Midsommar - Review
Midsommar is a delicate mix of craft, emotion, and brilliant acting from Florence Pugh.
Folk horror isn’t like most horror genres. Humor, atmosphere, and metaphor nearly always play major roles in films like The Wicker Man and The Witch, bringing up the oft-referenced “daylight horror” dilemma. How does a film make the light scary? In Midsommar, Ari Aster’s excellent second feature, the question is answered through means some might call cliche, but what persists is a sense that Aster isn’t here to scare this time, but to teach.
For 20 or so minutes, Midsommar apes Hereditary’s family-tragedy angle for a powerful prologue about loss. Dani (Florence Pugh) receives a worrying email from her sister, and calls her lazed boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for emotional support. Nothing to worry about, she does this all the time, he tells her, partly for a chance to remove himself from her constant need for attention. The threat is not idle, however, and Dani quickly finds herself hollowed emotionally, spiritually, and physically, with only non-committal Christian to comfort her.
He invites her on a guy’s trip to Sweden, and in one masterful cut, she’s on the plane. The sequence is the film’s most rooted in horror tropes, borrowing from the high-tension preambles of Don’t Look Now and dozens of slasher films. As in Hereditary, Aster includes a few scares in this early section, many of them sprouting from a place of deep fear that we, the audience, will one day lose our families.
This comes to a head in a gory, tittilating scene of suicide at the Midsummer festival in the small Swedish village: Dani and her friends watch as two elderly members of the village hurl themselves off a cliff, an action meant to connect the peoples’ circle of life. The scene is shot with calm ambivalence, once again recalling the purposeful yet predictable cuts of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, another film that rests on a family tragedy. The rug is frequently pulled out in Midsommar, but not without ample time to realize what disturbing images we’re about to see. For a brief moment, Dani sees the elderly man and woman as her own parents, her sister wedged between them in immortal judgement.
As anyone who’s gone through a crisis can tell you, having someone dependable by your side is as crucial as shut windows and a cleared schedule. For better or (most likely) worse, Christian is Dani’s support system in her time of tragedy, and though he shows up for her in moments anyone would be required to, his boyfriend skills are lacking. In a crushing piece of acting, Christian assures Dani that the double-suicide isn’t anything to worry about, and turns away from her to a skin-deep conversation with a local. His neglect for Dani is what does him in, as Chrisitan slowly becomes the film’s key player.
The victim of a love spell from an aroused local woman, he instigates a betrayal based on Dani’s newfound summer look. Never mind the major tragedy she’s just gone through, Dani’s got a flower crown! Midsommar is about grief; how the people that get us through it shouldn’t just meet the bar of showing up if they want to stick around. Christian shows up out of obligation, and suffers the ultimate humiliation; Dani’s smile at the end of the film could mean several things, but most clearly represents a massvie “fuck you” to people (and boyfriends) who see tragedy as an emotional loophole, not a call to action.
When Midsommar is engaging in themes more detached than “evil is passed down through families,” it hits its stride as a thoughtful, disturbing folk tale for a new age. Cinematography from Pawel Pogorzelski (who shot Hereditary, one of the most image-driven horror films in recent memory) is slow-moving, telegraphed; just as the action and character development is signaled far ahead of time, so is Pogorzelski’s Kubrick-esque steadicam and jarring cuts. In the same vein, visual effects play a role in Midsommar beyond ghostly apparitions and spooky lighting. Just as bright lines cast a tangible shadow on the magic of Hereditary, Midsommar uses simple effects to show its characters’ various bad trips; and there are a lot of them.
Dani’s flower crown expands and contracts almost unnoticeably, and a clap in the face of a love-stricken Christian makes the world around him slippery, like the first bee sting as a child that sends you into confused anger. There are aspects of Midsommar that some may find tame, disturbing, or perhaps not frightening at all; the fact remains, however, that the film delivers a metaphor brilliantly, and unlike Aster’s previous work, moves beyond its desire to scare for something much more disquieting. We all want to kill our boyfriends sometimes, to scream into the abyss and hear 100 other voices echo our discomfort: Midsommar provides that luxury.