After a short break, I’m back and talking about what might be my favourite film of the year so far…
It’s taken me a little while to get to grips with Midsommar. I’ll be honest, I was hyping myself up a lot for this one, and there’s always a risk with films you’re excited for to fall short on delivering, after the expectation has been built up so highly in one’s mind.
After writer and director Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary back in 2017, those who left the auditorium satisfied – like me for instance, albeit with reservations – quickly got to wondering what the filmmaker would do next. As it would turn out, Aster has since returned to the horror genre with Midsommar.
Well…it’s a horror film on paper, and Aster seems at least convinced that that’s where the film sits, but after a lot of consideration I think it’s a somewhat different beast.
Where Hereditary leant into the drama and trauma of a grieving, dysfunctional family to get its conflict and tensions, Midsommar plays out against the ending of a romantic relationship between American couple Christian and Dani, played respectively by Jack Reynor, and Florence Pugh in yet another stellar performance.
Dani is in mourning after a harrowing bereavement, and Christian – more out of obligation than affection – invites his girlfriend along to what was planned as a trip to Europe with his friends, hoping the change of scenery will get her out of her blues. Dani acquiesces and the group travel to Sweden, to stay with and study the Hårga, a secluded and secretive community to which one of the group belongs, just as the celebrations for Midsommar begin.
Suffice it to say, not all of these celebrations are a lot of fun for their participants.
If one were trying to label this film based on that description alone, they would be very likely to consider it a folk horror. As such, there are certainly a few shades of Robin Hardy’s classic The Wicker Man to be found here – as with every other horror film set around a Pagan commune since that film was released – but Ari Aster’s sophomore effort does more than enough to stand out on its own as a new touchstone for the genre.
A lot of this comes down to the decision to mostly stray away from the shadows, and cast the film’s most horrific moments in broad daylight, once Midsommar moves on from its dark, doom-laden prologue. It’s a creative choice which sets the film apart from the majority of modern horror, including Aster’s own debut, and makes for some beautifully shot sequences which are utterly unforgettable – in the most unpleasant way.
The Hårga are no one-dimensional creepy cultists either; Aster devotes a lot of the film’s running time to establishing how things work in their little piece of Nordic paradise, and his writing allows us to see the people behind the unspeakable acts of violence. There’s a real feeling that the cult was intended to be viewed with a great amount of respect for their beliefs and practices (the Americans are there intending to study them after all), that even when events veer into the realm of the absurd, there’s never a sense of the film’s focus being lost for the sake of gory slapstick.
Slapstick being the operative word, because for a large amount of the running time one could almost be forgiven for thinking this is more of a break-up comedy at times than a straight-up horror. In fact, Ari Aster has gone on record to say that this film was made in the wake of a difficult break-up, hence making the film’s central conflict that of a relationship on the wane.
In a weird twist, the feeling I had from the film more than anything, and this was definitely a consequence of the aforementioned breakup drama, was catharsis. Florence Pugh’s stellar turn as the victim of immense trauma, forced to come to terms with her situation as everything else around her descends into chaos, is a performance for the ages. She’s been absolutely incredible in everything she’s done so far in her career, and Midsommar feels like the jewel in the crown for Pugh. Against her, Jack Reynor has a bit of a thankless task playing the unsympathetic boyfriend; it’s essentially the antagonist role of the film, and that’s with the sinister Pagan cult in the mix too. He plays that support role well though, and as his character Christian sinks to lower and lower depths, so does Dani ascend.
Just as Jordan Peele did with his brilliant sophomore effort Us earlier this year, Ari Aster has overcome the danger of the difficult second movie, and may have even surpassed what I thought wouldn’t be beaten for me this year.
Where Hereditary had proclaimed Aster as a name to remember as a feature writer and director, Midsommar is a challenge to horror filmmakers to meet the bar he just raised. It’s a beautiful, bleak, at one point unbearable experience, but the film left me feeling uplifted and easily one of, if not the best film of the year so far.