It’s hard to not want to bring up Hereditary when discussing director Ari Aster’s sophomore feature, the anticipated follow-up to his hailed horror debut of last June, which provided an ultimately futile vehicle for Toni Collete’s impassioned Oscar fan campaign. It’s especially hard when such a green director manages to deliver two films in a row (only a year apart, mind you) that are nothing if not measured, strikingly confident, unique and immensely memorable. Crafted with what feels like the steadiest hand imaginable, a clear talent and passion for one’s medium that might make some of us want to crawl into the fetal position in the shower, and just give up trying to succeed in the creative arts entirely.
Of course, comparisons simply must be made to Hereditary – Aster’s second film, Midsommar, feels decidedly like a direct companion piece. Apart from the fact that it’s impossible to entirely factor out how such a successful new director has improved or fallen behind in their second cinematic endeavour, Midsommar echoes so much from its older sibling that they could be fraternal twin sisters. Both films begin by flinging us into the throes of familial grief: in Hereditary, it’s the death of Toni Collete’s character Annie’s demon-worshipping mother; in Midsommar,it’s the murder-suicide of college student Dani’s mother and father, committed by her bipolar sister. Aster has much he wants to tell us about mourning, mental illness, the toxicity of relationships – both inherited and otherwise – and his apparent fear of cults and naked people, that it all spills over into his newest film with ease.
This time, however, there’s a sharper focus on the evils of the romantic and even a bit of the platonic, as opposed to solely the familial. Dani Arbor (Florence Pugh) is processing her trauma from her parents’ and sister’s deaths with the help of her emotionally absent boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). The accident has provided a weak bandage for the couples’ unravelling relationship, a momentary respite from their romantic troubles as Christian halfheartedly stays with Dani in order to help her on her mend. It feels as if the grief begotten from her family’s horrific deaths acts as the catalyst for what Midsommar is actually about – as if the film is using the former successes of its older sibling to propel itself into a work that’s entirely it’s own. And though Midsommar does succeed in being just that – a sharp, symphonic, sun-drenched fever dream – its reluctance to push itself to the anxious extremes of Hereditary not only keeps you all too aware of what Aster did better the first time around, but makes you desperate for more from his follow-up.
In the aftermath of Dani’s traumatic experience, she learns, on accident, that Christian and his friends, Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), have plans to travel to Pelle’s home in north Sweden, a commune called the Hårga. The commune will be observing a special nine-day midsummer celebration in the coming weeks, and the three friends had planned to join Pelle, in part due to anthropology grad student Josh’s interest in pursuing European midsummer festivals for his thesis. Dani hadn’t been invited, nor had she even been told about it by Christian (a contentious topic that flings the couple into an argument ending with Dani giving in and repeating earnestly that “it’s fine”), so he invites her along out of guilt, despite relaying to his friends in secret that she “won’t actually go.” She does, of course.
From the get-go, Pelle is a suspicious character. His eagerness for Dani to join in on his midsummer festivities – as opposed to Mark and Josh’s half indifference, half reluctance – is, perhaps, meant to come off as the hospitality of a person who grew up in an open, loving commune separated from the evils of society, but there’s something unnatural about it amidst Dani’s overbearing despair and his friends’ persistent angst. But he is met by Dani with openness, nonetheless, out of his perceived kindness. His warm, unwavering smile, however, can’t help but seem to harbour a sinister undertone, which permeates through to the welcoming of his friends to his commune by the rest of its members. The commune is equally as warm and welcoming as Pelle; members hug each other fervently, speak intimately, regard each other as family. The sun shines down on the commune almost every hour of the day, bathing them in hot light that seems to radiate from the screen.
The choice to set the film in nearly unending sunlight feels genius; light is notoriously the beacon of safety in horror films, often setting scares at night or in other dim, dark places. There is an unmistakable association between horror and darkness – an expectation for the worst of things to occur shrouded in varying shades of gloom, and for our characters’ protection to be granted by well-lit rooms and daylight. And for Midsommar to be set almost entirely in not just daylight, but daylight so striking and washed-out it renders every colour onscreen a pale, pastel hue, is a deliberate violation of our expectations and senses. It creates a world that feels as open and hospitable as the members of its commune, but simultaneously makes the potential for horrific circumstances that much more unhinged. Neither the dark nor the light is the safety net for our characters in Midsommar. It’s entirely open season for their wellbeing.
