The follow-up to his terrifying feature debut Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster leaves demonic possession behind in favour of festival-folk-horror in Midsommar. Soaked in the endless sunshine of the Scandinavian solstice, can Aster’s sophomore effort conjure the chilling dread of his last effort?
Aster returns to the well of family trauma plumbed so effectively in Hereditary, though here it comes in the film’s opening moments, with the triple suicide of Dani’s (Florence Pugh) sister, mother and father. Where the death of the daughter at the mid-point of Hereditary was the narrative nexus around which that film revolved, here it serves more as emotional context, triggering a series of decisions that lead inexorably to ruin for some and revelation for others.
Dani’s noncommital, self-centred boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is planning a Euro trip with his bros, anthropologist Josh (The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Swedish Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who leads the rest of the crew to his commune’s summer solstice festival. Christian and Josh are ostensibly visiting the commune for inspiration for their PhD theses, while the coarse Mark is more direct about his base impulses. It’s clear that Pelle isn’t telling the group everything about the arcane rituals that his extended family practice, assuring them that they may appear strange, even silly to these American tourists, but they are very meaningful to their practitioners. He isn’t lying.
Midsommar is a film that knowingly plays on our expectations, both as a self-conscious successor to the paganistic folk horror of The Wicker Man, and the structural tropes of modern horror cinema. Aster subverts the conventional visual language of expressionistic shadows and darkness by saturating his film in the endless daylight of Northern European summer, forgoing sharp chiaroscuro in favour of swaying rhythms, breathy, sighing soundscapes, and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s soft, impressionist colours. But the shadow of dread nevertheless succeeds in falling across the screen.
The first confirmation that something is terribly wrong comes with a sequence that gives Hereditary a run for its money in terms of unflinching, shocking violence. Yet after even this, there is no question of the group leaving, their entirely reasonable shock mitigated by claims of “cultural difference”. A more conventional horror film would have Josh – the closest thing to a voice of reason – trying to convince his companions that something is wrong, yet Midsommar denies us even that generic comfort, preferring the dread to continue unspoken, and the cathartic violence to be deferred until the last possible moment.
It’s a shame, then, that Aster occasionally reverts to more retrograde aspects of the genre. The monstrous child – featured heavily in the film’s marketing but barely present in the film – adds little to the film narratively, merely making dully explicit what was already implied. Stopping short of commenting on the nature of the “magical disability” trope, a film this reflexive and nuanced about the politics of tourist horror should have no business in trading in such problematic clichés.
Nevertheless, Midsommar remains one of the most original and challenging genre films in recent years, owing a clear debt to the folk horror cinema of the 1970s, yet resisting the pull of pastiche. Aster has concocted a weird mixture of dread, black humour and pathos, conjuring sympathy for the devil in a feverish hallucination.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell