by Stephen Campbell - Is this helpful?
_**Very poorly advertised as something it isn't; will be sure to frustrate and impress in equal measure**_
> _Methought I was enamoured of an ass._
- William Shakespeare; _A Midsummer Night's Dream_ (1595)
>_Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed_
>_offerings to idols, swore oaths_
>_that the killer of souls might come to their aid_
>_and save the people. That was their way,_
>_their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts_
>_they remembered hell._
- Seamus Heaney; _Beowulf: A Verse Translation_ (1999)
Much like his feature debut, the excellent _Hereditary_ (2018), writer/director Ari Aster's _Midsommar_ has divided audiences much more than critics. Whereas _Hereditary_ had an 89% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 8.26/10, it managed only a 65% audience approval rating, with an average score of 3.43/5, whilst also famously garnering a pitiful D+ CinemaScore. _Midsommar_ currently has an 82% critical approval with a 7.51/10 average, against a 61% audience approval, with a 3.36/5 average and a C+ CinemaScore. This recalls recent films such as Robert Eggers's _The VVitch: A New England Folktale_ (90% with a 7.77/10 average vs 58% with a 3.22/5 average and a C- CinemaScore) and Trey Edward Shults's superb _It Comes At Night_ (87% with a 7.36/10 average vs 44% with a 2.75/5 average and a D CinemaScore). The reason for the discrepancies? In large part it's because all four films were promoted as something they weren't, drawing in audiences who were disappointed that they didn't get what they were expecting; all four were heavily promoted as horrors, when none in fact are (and in the case of _It Comes At Night_, not even remotely close). As for _Midsommar_, it is, at best, a thriller, and I would argue that even that's pushing it. Whereas _Hereditary_ was a study of grief and familial breakdown, it undeniably had horror elements (the floating self-decapitation scene is one of the most haunting images put on screen in decades). In the case of _Midsommar_, however, apart from one very brief moment involving somebody wearing somebody else's skin (don't ask), there's nothing remotely resembling a horror trope, and very little that's thrilling. Which is not necessarily a criticism; I enjoyed the film very much, I simply think the marketing people have once again set the movie up to fail with a lot of the people who will see it.
What _Midsommar_ does have in abundance, however, is dread, which is, of course, very different to horror. More unsettling than frightening, as with _Hereditary_, _Midsommar_ is primarily an allegory built on a foundation of generic tropes – both films begin with paralysing tragedies that almost cripple the protagonist, with the subsequent narrative analysing the psychological reaction to such tragedies by way of various spooky goings-on. And whereas _Hereditary_ dealt with the lengths one may go to shut off deep emotional pain, _Midsommar_ is more interested in what happens when the initial pain of bereavement starts to wear off, especially when the only person one feels one can turn to isn't exactly sympathetic to one's situation. Aster himself has called it a "_breakup movie_", and it's hard to argue against this categorisation, as the story begins and ends with very specific relationship drama. And whilst the characters are grossly underwritten, and the film is painfully predictable (if you're familiar with Robin Hardy's _The Wicker Man_ (1973), chances are that everything you think is going to happen in _Midsommar_ does happen), it's beautifully crafted, brilliantly shot almost entirely in glaring sunlight, and vastly ambitious in scope (it runs 147 minutes). Indeed, it's the type of film where you can tell the director was given an unusual amount of freedom to fulfil their vision. And whilst that can often result in unmitigated disaster (think filmmakers such as Michael Cimino, Richard Kelly, and David Robert Mitchell), much like Jordan Peele's _Us_ (2019), _Midsommar_ avoids the dreaded sophomore slump without necessarily knocking it out of the park.
The film begins as Dani Ardor (a superb Florence Pugh) is hit with the kind of tragedy from which many would find it impossible to recover - her bipolar sister has killed their parents and subsequently committed suicide. Already emotionally fragile and prone to anxiety attacks even before their deaths, the incident sends Dani spiralling into despair, turning for support to her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), an anthropology student struggling to find a topic for his PhD thesis. Unfortunately, for some time, Christian has wanted to break things off with Dani, as he finds her overly needy, and he had been trying to work up to ending the relationship when her family died. The following summer, Dani learns that Christian and fellow students Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) have been invited by Swedish student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to his ancestral pagan commune in Hårga, where a midsummer celebration that only occurs once every ninety years will be taking place, with Josh planning to write his PhD thesis on the festival, and Mark planning to have sex with as many Swedish girls as he can. Dani is upset that Christian didn't tell her about the trip, and to placate her, he invites her to come, never imagining she will say yes. But she does, much to Mark's disgust, and so the foursome accompany Pelle to Sweden, meeting the disturbingly polite and welcoming members of the commune, as well as English students Connie (Ellora Torchia) and Simon (Archie Madekwe), who were invited by Pelle's brother Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg). It doesn't take long, however, for the visitors to learn that things aren't exactly kosher in the commune - whether it's the elderly couple who fling themselves from the top of a cliff, the pies with pubic hair in them, the "oracle" child specifically bred through incest, the caged bear who seems to have no function in the festival, the strange yellow pyramid building which they are forbidden from entering, the elaborate murals depicting violence and torture, or the communal wailing.
_Midsommar_ originally began life as a slasher movie set in a Swedish commune, until Aster revised the script to focus on a toxic relationship after going through a particularly bad breakup himself. Christian is your garden variety manipulator, who uses Dani's emotional vulnerability against her. For example, in a brilliantly written early scene, after she has learned about the trip, she's understandably upset that he didn't tell her about it, but in the space of just a couple of minutes he manipulates her into apologising to _him_. The core of the story is Dani slowly coming to realise that Christian isn't the man she thought he was, and in a weird way, it's a variation on the female revenge genre. However, whereas usually it's revenge for rape or assault, here it's revenge for being a complete and utter dick. In this sense, the film is primarily an allegory for the process of a young woman's emotional/spiritual awakening independent of the man on whom she thought she had to rely. Indeed, one could take this even further if one reads the character names as symbolic; Dani's surname is Ardor, but she is denied love and passion, and in the paganism of the commune, she's offered something she can't get from a self-serving Christian(ity). Whether _Midsommar_ works for you or not will depend largely on how you respond to this element of the story - if you buy into the notion that Christian is the _de facto_ villain, and that Dani is an emotionally scarred young woman looking for support, you'll get a lot more out of it than if you think Dani is a needy whinger and Christian would do well to be rid of her.
Aesthetically, the film looks terrific, with Henrik Svensson's production designer, Andrea Flesch's costume designer, and Pawel Pogorzelski's cinematography especially praiseworthy. Whereas the US scenes are dark and confined, taking place in small poorly lit rooms with the characters wearing drab costumes, once the film shifts to Sweden, the visual design changes completely. The production design emphasises an open-plan vastness with unlimited space to move, but few places to hide; the cinematography drenches everything in glaring sunlight, which, again, makes it hard to hide; and the costume design focuses on brilliant white, with a smattering of colour. Unlike the vast majority of horror movies, there are few shadows or dark corners, but the film is shot in such a way that the very lack of such is itself disconcerting. The same is true for the always pristine costumes, which suggest that something is just not quite right underneath the veneer of cleanliness and insincere sense of perfection. Indeed, the attention to detail in the presentation of the commune is immensely impressive; the long middle act doesn't really feature much in the way of narrative incident, but it sure does a fine job of creating a _milieu_ that feels completely authentic and lived-in.
There are also some nice individual moments. For example, the choral singing with which the film begins is harshly interrupted by a telephone ringing, suggesting the clash between tradition and modernity that will play out throughout; Dani's hysterical crying upon learning of her family's deaths blends seamlessly with Bobby Krlic's wonderfully discordant music; a superb single-take shot takes Dani from heading to her apartment bathroom to entering the bathroom of an airplane; a high altitude shot showing a car travelling along a country road is imbued with malevolent undercurrent as the car passes under the camera, but rather than turning around to pick the vehicle up on the reverse angle, the camera follows the car by turning downwards, ending up upside-down, signalling to the viewer that things have changed irrevocably for the characters, as if they have crossed a barrier of some kind.
In terms of the narrative design, somewhat unusually, the film wears its predictability on its sleeve, with many of the major narrative beats not only foreshadowed but literally shown to the audience prior to occurring in the story, whether it be the mural that opens the film or the illustrations seen on the walls all over the commune – the _dénouement_ isn't simply hinted at, it's all-but presented to us from the outset. With that in mind, anyone who has seen any folk horror will be able to predict much of what happens. Even if you're only familiar with _The Wicker Man_, you'll still be able to take a decent stab at how things are going to turn out. Of course, this allows the audience to roundly mock the characters' utter obliviousness to what's coming, which is presumably the point. You know that scene in most horror films where you think to yourself "how can they not realise something nasty is going to happen"? _Midsommar_ is like a 147-minute version of that one scene.