And the commune of the Hårga is anything but safe. Within the first 48 hours of their arrival, three out of four of our American friends witness a ritual called an “ättestupa,” the voluntary sacrifice of two of the commune’s elders by jumping off a cliff so that they don’t have to endure the slow death march of ageing. When the latter jumper, an old man, does not perish upon landing, three of the commune’s members bash his face in with a giant mallet to the horror of Dani and Christian (Josh, well-versed in ritualistic sacrifices, already knew what an ättestupa was). There are also more than enough mind-altering drugs to go around, which you can feel forcing our characters into a vulnerable, compromised state due to subtle warpings in the background scenery and other various objects, and the unfaltering glare of a smitten redhead girl who is intent on getting Christian to impregnate her. But it all starts to fall apart after the traumatizing events of the ättestupa, when two other non-members, Londoners Connie (Ellora Torchia) and Simon (Archie Madekew), go missing soon after expressing a vehement desire to leave the commune.
At no point does Midsommar feel its length; the nearly two and a half-hour runtime is subsumed in the spectacle of the film, the overbearing sense of dread and danger, the domineering soundtrack which does less pulsating and throbbing in your chest than Hereditary, but instead simply swells and swallows you whole, consuming your senses entirely. The film is also punctuated by spurts of genuine hilarity, intentional jokes, gags, and one-liners mostly delivered straight-faced by the endlessly entertaining Mark (Poulter is truly great in this), and yet it never feels like an annoying distraction. Mark’s Lyme disease-induced anxieties, bemusement of the commune and desire to fuck a strange Swedish chick never come off as misplaced diversions but as genuine reactions to and fears of the gang’s absurd situation. The comedic aspects of the film further offer an extra layer of levity, an added amount of comfort at a time when all our defences, and our characters’ defences, should be firmly put in place.
As Dani continues to endure flashbacks and panic attacks induced by her family’s death, she struggles to confront the true nature of her relationship with Christian, hiding away in “it’s fines” and “it’s my faults,” even when Christian forgets her own birthday. The trajectory of Dani’s denial to eventual understanding that she must purge herself of her past weaknesses is the only truly realized character plotline of the whole film. There is instability between Christian and Josh, due to Christian eventually deciding that he wants to do his thesis on the Hårga as well, but it feels as if, not only could it have been more fleshed-out, but there could have been more of an increased volatility between the entire friend group. Instead, those threads are left mostly undone, and the film relies more heavily on its slow-burn tension, disturbing imagery and atmospheric flourishes as opposed to a stronger narrative. Even the flashes of genuine nightmare gore feel held back, and in a film so tastefully bombastic and indulgent in nearly every aspect, it wouldn’t have killed to have a little more… fun gross shit, I suppose?
Still, Ari Aster succeeds in how memorable he makes those sparse moments, where he forces us to look when we think we won’t have to. He’s attuned to crafting a horror film that is less focused on scaring us in the moment as it is lingering with us until we are drawn back again and again. Midsommar feels like a weaker second instalment to Aster’s burgeoning filmography, yes, but that isn’t to say it’s not an uncomfortable, unforgettable effort which intertwines hallucinatory trips and cult rituals with trauma, the toxicity of denial, and finding a malignant sort of comfort in an imbalanced relationship. There’s a paralleling between the Hårga hiding itself away in northern Sweden, indulging in its outdated blood sacrifices and absurd customs with the absurdity of Dani dancing around the truth like she dances around the maypole. In the end, perhaps, all we need is a trip to a murderous commune in rural Europe to force us to face the true nature of our failing relationships. Aster has said that this film was inspired by a bad breakup – maybe Midsommar is actually a biopic.
By Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favourite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs