Ari Aster’s feature debut Hereditary was, whether you liked it or not, impossible to ignore and in some ways was the victim of the hype created around early critical praise and more than a little hyperbole around the scare factor. The resulting melodrama alienated some horror fans while others desperately tried to play down its horror credentials and misguidedly claim it as ‘elevated’ from traditional genre pieces. Despite the noise surrounding the film I loved it and the way that Aster conducted a story about grief, trauma and trying to escape the pattern of damaging relationships and patterns. These themes continue into his second feature, Midsommar, albeit in slightly different ways. You can read more about my thoughts on Hereditary here and here.
Synopsis: Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of falling apart. But after a family tragedy keeps them together, a grieving Dani invites herself to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village. What begins as a carefree summer holiday in a land of eternal sunlight takes a sinister turn when the insular villagers invite their guests to partake in festivities that render the pastoral paradise increasingly unnerving and viscerally disturbing.
The first thing I’d point out, given the divisive nature of Hereditary is that Midsommar has a very similar feel. Aster clearly has a way of telling his stories which really impacts on the structure and movement of the film. As a result, I’d imagine that people who struggled with the high melodrama and increasing chaos of Hereditary will also struggle here. At over two hours long, it is likely to be a difficult journey for anyone who struggles with Aster’s established manner, but for those who enjoy the deliberate build and increasingly strange visuals the time really doesn’t feel very long at all.
Grief and trauma in Midsommar is not polite or quiet. It is screaming, guttural and noisy pain to the point of exhaustion and it is to Florence Pugh’s credit that she absolutely throws herself into this to great effect. She also manages smaller moments which need more nuance excellently too. Dani tries so very hard and consciously worries about her behaviour and there is something very deliberate about the way Pugh plays certain scenes which gives Dani a depth she would not have if she remained sullen and grief-stricken for the run time. Pugh is also an excellent anchor for long scenes of rituals because Dani’s energy is nervous, yet easy to please and ultimately interested and so provides a journey through from confusion, fear and even amusement as events progress. Jack Reynor is well cast as her boyfriend Christian and plays his moments of uncertainty and manipulation very well. He is also given some of the film’s most difficult work and it is a credit to him that he manages to make some elements which could easily tip the balance into comic absurdity retain a sense of being deeply unsettling. The supporting cast are solid, with Will Poulter providing some limited comic relief as Mark, William Jackson Harper as scholar Josh and Vilhelm Blomgren as gentle, introspective Pelle, who serves to introduce the group to his commune.
Aster stages much of the film to echo the design of a tapestry. Any time we are shown the sprawling fields, even if there is something relatively important in the foreground, there are also several activities continuing in the background. This builds a real sense of the commune being very active and constantly moving, something which is enhanced by the almost constant absence of darkness. The activities range from mildly comical to the mundane and there’s a sense of sound from different areas at all times which makes for a very impressive soundscape. I predict that some people will quickly tire of the commune practices and certainly, there are moments where if you are not on board, are likely to tip over into laughter rather than terror. Again, this is Aster’s construction of melodramatic horror at work and the effect won’t be the same for everyone. There is also a great deal of time spent on the minutiae of the commune’s practices, some of which do tend to feel a little drawn out and in some cases, offer too much in the way of on-the-nose hinting at plot points.
There are a number of moments within the film where the fourth wall definitely appears to be wobbled, if not entirely broken. An early scene allows the camera to sweep forward with a member of the commune offering out an arm to welcome someone. At first, it seems to be the group of tourists we are following, but a closer look reveals they are already visible in frame, meaning the person being beckoned in is the audience. There are also moments in which the eye lines of characters align directly with our own which changes a close up of a character into a direct look outside of the screen which is very effective. The audience are made both complicit in what is happening, as if they are another guest at the commune, yet are not let into the secret of the practices and so learn at the same time as the characters we follow. This simultaneous closeness and distance creates a real push-me, pull-me feeling which is disarming. As soon as the audience are positioned as casual observers, they are then pushed into the thick of the action again, courtesy of uncomfortable close ups.
Much has been made about the film taking place almost entirely in the daylight and the sun-bleached effect definitely makes it feel different to other horror films which rely on darkness to create some of their more tense moments. Midsommar embraces the light for showing everything, even the parts we’d rather not see and perhaps, in darkness would be spared some of the detail. It is notable that darkness at the outset of the film makes Dani’s world feel small, in contrast to the wide open spaces at the commune. Some interesting camera trickery is employed to change the way spaces are viewed throughout the film and while some of the ‘bad trip’ photography feels slightly cliche it doesn’t really outstay its welcome. One montage in particular features a shot that I’ve thought about repeatedly since viewing – it isn’t even intended as a ‘big’ piece, but those are the kind of dreamy moments that Aster can provide to really get under the skin. The moments of camera and editing trickery are used to shake the audience’s ideas about the shape, size and even location of the surroundings. Midsommar operates primarily on the fear of being part of something that you do not understand. In that sense, the dwelling on the detail of the practices works to build that tension because there is almost no frame of reference for what happens next.
Midsommar is an impressive and visceral second feature for Aster which is likely to split audiences through its often confrontational and self-assured style. It is a thoroughly absorbing and frequently breathless nightmare with excellent performances and fascinating techniques employed to create an experience which I’d struggle to find an accurate comparison to. The film is in cinemas now (previews on 4th July – main release 5th July) from A24.