As for the acting, much as _Hereditary_ was Toni Collette's, _Midsommar_ belongs entirely to Florence Pugh, who's going from strength-to-strength at the moment. For most of the film, she's on the precipice of a nervous breakdown, with her performance redolent of Shelley Duval in Stanley Kubrick's _The Shining_ (1980). Pugh has already impressed in films as varied as Carol Morley's _The Falling_ (2014), William Oldroyd's _Lady Macbeth_ (2016), Richard Eyre's _King Lear_ (2018) and Stephen Merchant's _Fighting With My Family_ (2019), but _Midsommar_ is easily her best and most layered performance thus far, especially the gamut of contradictory emotions she runs in the batshit insane last 20 minutes. Elsewhere, the performances are all fine, but the actors aren't helped by the script. As Christian, Jack Reynor plays, well, Jack Reynor. There's nothing really wrong with the performance (although he is the least convincing academic ever put on screen), and he does do a decent job of getting the audience to loathe his passive-aggressive persona, but there isn't a huge amount of depth. The same is true of Will Poulter, who plays Mark as the kind of ignorant sex-crazed loudmouth that seems to only exist in the movies and who is never characterised beyond this caricature. As Josh, William Jackson Harper, although a far more believable academic than Reynor, barely registers, whilst Vilhelm Blomgren's Pelle is so one-note and obviously untrustworthy that it pushes suspension of disbelief to breaking point.
As this might suggest, one of the biggest problems with the film is the underwritten characters. This is especially true of Christian, a boyfriend so selfish and uncaring, one wonders how he ever wooed Dani in the first place. Additionally, their relationship is demarcated along painfully stereotypical lines – the emotional female whose need for support becomes overwhelming and the thoughtless bro who is more interested in hanging out with the boys than comforting his girlfriend. Another issue is that even aside from the character of Pelle, the film pushes the suspension of disbelief too far. There are multiple moments when the goings-on in the commune should prompt the visitors to leave immediately, but apart from a few weak attempts by Dani to persuade the others to go, they repeatedly accept the most ridiculous of situations based upon the most tenuous of explanations. Indeed, in a lot of ways, they're no different from the horny idiots who get picked off one by one in so many cheap slasher films. Furthermore, it doesn't help that initially Josh is depicted as an expert on paganism, and is familiar with many aspects of the festival, but later on, the script conveniently forgets about this when necessary.
Thematically, things are also quite jumbled. Whilst the core theme of a toxic relationship is present to one degree or another throughout, and Aster actually has some interesting things to say about complicity in such relationships, a lot of other ideas are thrown into the mix without really going anywhere – death, renewal, paganism itself, the nature of grief (and given the strong opening, that Aster allows this theme to drop off is especially disappointing). Additionally, as already mentioned, there are few surprises here. Aster is obviously a big fan of the subgenre of folk horror, but he allows reverence to the tropes supersede any kind of narrative inventiveness, leading to predictability, and as insane as the last 20 minutes are, nothing really happens that surprised me. Also, as in _Hereditary_, the explanation for what's going on isn't anywhere near as interesting as the ambiguity preceding it, making explicit something which was so deeply unsettling when implicit.
That all said, however, I did enjoy _Midsommar_. Not as disturbing as _Herditary_, it finds Aster again working with dread rather than quintessential horror tropes. Aesthetically impressive, and built on a terrific central performance, it could be accused of style over substance or cited as an example of a filmmaker whose ambitions outweigh his abilities, but ultimately, Aster's mastery of tone sees him through. The script could use some work, no doubt, but the ominous sense of dread is palpable throughout and is brilliantly handled, with the most mundane of objects imbued with haunting portentousness. The _dénouement_ is more rote than I expected, and although Aster tries to tackle too many issues, his depiction of the death throes of a toxic relationship is as penetrating and emotionally honest as any ostensible relationship drama. Unnerving and audacious, _Midsommar_ is, ultimately, an exceptionally confident piece of filmmaking, if not necessarily an exceptional piece of filmmaking.