Ari Aster’s genre-blending horror(ish) film Midsommar had an awful lot to live up to. Aster’s gut-wrenching feature debut Hereditary established him as a masterful purveyor of psychological torture and gorgeous gore in contemporary cinema. I bought into the hype, but maddeningly Midsommar presents a ‘my type on paper’ kind of problem – it’s a bit of a yawning let-down in the flesh.
The filmfollows Dani (Florence Pugh) as she attempts to manage the trauma of family tragedy whilst simultaneously clinging to the remnants of a dying relationship with her vacant-eyed boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). In the snowy opening sequence, Dani awkwardly hints her way into Christian’s boy’s trip to a Swedish commune where the festivities can begin.
Watching shots of her wandering through wildflower meadows crosscut with drug-induced hallucinations, Dani’s ties to her modern American lifestyle slowly sever as she becomes increasingly entangled in the commune’s ancient Midsummer rites. By blending well established tropes of paganistic Folk Horror with the raw energy of any breakup ever, Aster manages to create a disquieting tale filmed entirely in lurid daylight. Unlike Hereditary, in which the darkness that encloses the family hides satanic figures, family secrets, and even a demented Toni Collette scrambling around on the ceiling, here the dynamic is flipped. Midsommar is a director’s reminder that we are much safer in the dark, before everyone wakes up.
Unlike the villagers in Robin Hardy’s classic The Wicker Man, who cruelly taunt the Catholic police officer, herethe Swedish community show no interest in concealing their violent, sacrificial practices from outsiders. They even explain a length every ritual to their audience of gawping outsiders. Their unsettling candour elegantly parallels the larger motif of exposure that runs throughout Midsommar. Exposure is expressed through relentless sunlight, aerial shots of wide-ranging flat landscapes, and scenes showing the encouraged use of dandelion infused hallucinogenic teas that ‘break down your defences’. However, this candour has the unintended effect of revealing far too much, far too early, and drains multiple scenes of their power to shock or scare. In one particularly dull gory scene, a traditional suicide ritual is so protracted that it quite literally falls flat on its face.
Undoubtedly, Midsommar has its moments of strength. Aster’s sickly pastel colour palette combined with carefully chosen (bizarrely on trend) embroidered costumes are visually arresting. The style achieved calls to mind another impressionistic, dreamy nightmare structured around a natural landscape’s indifference to human pain: Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Aster also introduces several nice worldbuilding touches including the fabulist mural painted on wooden panels (the work of contemporary artist Mu Pan), which open like curtains before the first scene. Pugh’s performance as a traumatised Dani is accomplished, but it simply serves to highlight the lack of psychological depth in the surrounding cast. With a lacklustre script and a nearly 2 ½ hour run time, it was a struggle to stay engaged.
A quick glance around at people’s responses in a cinema is always telling. It is a relief that Aster allows dark comedy to creep into the peripheries of his tale, because some sleepy sounding laughter was the only truly audible response he received from my audience. All I’m saying is, people were shouting at the screen watching Get Out, and I pulled a muscle watching Hereditary. Well-paced, subtle Folk Horror has the power to disturb and delight in equal measure. This does neither.
In one interview Aster revealed that of all his characters, it was Dani whom he most readily identified with, admitting that he often finds himself in her position of ‘clinging to something that’s dead because I’m not done with it’. Perhaps this sentiment reveals a difficulty in his artistic practice too. It’s time for Aster to stop clinging to horror tropes that have already been mastered. Aster’s eye for detail remains brilliant, and this is far from thoughtless filmmaking, but he seems to have performed his own ritual sacrifice of substance for style. Catch me rewatching The Wicker Man for the fourth time as I await a deeper, more affecting film from Ari Aster.