One Bad Trip
'I want to see all the horror movies,' declared Olinka as we sat through the selection being trailed ahead of our latest choice of film. This included Annabelle Comes Home, Crawl, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and It Chapter Two. I am a bit more discriminating than she is and most of these films are not on my list of things I definitely want to see.
Yet here we were about to watch Ari Aster's Midsommar, despite the fact that we were united in our underwhelmedness (and that's putting it mildly) when we went to see his previous movie Hereditary – although I should say that Olinka has, on reflection, revised her opinion upward to a fairly significant degree. Certainly from the moment we saw the first trailer for Midsommar, we agreed this was a movie we wanted to watch. Why should this be? Well, in my case, the first point in the film's favour was that there were more than enough positives about Hereditary to make me willing to give Aster another chance as a director, and the second was the involvement of the fabulous Florence Pugh, who has the talent to lift any film to which she is allowed to make a substantial contribution.
Midsommar is one of those films which opens with a significant first-act event which is not referenced at all in the trailer and thus presumably qualifies as a bit of a spoiler. So I must perforce be somewhat circumspect when it comes to my usual synoptical activities. Florence Pugh plays Dani, a young woman in a long-term relationship with a guy named Christian (Jack Reynor), although it is clear to all around them that said relationship is effectively moribund – she is worried about seeming clinging and needy, he is obviously unenthusiastic about spending more than minimal time with her, their discussions are full of low-level pedantry and almost-wilful petty misunderstandings of each other. But she at least is determined to keep the relationship going.
Christian is so indifferent to Dani he has even agreed to go on a trip to Sweden with his college buddies without initially telling her. Most of them are anthropology post-grads and a Swedish friend (Vilhelm Blomgren) has invited them back to his home community in a remote part of the country for an important festival. The eventual news that Dani will be coming along is not met with universal delight from the other guys, especially Christian's crass friend Mark (Will Poulter).
Off they fly to lovely Sweden, soon arriving in Halsingland (which, on the face of it at least, looks absolutely beautiful). They are greeted with great warmth by the members of their friend's community, and prepare for various mind-broadening (if not outright expanding) experiences. However, this being an R or 18-rated horror movie, it could well turn out to be the case that this is the kind of festival where you probably shouldn't touch the meat pies, and the educational value is mostly limited to a demonstration of what the term 'blood eagle' actually refers to.
Scholars of horrific cinema will no doubt already be aware of the fact that Midsommar is not just an unusual American entry into that sub-genre known as 'folk horror', but one with a substantial and explicit debt to Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man, a film which long-term readers will be well aware I have the greatest respect for. (I have seen some critics attempting to argue that Midsommar is not really a horror movie, but a metaphorical fantasy about the demise of a relationship. To which I can only say: come on. That's pushing disingenuity to the point where it becomes absurd.) As a Swedish-set spiritual descendant of The Wicker Man (possibly The IKEA Man would have been a good title), Midsommar does not discredit its forebear, and indeed possesses some of the same ghastly power, albeit in a rather different key.
The thing is that you basically know going in how this story is going to turn out: the beaming, friendly, white-clad Swedes who are so welcoming to the American characters obviously have some sort of hidden agenda, which is going to involve terrible Pagan practices. The points of engagement for the audience are thus a sense of suspense – what exactly is going to happen, and to who, and when, and just how grisly is it going to turn out to be? – and also, hopefully, a deeper sense of resonance in terms of how the events of the film function as an emotional or personal metaphor.
Well, one of the elements of Midsommar I'm not sure about is the running time, which is not much shy of two and a half hours, but this does allow Aster to execute an extremely slow burn in the way he creates an insidious atmosphere of creeping, queasy wrongness. This is the film's real achievement and strength. You begin fully aware that something is not quite right in the story, and then through the drip-drip-drip of incidental detail, you're suddenly aware that Everything Feels Horribly Wrong even though the events on screen are frequently relatively innocuous. There are some extremely graphic moments in this film – at one point we were both hunched down in our seats, instinctively contorting our limbs to try and block out as much of the screen as possible, simply because we didn't want to see what was happening – but it's the atmosphere of the movie which is the most pervasively upsetting thing about it. Various characters do take mind-altering substances in the course of the film, seldom with positive outcomes, and it is as if Aster is trying to communicate to the audience the sensation of being on the world's worst acid trip. He does so with great success: imagery from this film has shown up in nightmares I have had since watching it. (Ari Aster has apparently announced he has now done everything he cares to within the horror genre and will be moving on to do different kinds of film in future. To which I can only say, I will believe it when I see it: this man has a natural talent to screw with people's heads.)
That said, I am not sure the film really qualifies as a complete success – The Wicker Man is on some level about moral relativism and the clash of different ethical systems. There's no sense of that here – if the film is about anything more than just Aster trying to put his audience into therapy, it's not clear to make out what that is – at least, not to me. Clearly, there are resonances between Dani and Christian's disintegrating relationship and some of the things that happen to them at the festival (one also assumes there is some symbolism in Christian's name), but if there's a single big idea here then it's not particularly well articulated. At one point I thought there was a subtext going on about the Swedes not being actively malevolent towards the visitors, but only reacting to the crassness, shallowness and self-interest of the Americans, but this turns out not to be the case. You do find yourself searching for some kind of deeper subtext to Midsommar, which to me suggests the script isn't quite there in this department.
Of course, I should present an alternate view, given there is one available, and in this case Olinka found the film to be very interesting and symbolically powerful. On the way to the bus stop she gave me an ad hoc lecture about existentialism, loss, the grieving process, empathy, the role of the community in the foregoing, Midsummer as a symbol of a 'frozen' moment with no change or progress being possible, and so on. (I did ask her to write all this down so I could include it in the review, but no joy so far.) So it may well be that your mileage may differ when it comes to this film, just as much as it did with Hereditary.
I'm not sure I'd say that I actually enjoyed Midsommar, but that's only because it's such a gruelling and traumatic experience to watch this film. Certainly I am highly impressed by the skill involved in making it – I haven't even touched on how good Florence Pugh's performance is. And it is a remarkably subtle film in many ways, not afraid to even be slightly camp in the way it plays with national stereotypes about Swedish people. It retains most of the strengths of Hereditary while dispensing with the most egregious of that film's weaknesses. Viewers of a delicate disposition should think several times before watching it, but this is a very impressive film.