Not that it a matters a great deal, but going into Midsommar, you should note that it’s not really a horror film. In fact, you could argue that it’s closer to a romantic comedy. That isn’t to say that there isn’t gut wrenching imagery splattered throughout, but the consistent humour and strained relationships which take centre stage rise above the macabre.
After an extreme and arguably unnecessary opening, we are led to believe that we’ll be pummelled with torment throughout, but this quickly dissipates as we focus on the breakdown of Dani (excellently played by Florence Pugh) and Christian’s (Jack Harper) four year relationship. After deciding that joining Christian and his friends on their trip to a remote Swedish commune will help with her trauma, Dani is thrown into situations that she is in no way comfortable with, yet endures to appease her distracted and emotionally absent boyfriend.
The film focuses on the importance of family and community, and is flavoured with cultural clashes, psychedelic drug use and jaw-dropping gore. The beautiful score, courtesy of The Haxan Cloak (you may know him from early 2010’s releases on dark wave label Tri Angle), is a perfect accompaniment to the stunning and truly innovative visuals. Director Ari Aster uses a combination of fluid camera work and trippy visual effects to disorientate and make the audience question if what they are seeing is actually happening. The attention to detail in the set design is immersive, and despite a sunny and even cartoonish aesthetic, the village of Hårga feels frighteningly real. Midsommar is fresh, vibrant, and stylistically unique, however it does tread a lot of the same ground as the films which have inspired it.
Midsommar and Hereditary
It’s difficult not to compare the film to Aster’s debut effort, the fantastically twisted Hereditary. Midsommar follows an almost identical trajectory to Hereditary, touching on the same themes, however where Hereditary plunges you into the unknown, it becomes evident very quickly where we’re going to end up here. And that’s disappointing.
Hereditary is a film about how internalised grief and depression can lead to the breakdown in relationships, whereas in Midsommar, it’s Dani’s externalisation and dependence on her boyfriend which drives the story. The subtle ways in which tension is handled in Hereditary means that the shocks are amplified, but if there’s one thing Midsommar is not, it’s subtle. Gore is driven home with a giant hammer (pun absolutely intended), and in terms of story the whole thing unfortunately feels a little too familiar. From The Wicker Man to The Witch, the film wears its inspirations proudly on its sleeve but does little to develop the ideas presented in them.
Ari Aster has been hailed as the new master of horror, innovating a genre which many perceive to have grown tired. He has a knack for intentionally confusing audiences; showing you bizarre imagery and asking “What do you think of that”? The same scene can draw terror from one person, and hysterical laughter from another, which, in a film with so many one-liners and moments of levity, aren’t helpful when creating tension and genuine horror. For example, during a particularly disturbing scene involving psychedelic drugs and nudity, the entire audience in the screening I was in were guffawing. Creating these types of polarised responses can only have been intentional and do add to the distorted way in which the story is presented, so it’s a shame that these moments can also stop the film in its tracks.
Midsommar is gorgeous, excellently crafted but at times feels like a series of grotesque set pieces strung together by a tried and tested narrative. While I was desperate to love it, I can’t say that I did. There are many technical aspects of the film to gush over, and it’s clear that Ari Aster has already established himself as an accomplished auteur, however there was something missing from the film. It may have been the lack of interesting characters (Dani aside), nuanced interactions between them, or a fresh take on the folk horror genre.
Interestingly, Aster claims that Midsommar is his first horror film, stating that Hereditary was a “family drama”. I’m not sure who’s buying that, as Midsommar is undeniably less frightening and feels a lot less icky than its darker predecessor. There is much to love here and if you are even slightly curious, you absolutely must see it in the cinema, but if you’re expecting a tense and harrowing experience akin to Hereditary, you may be left wanting.