Film critic Scott Wilson reviews Midsommar, a seductive and grizzly folk horror film inspired by a tumultuous break up.
Midsommar – ★★★★☆
Ari Aster made a name for himself last year with Hereditary, a horror film which struck a chord thanks to its portrayal of grief, shocking imagery, and one or two disturbing twists along the way. It wasn’t the fully realised film some heralded it to be – it loses its focus, which can be blamed on a good idea stretched out across a run-time that’s way too long. Its engrossing first act is slowly replaced by run-of-the-mill haunted house tropes, its conclusion unfamiliar from the film it started as.
Midsommar, a full twenty minutes longer, is the complete package. It follows Dani (Florence Pugh), a young woman recovering from personal tragedy, and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) as they travel with his friends to a secluded commune in Sweden for a ritualistic festival. Their relationship is strained, Dani worrying she relies on him too much, while he dreads answering the phone to her, doesn’t take her concerns seriously, and forgets her birthday. Aster was inspired by a difficult breakup.
Producers A24 have made a name for themselves releasing films with memorable iconography, whether that’s Moonlight’s colour scheme or low-angle perspectives in The Florida Project. With Midsommar, flowers and blindingly bright cinematography make it feel otherworldly, like a fairytale set at Coachella. It’s deceivingly inviting, as a poor elderly couple who walked out 40 minutes into our screening discovered. For all of its idyllic (and hayfever-inducing) imagery, it exists to contrast this supposed peace with a kind of horror, one that is horrifying but not necessarily scary. If something seems too perfect to be true, it probably is.
Horror and dark fairytales have always offered comfort by indulging in our darkest desires and ideas. Midsommar is no different.
So, while there’s only one jump scare and little that would keep you up at night, it’s not without gruesome violence and twisted motifs. The commune’s traditions are disturbing to those from the outside, unsure of how they’re meant to react. As two of the gang carry out anthropological studies, they’re torn between respecting other cultures and phoning the damn police.
With the fraught relationship at the film’s heart, everything, right down to the concept of midsummer itself, is about balance and harmony. Dancers move in concentric circles around a crucifix-like totem pole, inhabitants dine on tables arranged in symmetrical patterns, the group of friends agree to take hallucinogens at the same time to experience the same trips.
There is a real beauty to some of the film’s themes. The idea that what happens to one of us happens to all of us is shown through the serene setting and the bond between those who live at the commune. When Christian is complaining about Dani to his friends before the trip, they revel in the chance to complain as a group. When Dani is hurting in Sweden, the women congregate with her and literally mirror her anguish.
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That’s the seduction talking though, because Midsommar earns its 18 rating and is obviously from the same mind that made Hereditary, with its penchant for decapitations and perfectly-framed nightmares. With a clear head, the rituals witnessed by the Americans are twisted and manipulative. It’s not a film for the squeamish, with more than a few closeups of mangled body horror.
Horror films are always about something, and to reduce them simply to their bloodiest moments is to do them a disservice. Yes, the growing sense of dread is viscerally unsettling, but Dani and Christian’s relationship might be the scariest thing here. Revealing he’s off to Sweden in a passing comment, Dani asks Christian to fill her in on what’s happening because she’s been left in the dark, to be met only with a closed-off partner, playing the victim to her entirely reasonable questions. Christian ignores her, belittles her, forgets important details – and these things are actually what the film is about, much more than the Wicker Man-esque oddities of the festival.
Folk horror works particularly well for exploring human desires. Our need for love is spiritual in a sense, tied up in traditions going back millennia, often depicted as the most important of all of life’s creations. Why not place a rocky relationship in the middle of this pagan ritual with questionable practices? It’s the perfect place to heal and to flourish, and to feel cleansed with the help of the entirety of nature. Where the film ends up is debated between even its director and Pugh, the film’s star who has yet to put a foot wrong on screen, and who’s surely destined for an illustrious career. Horror and dark fairytales have always offered comfort by indulging in our darkest desires and ideas. Midsommar is no different.