While the credits rolled on Midsommar I felt a type of sick I couldn’t place in myself, and with overwhelming relief I left Nova to a cloud-covered Lygon Street. Over a drink at the Green Man’s Arms a friend sat beside me, bemused at my distraction; I was frustrated and elsewhere. That night I saw a show to review yet by morning could recall almost nothing – my head was already overflowing with director Ari Aster’s film.
It’s been too long since something like Midsommar came my way, confused and brilliant as a diamond in a hall of mirrors. Grotesque, beautiful, gripping, at times lame, this is a film with huge strengths, equals weaknesses and a call to be witnessed through just measurement.
Dani Ardor’s life has been petrified by tragedy. To repair a faltering relationship with boyfriend Christian and find healing within herself she leaves for the Hårga, an ancestral Swedish commune with promising research potential to Christian and his anthropology buddies. Their group arrives in the idyllic white-clad and wide-eyed community just as the pagan rituals begin. After a wrenching open, the film goes exactly where you think it will. Surprise isn’t in the playbook; instead, sustained, moving tension underlines each moment – more moments than the film can justify with a 2 hours and 20 minute runtime.
Aster’s second film after the familial nightmare Hereditary (2018), Midsommar is as patient with person and place. In Hereditary the family home was contained like a doll’s house, a steady coming and going of the camera causing complicity in the ‘play’ that happened within. This lent Hereditary a realness of setting that others dream of achieving and here, too, the Hårga is richly realised. Among verdant forest, simple wooden buildings jut with odd angles while the boarding room, a core location, is covered in exquisitely detailed pagan murals I yearned to study; everything is bespoke, unhurried and explored with the camera over and over again. The Hårga isn’t composed on soundstages but an undeniable earthen place.
And this commitment to achieving a proper reality is everywhere. The score is playful and surprisingly ironic, unadulterated beauty moving quickly to horse-haired nightmares. Bobby Krlic embraces the Hårga, allowing the music bathe in the beauty of their rites. Indeed, the film is so impactful because it chooses to frame the Hårga as warm and welcoming people without teasing a cold edge to their cruelty. After the film I wracked my memory for any stoic, violent embrace and was left wanting. The Hårga aren’t scarily cheerful, or morally in absentia for effect, they’re simply real and the more confounding for it.
Aster’s ability to carve an image aids in this. Like in Hereditary there are real, brutal moments, but they’re soaked with wicked beauty. Horrifying as the bodily violence is I felt appreciation for the colour and craft in it; here violence is not an affect but a rich opportunity. So, I’d argue Midsommar isn’t a genre film at all. There’s none of the psychological manipulation that is horror’s calling card; absent are a thriller’s twists and easy genre shorthand is nowhere to be found – a point of elation and frustration. The film contains no surprises once the fated arrive at the Hårga, Aster is more interested in witnessing the violence from beyond the posture of disbelief – and he gets us past it, but the film lacks heat in consequence.
While I heap praise upon Midsommar, remember that I found it a frustrating experience. Aster’s attempt to say something about the fluidity of family is lost in the screenplay and a single attempt to preserve it, right before the third act, is just not enough. The lesser players in Dani’s group act with selfishness that’s never earned, and they make questionable decisions. Did I mention that it’s almost two and a half hours long? It’s an immaculate house with design quirks that can’t be ignored because they simply get in the way of the better parts.
Still, I strongly recommend Midsommar. A week later I continue reliving it with alarming acuity in my head, thrilled even by that lame retelling. I now recognise that ill feeling as utter alarm at being so impacted by a film that has, ostensibly, nothing much to say and yet is filled with assertion. Midsommar is a deeply challenging film and the better for it.