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Hot off the heels of his smash horror hit HEREDITARY, which was still in theaters this time last year, writer/director Ari Aster has already brought a second offering to the genre's unholy altar. MIDSOMMAR (and I promise that's the first and last time I resort to the pretentious pronunciation of its title) is a striking indication that HEREDITARY was far from a fluke and that Aster is a feature-length bard capable of instilling both admiration and trepidation.
MIDSOMMAR begins with one of the bleakest preludes I've encountered in quite some time. It's emotionally stark and visually dark and introduces us to our protagonist, Dani, in yet another incredible performance from my ongoing onscreen obsession, Florence Pugh.
Her abilities are on full display in an early scene when she calls her boyfriend, Christian (played here by Jack Reynor), to convince him to stop by in a time of need. She tries to keep it together, but we can see the anxiety written all over her face and spilling out of her eyes. It's a remarkable moment of separate presentations of self and an incisive glimpse at the rocky relationship at the center of this story.
She's looking for emotional support. He's planning a trip to Sweden behind her back while debating whether or not to cut her loose altogether. Through twisted circumstance, a terrible tragedy keeps them together, depicted in a blood-chilling sequence that leads right into the film's opening credits. It's definitely what I'd consider to be a directorial flex, but it's all in the service of the characters and the mood. And damn, is it cold. This stands in stark contrast (literally) to where the story leads and ultimately ends.
Still reeling from a personal loss, Dani pulls herself from a deep depression to accompany the boys on their summer trip: attending the midsummer celebration at Hårga, a friend's ancestral commune. Needless to say, she checks plenty of emotional baggage for the flight.
Soon enough, the plot relocates to this village, just in time for the 9-day festivities to begin. It's a massive set piece built from the ground up for the film, a meticulous effort spearheaded by production designer Henrik Svensson. Along with Aster, they mined actual midsummer traditions, Swedish folklore, Norse mythology and more to fill Hårga with mysterious structures, prophetic murals and cryptic runes.
The film's mise en scène is actually communicating to us through paintings and a repurposed alphabet. Sure, some of this won't register for those of us that are a bit rusty in our younger Futhark, but the explicit artwork requires little to no translation.
Slowly but surely, MIDSOMMAR casts its spell on the characters and audience alike. It manages to alter senses (i), disrupt equilibrium (ii) and, ultimately, challenge notions (iii). It does so through a parade of foreign customs, its uncanny use of sunlight and enough psychedelics to satiate Jim Morrison.
It's not enough that the four American grad students find themselves on foreign soil. They are immediately treated like VIPs at Burning Man and the hallucinogens flow freely. The trip of their lives becomes, well, the trip of their lives. We gain access to their altered state through prolonged shots and pulsating visual effects. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, who has been shooting Aster's films since their time at AFI together, captures the proceedings, in turn, with curious compositions and a bleached, unblinking bluntness.
Taking place during the summer solstice in Hälsingland, the sun hangs high in the sky long into the night. One of MIDSOMMAR's widely touted characteristics was its bright and pastoral palette, which was on full display in the trailers. This runs counterintuitive to what we associate with horror. After all, things tend to go bump in the night, not in broad daylight. As an upcoming film will no doubt reminds us: scary stories are best told in the dark.
So, why the decision to set this film in a place where the moon don't shine? Well, for one thing, it's remarkably unsettling for that very reason. If we expect things to come at night, then things will come unexpectedly. The perpetual light of day is this film's secret weapon. It lulls us into a false sense of security before revealing a hard fact of life: awful things happen completely independent of the sun's position in the sky.
Ironically, in the case of the Hårga, the sun's prime placement is precisely why they commence in this carousel of carousal and ceremony. Moreover, once the madness inevitably goes down in the daylight, we can see it all the more clearly, which—in a meta sense—is precisely what many people sign up for when they watch a movie like this.
Consider how our main characters are such a curious bunch, essentially proxies for the viewer. Christian and his classmate, Josh (William Jackson Harper), are both working on their PhDs in anthropology. They even begin competing over this pursuit of knowledge as each works on the topic of his thesis.
Anyone who has encountered foreign cultures or customs, whether through festivals, travels, religions, cults, you name it, will undoubtedly recognize the fine line between having your curiosity piqued and "Okay, I've seen enough, I'm getting the hell out of here!" What can I say, it's fun to see the limits of these characters.
Yes, I said fun.
One of the more remarkable and surprising aspects of MIDSOMMAR is just how funny it is, something that would've seemed an impossibility after that austere opening. Most of this humor comes from Christian and his boys as they react to and provide commentary on whatever is happening around them, especially coming from Mark (played by the ever reliable Will Poulter).
It's through this assorted arsenal that MIDSOMMAR manages to be a subversion of the horror genre. Speaking of, the film's very status on that front seems to be a popular point of debate among cinephiles since its release. Personally, I think it's all a waste of breath. Horror is the most wide and wild of all the film genres, with more sub-categories than you can shake a crucifix at. This film very clearly slides onto the folk horror shelf along recent films like APOSTLE, THE LOVE WITCH and KILL LIST. A shelf that holds what is clearly one of the film's biggest influences, THE WICKER MAN.
The cinematic touchstones don't end there, over the course of the film my mind raced to Eli Roth's Travel Trilogy, Tobe Hooper's TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and two of British provocateur Ken Russell's insane works: THE DEVILS and ALTERED STATES. All of which demonstrate just how rich and varied horror films can be. Why supposed fans want to start acting like gatekeepers is beyond me.
To be fair, some of this conversation stems from the filmmaker himself. Ari Aster has said he considers MIDSOMMAR to be "a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film." Well, those need not be mutually exclusive and when it wears said clothes… it wears them very well.
I'd be remiss if I didn't also highlight the film's extraordinary score. For this, the team enlisted Bobby Krlic, better known as The Haxan Cloak, a very fitting name to associate with a project exploring the heights and depths of a pagan cult. Here he primarily relies on the steadiness of strings and the limits of the human voice for tracks that conjure utter despair and beyond.
True, at its narrative core, this is a breakup movie, one like we have never had before. Aster said he wrote the film as he was going through a painful parting of his own and that sentiment reverberates throughout. Pugh and Reynor fulfill their roles uncomfortably well as that knife through the heart is twisted millimeter by millimeter.
Beyond this doomed romance, Dani starts the film in the darkest place imaginable. Her anguish is palpable. Gradually, she's brought into a different light and it's a terrifying ordeal for her. Perhaps for us as well. But it's what she ultimately discovers there that makes this transplantation feel something akin to fate.
Which leaves me with a couple questions: 1) What effect will MIDSOMMAR have on Sweden's tourism industry? and 2) What did Ari Aster's ex think of the film?
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