Written and directed by: Ari Aster
Ari Aster’s Hereditary had a lot going for it. It features memorable acting performances, and visually and conceptually horrifying scenes. It also weaves a complex mosaic of horror motifs together to create something new. Nonetheless, my review of Hereditary was not particularly positive. Essentially, I felt all of Hereditary’s strong points failed to blend. After keeping viewers at the edge of their seats through a series of horror happenings, Hereditary ends witha big reveal that’s too vague to feel like a reveal at all.
I ended up liking Midsommar better than Hereditary, but not because it corrects the former film’s flaws. Instead, in Midsommar, Aster doubles down on his strengths, creating a work that is enticing and terrifying enough that viewers should not be too put off by its vague and meandering qualities.
Midsommar is largely set in a mysterious Swedish commune. It’s worth noting that this a choice that allows Aster to explore a theme of “ethnic otherness,” without risking seeming bigoted or insensitive. The Swedish context also allowed Aster to put together an overpoweringly beautiful visual experience, that combines folkloric art with idyllic shots of cliffs and meadows.
The film does not start beautifully, however. Many of its early scenes are shot in (perhaps too much) darkness (the literal matches the figurative). We are introduced to protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh), who appears to suffer from some sort of anxiety-related mental illness while simultaneously facing a family tragedy.
Shortly after Dani, we are introduced to her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) and his three graduate-student-aged friends: Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Christian’s friends try to convince him that dating Dani is not worth the emotional toll, but Christian insists that staying in the relationship is the right thing to do. This is not to say that Christian handles his relationship perfectly, however. When his friend group plans a trip to Sweden (to visit Pelle’s commune), Christian doesn’t feel comfortable either including or excluding Dani, so he awkwardly avoids telling her until the last minute, at which point he invites her to join them .
In the film’s first act Aster sets up viewers to expect a relationship drama. He raises questions such as “What responsibility do people have to care for loved ones whose needs can be mysterious and overwhelming?.” In these early moments, Aster sets up Christian as a flawed-but-loyal male protagonist, and while Mark serves as his outwardly selfish and peer-pressuring foil. Mark, however, rendered palatable via his somewhat goofy disposition.
Based on the film’s first act one might expect Aster to continue to strive to get the most out of Mark as a character, and to centre his story around Dani and Christian as co-protagonists. Both Christian and Mark’s prominence fades, however, as the commune and its inhabitants come to take centre-stage.
Christian’s other two friends, Pelle and Josh, also find their way into the script. Pelle’s status as an ambassador figure between the North American and Swedish characters gives him sustained prominence, whereas Josh, who seems a bit redundant early in the film, is given brief prominence in its middle. One can argue that the three North American men: Mark, Josh and Christian function as some sort of trio out of a fairy-tale fable, where each represents a character flaw that stems from our society. 1) Mark’s story teaches us not to be selfish 2) Josh’s story teaches us not to be so career driven that one misses ones other responsibilities 3) Christian’s story… well I think the worst thing that can be said about Christian is that he is overly passive and thus fails to be a good support system for Dani. The problem with Aster’s handling of these characters, however, is that it is not consistent. Mark and especially Josh aren’t given sufficient stage time to give their characters the charisma they undoubtedly could display. Christian meanwhile, is written inconsistently in a way that doesn’t make sense. Aster clearly wants viewers to notice that Christian forgets Dani’s birthday, but he doesn’t reconcile this with the original-version of Christian who clearly stands up for Dani, despite his friends’ suggestion that he break up with her.
Midsommar has a lot of arguably-present themes. It can be seen as a story, for instance, that challenges us not to judge other cultures without looking for our own moral shortcomings. This message, however, is a difficult sell given that the flaws of the North American characters appear far subtler than the horrors they are faced with. More broadly, the film could be seen as promoting self-empowerment, a call for people to question their support systems and consider drastic change where it is necessary for their mental health. But if this is a moral agenda, it’s one that film seems to advocate for with no regard for proportionality. Aster’s moral-narrative resembles (and was perhaps inspired by) Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal (2017), but Aster’s commitment to stunning horror, robs his work of the emotional nuance that makes the older film morally compelling.
Aster’s proportionality problem goes beyond morality and extends to some of his image choices. In one scene, viewers are made to watch a car drive upside down. It’s a surprisingly unique visual, and I suppose it represents Dani’s disorientedness, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling out of place and low-key motion-sickness inducing.
Ari Aster is a deeply enticing filmmaker, but as with Hereditary, Midsommar has more appeal if one thinks of it as a collage of lots of stunning (and sometimes excruciatingly violent) images, rather than a satisfying narrative. Midsommar has it all: black comedy, cinematography and charismatic figures. Having it all is not necessarily “enough,” but in the case of this film, it produces a product that if not perfect, is undoubtedly bedazzling