Here is a truly unusual movie, a story bathed in light, smothered in flowers, packed with imagery associated with the joyous rebirth of spring — and filled with horrors. That alone makes Midsommar, writer-director Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary (which I did not see, because I did not want to be terrified), stand apart.
And although there is a shockingly gruesome sequence about halfway through, Midsommar is not especially terrifying. I know that going in, which was why I was open to seeing it — I generally avoid horror movies. I don’t particularly like being scared. Deeply disturbed? Well, I guess that’s another story! In the case of this particular movie, it’s just . . . unsettling. The horrors on display in the bright, long, early summer days of Sweden are a bit part of that.
In a relatively transparent narrative device, Midsommar starts in the dead of dark winter in the U.S., a fairly long pre-credits sequence revealing the source of massive grief for the protagonist, Dani (Florence Pugh). To say it’s a tragic loss for Dani in a seriously fucked up way would be an understatement.
Curiously, understatement seems to be Ari Aster’s M.O. This story unfolds at a uniquely leisurely pace, as though taking to heart the idea of relaxing in the summer sun in a hilly meadow. But this is a meadow concealing something unnervingly sinister. All Dani and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Raynor) know, however, is that they are tagging along with several other friends as guests of their friend Pelle (Wilhelm Blomgren) to his native Swedish town to witness a Pagan ritual they are told only occurs every ninety years.
Aster quite effectively gets his audience to let their guard down, particularly through humor, of which Midsommar has more than you might expect. This is especially the case with the most endearingly clueless-American of the group, Mark (Will Poulter), who spends a lot of time oblivious to his own cultural insensitivities.
This is one of many ways Midsommar effectively walks a fine line: it could easily become a commentary on the typical cluelessness of American culture. But for Ari Aster, it seems that would just be too obvious. When individuals of the visiting groups — including another couple from Britain — begin to disappear one by one, it’s tempting to read it as potential retribution. Josh (William Jackson Harper), for instance, defies the Swedish group’s wishes by returning to a ritual room in the middle of the night.
But any thoughts of moral standing of specific incidents are only a distraction. Something far deeper is going on here, with increasing levels of complexity. The group is given hallucinogenics the moment they arrive — it’s why Mark immediately freaks out a little when he learns it’s 9 p.m. even though the sky is still blue. Most of them remain under the influence of one thing or another for the rest of the film.
And then, horrific spins of varying degree are given to several Pagan rituals associated with the summer solstice or things like May Day, such as a maypole dance competition. One scene containing equal parts horror and hilarity involves a sex ritual. Indeed, these rituals run the gamut, from death to birth.
In a way, Midsommar is also a mystery movie, albeit one in which the mystery getting solved is not a relief to anyone. There is a kind of cognitive dissonance between the ample beauty of choreography and the darkness of the sentiments ultimately revealed to be behind them. It’s almost as though Ari Aster set out to prove that it doesn’t have to be cold and dark for truly frightening things to be happening.
And he does it with the help of Pawel Pogorzelski’s fantastic cinematography, and Andea Flesch’s incredible costume design. I’m not sure I will ever forget the indelible image of Dani, weighed down by both a massive dress of flowers and her own grief, lurching to nowhere through the fields with a burning barn behind her. I tried in vain to find a still shot of that stunning flower dress online. Perhaps it’s by design that, at least for now, it can’t be seen unless you watch the movie.
I hesitate to say I “enjoyed” Midsommar — although certainly some elements (like the humor) were enjoyable. Conversely, I certainly don’t regret seeing it. There’s really something to be said for a genuinely unique vision in film in 2019. That is this film’s true achievement, making it an unusually memorable experience, and for that reason alone I would recommend it.