Midsommar opens with soft, folkish music playing over a mosaic depicting a series of disturbing but whimsically rendered tableaus—so far as statements of intent go, that’s a strong one. It lets us know that, while what we’re about to see is a horror film, it’s not one playing by the conventional tonal and representational rules of cinema. It’s something closer to a fairy tale or a nightmare, a lyrical expression of uncontrolled, disturbing emotions. The second feature by writer and director Ari Aster, whose debut feature Hereditary made a stir last year, Midsommar confirms him as one of the most exciting, daring directorial voices of the moment. Viewers expecting a straightforward fright-fest will be baffled and possibly outraged, but for those who can fall into its peculiar rhythms, Midsommar will become an enduring favourite.
After its abstract, overture-like beginning, Midsommar opens by introducing us to Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), a psychology student suffering from severe anxiety. Her mental state is not helped by the pressure of caring for her bipolar sister, nor the emotional distance and occasional outright manipulation of her grad student boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor)—a scene when he gives Dani a small cake after having forgotten her birthday then fumbles while trying to light the candle provides a succinct visual metaphor for their whole relationship. When her sister’s latest breakdown ends in an unspeakable family tragedy, Dani is left distraught and near-catatonic. Jack, who had been planning to break up with Dani, now decides to stay with her. Some months later, Dani learns that Christian and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) are planning to decamp to Sweden for a traditional midsummer festival of the Hårga people in the rural, isolated home village of their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Despite Christian’s weak protestations that he had already told her, Dani is hurt, and he invites her (over Josh and Mark’s protestations) to make up for it.
The village seems an idyllic fantasy of Nordic beauty and contentment, full of, as R.E.M put it, shiny happy people holding hands. But as the pageantry grows ever more bizarre and the group’s interpersonal tensions flare up, events soon take a dark turn—even as the sky remains storybook bright.
Awash in beatific blues and yellows a million miles away from Hereditary’s shadowy interiors, Midsommar is downright intoxicating to look at, every frame saturated with hallucinatory excesses of colour. Aster seems to be striving to establish himself as horror’s equivalent to Wes Anderson, a master visual dramatist and constructor of worlds with a passion for the oft-neglected art of composition. The film does not feel cobbled together from coverage, like so many genre films these days, but truly directed—the details of each frame meticulously crafted and the timing of each cut perfectly calibrated. Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera does not simply record the action, but comments on and captures it in unusual ways. It slowly zooms toward characters in moments of psychological and physical distress with haunting inevitability; it zeroes in on faces contorted with dread and grief (typically Dani’s, but also Josh’s in one striking moment); it follows Dani in lurching, anxious movement. Aster is patient and subtle in drawing out the relationships between his principle characters and the unspoken resentments that exist among all of them. Mark, a stereotypical “ugly American” tourist who can offer only a defensive apology after accidentally defacing a sacred tree, is the most overtly obnoxious of the group (sold perfectly by Poulter’s pugilistic, petulant performance), but we gradually come to see the more subtle forms of entitlement exhibited by the passive-aggressive Christian and the smug academic Josh, who takes a perverse joy in taunting his companions for their obliviousness of what’s to come (is he Aster’s stand-in for himself?). Many of the film’s most unnerving scenes are early on, before anything overtly untoward has happened, as Christian subtly undermines or guilt-trips Dani, whose sheer vulnerability is underlined by the harrowing opening scenes. Often, Aster underlines these dynamics through subtle directorial touches, like a cut to Dani’s nonplussed expression after a casual misogynist remark from Mark, or the numerous moments where the camera lingers, unblinking through an uncomfortable silence.
With all of this boiling under the surface in a village where paintings depict bizarre pagan rituals, hallucinogenic tea is casually passed around, and a bear sits in a cage, the seeds are clearly planted for horror to ensue. And ensue it does—however the exact nature of what ensues and how is far from expected. Midsommar becomes something less akin to a conventional horror film than to an opera or ballet, a hyper-vivid performance where grand, dramatic sounds and images serve to express feelings too extreme for conventional language; less Wicker Man than Wagner. Early on, Pelle describes the festival as “like theatre”, perhaps the film’s most telling line. Most of the rituals we see take the form of performance or public expression—from an all-female group screaming session to a Maypole dance competition that eventually becomes a swirling, hallucinatory revery evoking Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes—which for Dani become a way of excising (or escaping from) her trauma. The village itself seems a space of metaphor, cut off from the outside world and inoculated against time itself by the perpetual daylight (the similarly hermetic setting of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville is an evident influence here), where reality is malleable to the heroine’s fragile emotional state. When she experiences a psychedelic trip, the screen warps nauseatingly, and a later dream sequence brings traumatic images from her past into the present through Bergman-esque elliptical editing. Bobie Krlic’s score drones and whirrs like the orchestra from hell, projecting anxiety onto everything.
In the both the heightened, subjective filmmaking, and the dreamlike structure of the narrative, the sense pervades that we’re seeing something to be taken not as a literal representation of events but as an expression of primal emotions; not sanitised into narrative linearity and clean morality, but rather in all their brutal, irrational, terrifying and exhilarating glory. What those primal emotions are doesn’t fully come into view until the beautifully deranged final act. This begins with a “fertility ritual” played with a deadpan strangeness worthy of Yorgos Lanthimos (Reynor does his best acting in the film here, in what feels like the sickest silent comedy ever made) and pays off in a near-wordless finale that is as cathartic yet troubling as the climax of a Greek tragedy or Old Testament story.
A story of such aesthetic and emotional extremes requires a committed lead performance to carry it, and Florence Pugh—one of the most promising actresses of her generation—proves more than up to the task. She plays Dani as someone almost overburdened by pain; even when she tries to put on a smile for the sake of those around her, her facial expressions and physicality betray her. She can’t keep it all inside, and in every cracked smile we can see that trying is killing her. Eventually, she is asked to play some of the most unthinkable shades you could ask of an actor, and she does so perfectly; the journey she takes her character on, so much of it played out through facial expressions, is wrenching and yet profoundly emotionally satisfying.
Midsommar is the kind of film we see less than ever in recent memory these days – the singular, meticulous and quite possible demented vision of an artist you sense simply had to get these thoughts and images out of their system. It is morbid fairy tale theatre made by a filmmaker with a wicked sense of humour and a poetic eye. Come join the festivities—if you’re feeling brave.