Ari Aster’s second film—which is about as far from a sophomore slump as Sweden is from the states, or the opening shot is from the rest of the movie—begins amidst snowfall, several images of dense green forest shrouded in a fuzzy white-grey blur immediately subverting aesthetic expectations formed by the glaringly bright trailers we’ve seen for Midsommar (which several cast members pronounced “mid-summer” opposed to “mid-soh-mar”). Those sunny expectations are eventually met and sustained, but not before they’re contrasted to Dani’s (an impeccable Florence Pugh) smothering depression, the heart of this bucolic, folksy, transcendental horror.
We meet her misery in the second shot, the first we see of Dani: a screen-filling single take of her quivering face—aptly paralleled by the poster filled with her weeping half-face—so minutely expressive it could hold its own 140-minute runtime and keep audiences on the edge of their seats. She speaks eagerly on the phone with Christian (Jack Reynor), her boyfriend of four years. He has an exasperated, disinterested tone and an appetite to bail on hanging out later. They get in a little tiff over how much time she spends worrying about her bipolar sister, but, despite her legitimate concerns, Dani shies away from the conflict, fearing that any disagreement might be the straw that breaks the back of their relationship.
The proximity of the phone-call-face-shot establishes a formal and thematic intimacy that serves as a constant throughout the film—heavy zooms, deep interpersonal relations, unspoken feelings, feverish fear, inconceivable trauma. We experience this isolated dread before the main setting so that we don’t forget what Dani feels like inside, regardless of how beautiful her Swedish surroundings will be later on.
The other constant established in said shot is the all too terribly familiar concept of a looming breakup—which will grip most audience members with an unfortunate relatability from the get-go—and the jockeying of empathy and apathy that accompanies it. After all, this is a breakup movie in the most essential sense. Aster said so himself. “I wrote this when I was going through a breakup” was the only commentary the writer/director offered before the screening. However, Christian doesn’t have the gall to cut the cord on their crumbling, one-sided relationship. And before he can work it up, tragedy strikes.
He answers a call from Dani only to be whacked by the immediate sound of the most guttural, unbearable sobbing you could imagine. Think: Michaela Odone wailing over her little boy in Lorenzo’s Oil or the assailing screams of Sarah Palmer in the Twin Peaks pilot episode. It hurts to hear, and it hurts even more to envision. The sobbing also institutes a pervasive sense of disorientation (what better sense could help people relate to a breakup?)—a tool Aster wields masterfully in order to imbue the audience with titillating confusion and fear from start to finish. In the first act, he films countless conversations through mirrors, leaving us a bit confused as to where everybody is in each shot, a perfect metaphor for what will unfold.
Dani’s tragedy puts Christian in a place where he feels he can’t sever their connection, so the dysfunctional relationship limps on. Soon after, Dani finds out that Christian is planning on going to Sweden with his doctoral candidate stoner bros Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to study midsummer festivals for Josh’s anthropology dissertation. Pelle promises to bring them to his Swedish hometown village of Harga where they celebrate a lesser known midsummer festival. Much to Mark and Josh’s displeasure, Christian pity-invites Dani and she agrees to come, hoping it will be a fruitful time away from home where painful memories linger.
They land and start the four-hour drive to the countryside. The disorientation sets in immediately. Aster shoots the road from the perspective of the driver, but he flips the camera upside down, turning the street into the sky and the viridescent trees into its clouds. After the drive, they take a confusingly long hike through the forest and eventually emerge in a haven of green, grassy plains sprinkled with cheery, blonde, pagan, white-linen-adorned Swedish folk—Pelle’s kin. It is a clandestine, otherworldly phantasmagoria of flowers and summery smiles. The group is enthusiastically embraced, welcomed to the celestial homeland, and promptly offered some natural hallucinogenic plant. They indulge.
