A couple whose relationship is on the fritz travels to Sweden for a midsummer festival which, they soon learn, finds its roots in pagan ritual.
I’ve been looking forward to this film since I saw Ari Aster’s debut “Hereditary” last year. “Hereditary” is one of those rare horror films that simultaneously crafts an amazing atmosphere of dread that, after about the first half hour, runs almost continuously through the film, but not only that, it also provides enough grotesque imagery to keep even the most bloodthirsty of gore-fiends satisfied. Though it’s only been a year since its release, I’ve been touting “Hereditary” as if it’s already considered a classic.
Needless to say, “Midsommar” had a bit to live up to, but when I first saw the trailer for it, I had to admit I was pretty excited. As the film drew closer, I read one quote that gave me an enormous amount of hope for this film from Jordan Peele (the director of “Us” and “Get Out”). He said, “This usurps “The Wicker Man” as the most iconic pagan movie to be referenced.”
Okay, wow. That’s a pretty bold statement. But having just watched the film last night, and then having pondered a few sleepless hours over it, I have to say that Peele may have hit the nail on the head. I’d have to watch the film again to say for sure (usurping “The Wicker Man” after one viewing would be a pretty amazing accomplishment), but dang, Ari Aster; you know how to craft an unsettling world.
“Excuse me, could you tell me what’s going on?”
Dani (Florence Pugh, “Fighting with My Family”) and Christian (Jack Reynor, Macbeth (2015)”) have been dating for some time, but their relationship has become toxic. Christian even has plans to end it with her, but after Dani suffers a terrible tragedy, he puts off the break up and the two continue dating, only perpetuating their toxic relationship and suffering. Christian and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper, “Paterson”), Mark (Will Poulter, “The Little Stranger”) , and Simon (Archie Madekwe, “Teen Spirit”) all plan on taking a trip to Sweden where they plan to attend a Midsummer festival. After Dani finds out about the trip, Christian invites her out of guilt, and they all embark on a journey to the isolated and idyllic location, but soon things take a turn for the worse.
People expecting a horror movie like “Hereditary” will probably be, in some ways, a bit disappointed by this film. It doesn’t have the same tension that runs through “Hereditary”, nor does it have as many ultra-disturbing scenes. What it does have is an amazingly crafted and rich world, some undeniably disquieting sequences, and themes that say something deeper than the story of “Hereditary” ever tried to say. We’ve talked at length on the TMM podcast about how horror movies don’t necessarily need to be terrifying in order to be great horror films, and this is one of those kinds of films. While I wasn’t gripping my seat the way I was when I watched “Hereditary”, I did find myself completely glued to the screen throughout the viewing; one scene after the other just boded of something worse coming.
Aster’s fine-tuned directing is something that caught my eye in “Hereditary”; he likes to hide messages and symbols in the background (and foreground) of his shots, and usually these icons tend to hint at horrors to come. The way in which Aster constantly hints at the future gives the world a feeling that it’s drawing towards something inevitable; an omega point, if you will. It feels almost like a slow procession towards doom that we can’t really turn away from, and that is half the terror; wanting to know what comes next, but also being disturbed and wanting to leave.
The cinematography was pretty impressive in this film; it’s funny because this film feels exactly the opposite of “Hereditary”. Where “Hereditary” boxed their characters into darkened, confined spaces where we could typically see all walls, roof, and floors (like looking at people in a dollhouse), “Midsommar” is brilliantly bright and open. There are also a few sequences where people take hallucinogenic mushrooms or drink hallucinogenic tea, and during those scenes the trees and earth breathe and surge with patterns. It’s as beautiful as it is unsettling.
The thing that I liked most about this movie is its message, and just as a warning, there will be spoilers in the following paragraphs.
This is a film about being in an abusive relationship, and how people inside that relationship are sometimes blinded by their own love to seeing how another person might be bad for them, it’s about why some people decide to stay in relationships like this even when it’s obvious it’s a bad place for them. I think the way that this film approaches this topic is pretty fantastic.
The village of Harga is beautiful and serene. It’s like those first few months of being in a relationship with someone, the honeymoon period, where everything is bright and sunny and nothing could go wrong with the world. When Christian and Dani arrive in this place, they’ve already been dating for years; the honeymoon period is past and they’re almost to the point of breaking up. Their relationship becomes much like the existence and rituals performed in Harga. From the outside, everything is serene and beautiful and full of joy, but then something terrible happens, and no one does anything to stop it, worse yet; everyone pretends its normal. As the film goes on, we gather that the ritual performed in Harga is meant to do a couple of things, and one of those things is cleansing or purge oneself of their burdens, and this relationship between Dani and Christian becomes the biggest burden for both of them. The only thing left to do is purge it.
Where “Hereditary” is about people going through hardships and being unable to recover, “Midsommar” takes the opposite view: it’s about people going through hardships and overcoming, coming through on the other side a changed person, a better person.
I enjoy this film more and more I think about it. It is not exactly what I was expecting when I walked in, but it is crafted with undeniable class. This is one of the more beautiful horror films I’ve seen recently (in terms of visuals), and it just goes to show Aster has plenty to say. I personally can’t wait to see what comes next.
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