Review: Midsommar (2019)

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The poster-girl for hayfever sufferers: B-Reel Films/Square Peg

MIDSOMMAR is a trip, and no mistake. Two features in and Ari Aster is already an aesthetically and thematically distinctive auteur, but is still capable of shocking us all.

In an effort to overcome her grief after a family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh) travels with her boyfriend and his postgraduate friends to the remote Midsommar solstice festival in Sweden. Despite a warm welcome and a pleasing sense of tradition, something darker is at work behind the festivities.

WICKER MAN comparisons are inevitable, and there is shared DNA, but the Robin Hardy classic looks rather tame by comparison. I was most reminded of Darren Aronofsky’s more out-there films in the way that perception of reality is constantly played with. If you took the bad batch nightmare trip from the finale of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, spliced it with metaphoric murkiness of MOTHER! and adorned the resulting hybrid with garlands of garish flowers, that’s Midsommar.

This is the antithesis in presentation to Aster’s previous effort HEREDITARY (bright, colourful and in the open vs dark, oppressive and claustrophobic) but it’s also a lot more disturbing. I said at the time that Hereditary impressed me as a film but that I didn’t feel it was effective as a horror, but Midsommar works on both accounts. It’s the classic dark fable setup; naive young people being beguiled by a welcoming culture in a seemingly idyllic environment only for a much more sinister truth to be gradually revealed by which point it’s far too late to escape.

Midsommar is a full sensory-enveloping experience. They should really give you a handful of grass to fondle and some suspicious tea to sip at every screening to complete the effect. You’re dazzled and mesmerised by the visuals, from the vivid colours, the intricately detailed production design and the grotesque individual images burned directly onto your brain. The wall of sound encompassing scored music, foley artistry and the actors’ chilling vocalisations of their distress envelops you, traps you.

Florence Pugh is simply sensational. Aster is unforgiving with the film’s shot construction, more often than not holding tight on her face and putting her through the emotional wringer in a long take. I’d say that Pugh takes Dani to some interesting places, but I’m not entirely convinced she was always in the driver’s seat, that the character and the process didn’t take over in some primal fashion. Dani’s fellow solstice tourists (Jack Raynor and Will Poulter stand out) are various shades of unlikeable and may well face symbolically appropriate fates in the end. Dani and Christian’s relationship is an interesting and contradictory one, neither party coming across well though Dani probably edges it in the sympathy stakes because of Christian’s low-key manipulation.

From the start you’re trying to work out what the town’s big deal is, what they have in store for their unsuspecting visitors. Even as everyone’s role in the grand plan becomes clear (and Aster isn’t subtle in much that he shows you) you can’t predict how far things will go.

It seems odd to have such a dark (thematically) and full-on horror released at the height of summer, but when else would it make sense to see a solstice shocker? The brightness of the sun and the prettiness of the surroundings can be deceptive; you didn’t expect abject terror in such plain sight.

When the film really goes to extremes it might put some off, especially after enduring such a gruelling run-time. Heads splatter, clothes are discarded and trespassers dealt with cruelly. This is in no way a horror that leaves it to your imagination.

Like Hereditary you could look at the film as purely metaphorical, but for me I think we weave in and out of reality based on characters’ emotional unrest and ingestion of psychoactive substances. Dani’s emotional journey, her recovery from grief, is her reality. She has to keep looking inward and look after her own well-being even as paradise is festering around her and people are dying. However you read it, Midsommar is a fascinating and unusual horror that draws you in and doesn’t let go. Maybe Florence Pugh will get some acknowledgement come awards season just as Toni Collette was unjustly snubbed. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Bong Joon-ho, Danny Boyle, the Coen Brothers, Nicolas Winding Refn, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Taika Waititi and Edgar Wright. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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