Another example of Aster’s effective use of disorientation, everything swirls like a psychotropic dream. Faces deform slightly, Dani hallucinates grass growing through her hand from the ground, and time disappears into the seemingly eternal sunshine. This is the first of their many trips, almost all of which go terribly for Dani. In fact, they’re rarely not tripping on something. The solstice rituals include a constant influx of psychedelic drug and drink. Although we go in blind and many of the Swedish lines go un-subtitled (another intentional work of disorientation and secrecy), we are informed that the festival of Harga is a nine-day festival that takes place every 90 years.
Their Edenic land has a sparse infrastructure, but each building they do occupy is a gorgeously designed piece of architectural or artistic brilliance (major kudos to production designer Henrik Svensson for what seems like a set worthy of The Shire tourist treatment) that sets the stage for every scene magnificently, regardless of whether it sits in the background or houses a conversation. Their society is founded on and guided by their esoteric scriptures and arcane traditions—Aster says he fashioned these from the recesses of Norse and German folklore—but it’s unclear as to what that entails exactly. Sure, they come across as cultish, but Aster does a great job shirking a typical creepy cult vibe. If anything, the surreal and celestial moods take center stage, and the whole thing feels more Elysian than it does Satanic or hellish.
The Halcyon days (or half-day) of tripping out in sweeping pastoral fields abruptly comes to an end after the first ceremony of the fest, but most everything from there is heavy spoiler territory. The film doesn’t devolve all at once. It’s a slow burn of a thrill, and each development carries significant weight, even if not on the surface. Don’t be fooled by any “shave off 20 minutes” takes out there. Aster is as deliberate as filmmakers get. He constructs a methodical development—both literal and tonal—that plunges from heavy breathing into hyperventilation into collective screaming and weeping into utter shock, and each turn delivers a necessary piece of the story.
For all the trembling it inspires, Midsommar is unexpectedly hilarious (Poulter, in particular, plays a kind of reactionary, misogynistic, clumsy comic relief). There’s talk of meatball sex clubs, a joke about Waco’s Branch Davidians, an ordained lotto ball of “voluntary” death, and a consistent stream of little jokes that keep the nervous laughter flowing. Hell, even the phrase “traffic laws” gets a laugh-out-loud punchline. And whatever you do, don’t miss the uproarious butt-pushing scene in the heat of the penultimate climax. It’s bound to make its way into every year-end film compilation.
Of course, the comparisons to Hereditary, Aster’s only other film to date, are already floating in the ether, waiting to fall upon us like the fire of Pentecost on July 2. And frankly, there are quite a few worth mentioning. Both fit into that fascinating and controversial corner of “elevated horror” (or arthouse horror, or whatever you want to call it), in which big scares take a backseat to persistent tremors, and critical thinking is imperative. Both films share an incredible string-heavy score that’s much more ethereal than it is scary, stunning cinematography, gruesome head violence, and an omnipresent family tragedy. Both pose the question: what do we inherit from our ancestors and why?
But Midsommar forks off into its own exploration of that question as it prospects what it means to embody others’ pain, to empathize with compassion and communal conviction. What does relational reciprocity look like? How should we approach solidarity in the face of trauma? Is being present to someone in need merely a matter of understanding the sheet music of emotions that the situation asks us to read and perform? If so, should we? And what happens if we don’t?
Aster’s paradisal purge of a vision is centered on this exploration of trauma therapy according to his own breakup experience (which he wisely gender-swapped to parallel himself to Dani). It’s about the difference between empathy, sympathy, and apathy, or as the film puts it, saying sorry and meaning it compared to saying sorry and meaning “too bad.” It’s dark (he cautiously referred to it as his Dogville), yet idyllic; ambitious, yet recondite; floral, yet infernal.
For those that this appeals to, I can almost guarantee a vast sense of release upon the final shot, which serves as both a narrative respite and a jailbreak from the prison of hot summer garbage that’s been dumped on us in 2019. But whatever you do, don’t judge the film too quickly. From the use of Hebraic and biblical names to the immaculate wall design of the sleeping barn, there’s an entire world to ponder in Midsommar. This is an idiosyncratic, operatic film that packs quite a few punches to places you’re probably not guarding. And recognizing that it’s about Aster, it’s worth considering that his breakup is over, and—as he reminded us after the screening—he’s “better now.”