Get ready to be triggered by twisted taboos and frolic woozily in the distorted rays of the warped prism that is Ari Aster’s mind. The mischievous and mercurial director is back and follows the warning shot of Hereditary with a plain light of day, frequently fucked up and morally destitute folk fable.
Young American couple Dani and Christian are on the verge of breaking up when one of them suffers a devastating tragedy. Desperate Dani goes full invitation obligation and stalks Christian and his wanky pals on a once in a lifetime visit to a remote Swedish commune. The plan is to bask in the idyllic surroundings and soak up the summery vibe of a charming ancient ritual… and do a shit ton of drugs. However, once they are ripped to the proverbial tits on rural pharmaceutics they slip down a rabbit hell-hole of fanatical paganism.
Midsommar makes its intentions clear from the repulsively baroque and hideously heartbreaking start that it has zero qualms in pressing some pretty distressing buttons. What is also becoming increasingly clear is that Mr Aster believes the journey is more important than the destination. He also seems doggedly determined to thunder round some blind bends and totally fuck up his passengers along the way. However, his ability to propagate a suffocating atmosphere of snowballing dread is second to none and as the heavily signposted climax looms on the hazy horizon the viewer feels both helpless and morbidly fascinated in equal measure. Watching Midsommar feels like that moment before a car smash when everything moves in slow motion in symbiosis with the churning anticipation of a rollercoaster lift hill.
There will be much talk about the syrupy gore and worrisome imagery, but as you peel back the sun seared skin of this outrageous flick it is the midnight black humour and inherent bitterness that kindles its vicious burn.
Every major character outside of the commune is either fallible, gullible, facile or selfish. Yet, we still stay connected to them throughout the epic runtime. The impeccably marshalled acting helps, especially the miraculous range and emotional power of Florence Pugh’s performance as the vulnerable Dani. However, it is the audacious honesty about the nuts and bolts of human nature that sustains empathy.
Midsommar may wear the embroidered smock of a folk horror film but it is first and foremost a brutal break-up chronical shivering in the insecure rags of susceptibility. As we are forced to bear witness to both sides of the rejection coin many will bristle with awkward recognition at the frantic passive aggressive neediness and the arrogant exploitation of relationship power politics. The stench of unhealthy co-dependency pervades Midsommar like a nosegay of rotting meadow flowers.
The sound, lighting and cinematography are meticulously gorgeous, as are the incredibly intricate set designs that are an amplified echo of the miniature renderings in Hereditary. The scenes where the group are tripping their collective balls off on weapons-grade magic mushroom tea are as ravishing as they are discombobulating. For long stretches of the film, it appears we have been transported into a malevolent mirror image of the healing fields at Glastonbury. However, it is Aster’s confident, from the gut, attitude to directing that defines the movie. His approach is so direct and linear that even though he clearly flaunts the incoming narrative bombardments we remain transfixed like mystical moon gazing hares.
This unique, almost simplistic, philosophy is arguably best illustrated in the story behind the Midsommar soundtrack. Whilst writing the script for a feature that takes place during a pagan festival in Sweden, Aster chose exclusively to listen to British musician The Haxen Cloak because häxa is the Swedish word for witch. On completion, he matter-of-factly hired him to both underscore and collaborate on the entire aural universe of the film. How something so richly textured and powerful blossomed from such crude origins typifies the organic essence of his creative integrity.
Aster’s film is far more complex than its meanderingly druggy demeanour suggests and has many intertwined ribbons flowing from the epicentre of its thematic maypole. Such as, the thorny concepts of premeditated interbreeding and altruistic assisted dying. Adding extra ethical spice to the mix are fierce diatribes on why we often savage those closest to us, the disposable quality of relationships in the modern world and a stinging exploration of how religious fervour can outgun pacifism in even the purest of belief systems.
Some of these disturbing issues have been passed off as analogies for the rise of the far right in Sweden or the general degradation of compassion in the soul of mankind by the Machiavellian Aster. But it is far more likely that he is just one boundaryless sick puppy with a moral compass magnetised towards controversy. His degenerate imaginings are, at times, reminiscent of passages in the cult novel The Wasp Factory such is the level of licentious acrimony. It is absolutely no revelation that Aster battled the censors for six weeks to avoid a crippling NC-17 rating for his film and his teasing of a 30min extended cut is simultaneously revolting and intriguing.
Perhaps the most surprising slant to Midsommar is how genuinely amusing it is. We know that Aster sniggers in the face of tonal consistency but the pantomime amongst the pathos here is categorically astonishing. These wild swings from the moribund to the ludicrous will ruin the mood for some but it is also fair to say that whimsy is indeed a well-documented byproduct of both folklore and paganism.
One of the most divisive horror endings in years was the denouement of Hereditary. Many hypothesised that the films decent into rampant absurdity and the laughter it elicited was entirely unintentional. The wicked streaks of humour and excruciatingly awkward sex and betrayal montage in Midsommar completely debunks this theory as Aster reveals himself as the cheekiest non-fucks giver in current cinema. His perceptive acknowledgement that elements of farce often infiltrate horrific life events is fresh, funny and capriciously entertaining.
In truth, we live in times where certain audiences demand their television and cinema to be wrapped up in convenient gift boxes adorned with comforting bows of closure. The enigmatic finale of Midsommar cares far more about melodrama and operatic flamboyancy than it does for euphonious narrative payoffs. As such, it pays homage to the, similarly panned at the time, 1950s doctrine of Luchino Visconti and Douglas Sirk much more keenly than any 1970s folk horror picture. Compare the ending of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows to the final scenes of Midsommar and it expounds the films influences far better than The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan’s Claw.
The bottom line is that Midsommar hounds a very similar structural and narrative fox as Hereditary, albeit a slower more viciously playful one, so if you really did not dig his first picture then this one will leave you colder than a Siberian morgue slab. Conversely, those already attuned to the unique frequency of Astor’s discordant vibe, or just wrong in the head, will adore this spectacularly hilarious horror yarn.
That being said, Midsommar is such a disgracefully eccentric piece of cinema that no matter how much you hate it, and plenty will, tangy morsels of it will stick in your teeth forever.
The feel-bad movie of the sommar.
Folk Horror, Drama, Dark Humour | USA, 2019 | 18 | 2h 27m | UK&US Cinema release. 3rd July 2019 | Entertainment Film Distributors & A24| Dir. Ari Aster | Cast. Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper