Midsommar is the second feature by writer/director Ari Aster and an exercise in sustained ambient dread. His feature debut, Hereditary, was the most starkly divisive film of 2018 - a masterpiece of cerebral horror to some, while others found it laughable, literally so. My experience was of two thirds' creep-inducing domestic nightmare, followed by a final act that drowned all the painstakingly-crafted familial psychodrama in hysteria and supernatural lunacy. It simply didn't stick the landing - for me. Horror is deeply subjective after all, plus maybe Hereditary will satisfy more fully on a second viewing. As for Midsommar, it worked like a shuddering charm first time around.
Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor play Dani and Christian, a young couple in a foundering relationship, who travel to Swedish commune, Harga, in order to experience the obscure folk festival that takes place there. For Christian and his college friends it's a fascinating anthropological adventure, for Dani an opportunity to flee the family tragedy that has recently overwhelmed her. But while the setting is idyllic and the locals welcoming, there is more lurking behind the community's pagan rituals than the visitors could ever imagine. The festivities within this unorthodox community become steadily more disconcerting, the sense of foreboding more acute.
I was on edge going in to Midsommar for two reasons. Firstly whatever the contention surrounding Hereditary, it demonstrated the uncompromising approach taken by Aster in both narrative and visual terms. I mean, this guy is willing to bring his audience some seriously uncomfortable places. Secondly the new film's publicity invited comparisons with The Wicker Man - not the oft-ridiculed remake with Nicholas Cage, but 1973's original, the ending of which scared me witless when I watched it as a teen. Small wonder I was pre-spooked.
While there's a lot of Wicker Man going on here, however, Midsommar starts off far from the cultic, portraying a whole different kind of horror in its harrowing domestic prologue. By the time Dani, Christian and friends arrive in Sweden the dysfunction in their characters - both personal and inter-relational - runs deep. And then surreal Nordic beauty takes over. All the shocking events that play out do so under sunlight so bright it threatens to bleach the movie's frames. Aster's striking achievement is to conjure menace from the broad daylight and flower-garlanded gorgeousness of a Swedish folk idyll, as effectively as if it were night. You'll honestly wish the sun would set.
The whole Harga culture is meticulously constructed - its costumes, architecture and vivid runic artwork reminiscent of existing traditions, yet with its own unique and vaguely unsettling flavour. The dance and music has genuine artistry to it - everything is exuberant, too exuberant. It's captivating and disturbing, like one of the hallucinogenic interludes taken by the characters, capable of switching to a very bad trip on any given instant. Aster's camera captures all to aerial or wide-angled perfection, hinting at what festers beneath the pristine, colour-corrected surface. Meanwhile Bobby Krilk's music shifts between shimmering orchestral beauty and atonal freakiness in a contender for most genius film score of the year.
All of this serves as a counterpoint to Pugh's astonishing performance as Dani, a portrayal of grief even more visceral that Toni Collette's in Hereditary. It's gut-wrenching stuff - pain way beyond words, from the girl who brought us the feel-good story of Paige in Fighting With My Family a few months back. The character's dark odyssey is truly mesmerising to witness. Reynor, so likeable in Sing Street, will provoke more ambivalent feelings as boyfriend Christian, though you'll maybe empathise with the sticky relationship territory in which he finds himself. And Will Poulter (Detroit), the obnoxious call-it-like-you-see-it member of the group, is a welcome source of dry humour.
There's a lot of humour in Midsommar, some of it excruciating, but all of it necessary to help you cope with the rising tide of apprehension. Not that the film is a conventional horror in any sense. Despite moments of pure shock, there's something much more insidious going on here. You suspect you know what's on the way, but have no idea how you'll get there, nor exactly how you'll feel once you arrive. This story unnerves, but it's also seductive - treacherously so. And it's not aimed at anyone who doesn't enjoy marinading in anxiety for over two hours, in a place where the prettiness can't distract from the sense that something is very wrong indeed.
I do enjoy that feeling, apparently, but your experience might well be different. Think Scandi noir is unsettling? Welcome to Scandi blanc.Gut Reaction: Harrowed, amused, moved, shocked, intrigued, dazzled, disturbed, freaked and appalled. Not necessarily in that or any coherent order.
Memorable Moment: Look up. Keep looking up. It's not really happening, right?
Ed's Verdict: 9/10. Integrating themes of toxic relationships and grief into its horror, Aster's follow-up feature is an unflinching day-mare, which leads somewhere completely expected, yet weirdly not. It's messed up like Hereditary, only this time I unreservedly love it.