction of Midsommar is absolutely magnificent. We’re used to things going bump in the night, so a horror film set in broad, unceasing daylight? A terrifying concept in both theory and praxis—it’s horror you can’t get away from, not even when the sun rises. No waking up from this nightmare.
From airy white linen frocks and embroidered dresses to the illuminated hillsides of its Hungarian location, the film is a sugar-sweet delicacy for the discerning and common eye alike. With bright whites and saturated floral displays, the color palette is like something out of a dream, strengthening the commune’s surreal feeling of utopia that is, to great effect, viciously broken.
The clean brightness of the crowd and cliffs during a ritual euthanasia scene is also starkly juxtaposed with the red gore of the old woman’s face and man’s leg (then face, too) as they crash onto the rocks below. And the score, to fill the shoes of Hereditary‘s brilliant Colin Stetson, matches the rise and fall of action with great skill and tension.
The cinematography, too, finds some astonishingly beautiful shots: a starch-white, barn-like space the group sleeps in, painted with cryptic runes and illustrations, then the long shots of festival feast tables, with their mimetic waves of motion as the leader sits and begins eating. The effects of psychedelia in both the first mushroom scene, where a panicked Dani flees the group and runs into the swirling woods, and a maypole dance sequence, are exquisite, engaging, and productive. Particularly in the maypole scene, blurred and distorted visuals artfully serve the element of endurance in Dani and the others’ feverish dance and propels our protagonist from a wade in the Kool-Aid to a full-on dive.
There’s a shot, too, of the group first driving through the Swedish countryside; the camera inverts to signal the transition into a different, phantasmagoric world. But then the camera unnecessarily flourishes the shot with a twist upward and around, making what should have been a simple but fantastic symbolic movement into a self-indulgent excess, perhaps a metaphor for the movie as a whole.
Had Aster held himself back in but a handful of parts, the film could perhaps have matched the sophisticated craft of Hereditary. But the extravagant use of psychedelic visuals, which at the end seems a gimmick or crutch, save for those two skillful moments, could have been edited down quite a bit.
The breathing flowers in Dani’s May Queen headdress, won by her dancing fortitude at the maypole, is a nice touch at first but becomes overbearing within a minute. The foreshadowing left nothing to my surprise, with more than a few heavy-handed moments. For example, panning across an embroidered description of what later becomes the red-head’s love spell over Christian, complete with pubic hair trimmings and menstrual drink, would have been enough without the shot ominously moving to capture Dani and Christian walking away.
Considering the subtlety of characterization, plot, and form in Hereditary, it was surprising to see Aster hold the audience’s hand so preciously throughout Midsommar. All in all, though a good half-hour too long, the film is worth seeing, if only for the impressive visual composition and Pugh’s excellent performance. But don’t expect any surprises, and be prepared to leave the theatre searching eBay for a white Gunne Sax dress.
S.G. Jones is a writer and musician currently based in the Pacific Northwest. They spend their time working on a book-length poetry project, composing and recording music, and communing with their companion, Oblio the cat. Their current obsessions are Elton John’s sunglasses and the 1986 nuclear disaster of Chernobyl, Ukraine.
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