Midsommar: An Unsettling, Sun Soaked Breakup Fairytale
Writer/director Ari Aster’s much anticipated follow up to last year’s phenomenally disturbed Hereditary is finally upon us. Midsommar, somewhat of a spiritual cousin to Hereditary, finds Aster probing deeper into the themes of loss, grief, and codependency, dragging the horror into the sunlight and letting the festivities run red with blood in this delightfully twisted adult fairytale.
Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of collapse. But after a family tragedy keeps them together, a grieving Dani tags along with 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 quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre festivities.
A slight retread of previous terrain, Midsommar is another twisted meditation on grief and loss that is just as tautly executed. Trading in darkness for sunlight and the deteriorating family dynamic for an imploding relationship, Aster frames his latest haunt around the meat of another compelling drama. However, instead of focusing on how grief and loss can destroy or transform you, Midsommar finds the budding auteur slightly shifting gears, exploring the liberation from those dreadful feelings. Both films deal with heavy subject matter and evoke an immense feeling of dread; however, Midsommar comes with an added surprise: it’s funny as hell.
If you’ve seen last year’s Hereditary (which chances are you have, due to all its buzz), “funny” isn’t exactly a word that comes to mind. Hearing that the disturbed mind that brought us the mercilessly tense Hereditary may come as a bit of a shock, but Midsommar’s humor couldn’t feel more at home. It feels natural and refreshing, almost unintentional (though with Aster, you know everything is very intentional), and like the northern Swedish villagers of Hårga, the commune where the midsummer festivities take place, the humor is less about letting you breathe from tension and more about disarming your defenses so you relax into the horrors.
Like Hereditary, the catalyst to Midsommar’s events is a bizarrely horrific tragedy that occurs within the film’s first act and propels the narrative on its gloomy descent. The misfortune that befalls Dani is ominously resonate and creates images that aren’t easy to forget. The catastrophic event that leaves Dani without a family causes Christian, Dani’s mentally absent and wholly selfish boyfriend, to stay with her despite their obvious falling out, which is very explicitly depicted in the film’s opening/prologue. The relationship angle allows Aster to dissect the couple’s codependency that further drives them apart, making it into somewhat of a cautionary tale on the perils of toxic reliance.
Though it may not appear as such on first blush, Midsommar is a Grimm-esque fairytale about transcending grief and finding family, and oddly enough, The Wizard of Oz, one of cinema’s biggest staples, influenced its narrative framing and structure. It was peculiar and intriguing to hear Aster describe the film as “The Wizard of Oz for perverts”; however, after seeing it, it’s easy to see the correlation. For instance, the protagonists both have “D” names and live in a bleak reality before being magically whisked away to a technicolor world where the rules of reality don’t apply. Dorothy’s journey is one of introspection, and Dani’s could easily be read as a demented allegory for her journey towards wholeness. Where Dorthy is accompanied by the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, Dani is accompanied by her boyfriend and his friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who extends the invitation to the whole group.
Just as nothing happens by mistake in Hereditary, Dani’s invitation doesn’t seem to happen by accident. It’s almost as if Dani is the one being specifically targeted; Pelle says on many occasions that he’s “most excited” for her to join them. Once we enter the demented Oz-like festival, psychedelic drugs are introduced and Dani’s purpose at the festival becomes more and more clear. In many ways, the villagers represent everything that she lacks, supporting her in ways that Christian just isn’t capable.
Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor fully anchor the film with their performances, each going to memorably dark places; however, due to the misery of the couple’s relationship, it’s Harper and Poulter who standout most whenever they’re on-screen. Not only do they provide a sense of relief from the couple’s strain, but they also deliver most of the film’s refreshingly natural humor. That said, Pugh reveals new shades to her ability as a performer and once again proves she’s worth her weight; she earns just as much credit here as Collette did with Hereditary.
Aster’s direction is muscular and invigorating, and he flexes his keen attention to detail once again, creating another cinematic experience that merits multiple viewings. The film’s costumes and set design play a huge part on the narrative and its many underpinnings and hints. Pay particularly close attention to the tableaus that are plastered all over the commune. Many of them, like the one that opens the film in storybook fashion, foreshadow the film’s events directly. The cult’s use of Rune symbols also give more weight and context to their rituals and festivities.
Amidst the eerily peculiar and unsettling horrors, there’s an element of beauty and wonder (thanks to Pawel Pogorzelski’s lush cinematography), which is one of Midsommar’s stronger assets. It’s easy to creep and crawl in the darkness and shadows, but it’s not a simple feat to create an atmosphere of foreboding dread in the sunshine. Aster and Pogorzelski (who also shot Hereditary) brilliantly excel in that regard. Not since the original Wicker Man have we been reminded that things can be sunsoaked and idyllic and still unnerve you and psychologically mess with your head.
More so than Hereditary, Midsommar gives the viewer a lot to chew over, and while it moves at a slower pace and contains less subversion, its fundamental mystery is an intriguing one, even when you know precisely where you’re being led. The film is bigger in scope and ambition; there seems to be subtle political elements at play here, which are absent from Aster’s debut. It interestingly tests the audiences’ bloodlust in its final moments, and while it doesn’t fully earn its ending, its final 20-minutes are an unforgettable psychedelic phantasmagoria. It may divide viewers or pale in comparison to Aster’s previous efforts, but Midsommar proves his overnight success was no fluke. His dark mind is extraordinarily fascinating, and it will have many eagerly waiting to see what he’s capable of outside the horror genre.
Recommendation: Aster’s latest dark imagining is not to be missed. Don’t forget to take your significant other!
Rating: 4.5 feasts out of 5.
What do you think? Did Midsommar get under your skin? Is Hereditary a more taut exercise in horror? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feeling sin the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!