Ari Aster's sophomore feature is a trippy break-up movie masquerading as folk horror
Some films come dipped in a vat of dread so deep they follow you out of the cinema and into the car park afterwards. Weeks later, they crawl back to you unexpectedly, at work, at the supermarket, infecting your day. Ari Aster’s breakout horror hit, Hereditary, was one such film – a study of parental grief so horrific it surely put some people off having kids for good.
Those expecting Midsommar to follow in its footsteps, however, might be in for a shock. Whilst the opening act of Aster’s second feature, essentially a modern take on folk horror classic The Wicker Man, invokes the undiluted dread of Hereditary, the film ultimately settles for a different rhythm entirely. This is the horror flick as acid trip – less scary, more hallucinogenic. Your appreciation will largely rest on your willingness to buy into its ambling nature and to read between the lines for things that may or may not be there.
There’s no getting around the fact Midsommar is a film made from other films. The set-up is the stuff of classic horror, as grief-stricken Dani (Florence Pugh) heads overseas with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reyner) in the wake of a family tragedy (Don’t Look Now, anyone?). The destination? A remote village in Sweden, where they’ve been invited – alongside Christian’s pals (Will Pouter and William Jackson Harper) – to attend a once-in-a-lifetime event: a pagan festival held by an isolated community (read as: cult), where they are to play the unsuspecting Americans lured into a trap on their holidays. So far, so very Hostel.
What happens next occurs over an admittedly patience-testing period of 147 minutes. Midsommar is slow, and its most shocking moment occurs at around an hour in. After that, the movie falls into a place that’s equally meandering and intoxicating, as Aster takes his time depicting the cult in increasingly bizarre and nonsensical ways. No attempt is made to convince us to take them seriously. The rituals and costumes are right out of “Cults on Film 101,” but the approach works because you can sense the director laughing behind the camera. Midsommar is, unlike Hereditary, a bit of a secret comedy.
It’s also incredibly beautiful. Aster has compared Midsommar to The Wizard of Oz, and as we move from the dark, Hereditary-like scenes of the opening to the lush, sun-soaked fields of Sweden, he’s clearly evoking that film’s famous shift from sepia to Technicolour. Pugh’s performance withstanding, it’s the gliding, Kubrickian cinematography (courtesy of Pawel Pogorzelski) that feels like Midsommar‘s great achievement; every shot feels meticulously composed, whilst one CG-aided scene – in which the characters take magic mushrooms – serves as one of cinema’s best attempts to capture the experience.
Horror aside, though, Midsommar is – deep down – a movie about a break-up. From the offset it’s clear that Christian wants out, but tragedy halts this inevitable development. Midsommar essentially channels the anxiety associated with a dying relationship into the maddening uneasiness of the festival. Are we actually witnessing the stages of a break-up, rendered as pagan-themed set-pieces? The year’s craziest sex scene certainly hints at the possibility. Then there’s the ending, certain to divide audience into two camps: those who feel the journey is worth it, and those who don’t. What’s important is to frame these final moments in the context of the break-up movie. How does the weaker person in any relationship take back the power? You dump them before they dump you, of course.
By: Tom Barnard
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This post was categorised in Reviews.