By Caleb Carter
Ever needed a good cry?
Last year, Hereditary proved to be a runaway success: a candle-lit, black nightmare of familial leashes and compounded trauma that shocked audiences worldwide. This year, the writer/director, Ari Aster returns with Midsommar, a film that evades categorization. Described by Aster as an “adult fairytale”, a “dark comedy” and “a breakup movie” all at once, the ambitious sophomore effort might prove to be one of the more disorienting and confusing cinematic experiences in recent memory. But one thing that is concretely evident whilst watching the film is how much creative command Aster has been allowed on the project and giving clever, creative people a lot of money and a lot of freedom is a rare and beautifully unpredictable thing. Where Hereditary was nothing (too) new, told to water-tight perfection, Midsommar is a chaotic romp to places you have never seen: so brimming with ideas and craft that it overflows and leaves a big, flowery, fucked-up mess. Puberty in a filmmakers career is as exciting and melodramatic as it sounds and Aster invites you to observe the mess, then like a shrugging teenager doesn’t seem to care whether you enjoyed it or not. But, I did.
Following a couple who, with their student friends, attend a once-a-century festival in middle-of-nowhere Sweden, Midsommar is orchestrated like a bad trip: where you will never be on the same wavelength as friends with smiles that wide and you sweat, hunched over whilst the sky perpetually falls. Like a sweeping landscape painting that refuses to hang straight, everything in Midsommar is just a bit off, everything makes your heart beat just a bit too fast – an attempt to do the same for anxiety and derealization that Hereditary did so well for grief.
The most surprising part of the film is how funny it is, at first in Will Poulter’s consistently brilliant comedic relief but then later in the film’s sadistic absurdity; when faced with scenes so uniquely unnerving, you might find yourself laughing and then double-checking that the rest of the audience is too. Structurally and thematically balletic, Midsommar depicts a morbid, Paganistic merging of the earth’s natural processes and human stubbornness – so equally gorgeous and gruesome, you wonder if our characters will be turned inside-out to reveal a pungent bouquet of guts. Because of the lengthy inhale/exhale that is Midsommar’s 150 minute run time, areas of the character writing can leave something to be desired but the cast still does a stellar job (British actors playing American roles also enforces the uncanny) and Florence Pugh, in particular, is immense as our broken protagonist. Wrapping your head around how someone might present repression in a performance is one thing, actually acting it is another. From her first close-up onscreen, Pugh’s dance around naturalism and stifled tragedy is almost uncomfortably truthful. We are immediately convinced that this is someone who has been emotionally silenced by those around her and gas-lit at the first signs of sadness, so that the lump in her throat grows to a choking grief that begs to be released.
And though the character development has been criticized as overlong or slow (and, at times, it is), it also means that the film escalates towards a climactic, psychedelic purge that is nothing short of cathartic; as carnal wails once latent roll across fjords to a heavenly score that confuses the terror for a perverse ecstasy.
That confusion feels new. And ultimately, though it is certainly indulgent, Midsommar is that exciting type of movie that affirms current filmmaking. We could imagine studio execs as looming, bland overlords who only allow the same distribution of the same few variations of numbing drink; but searching will reveal a few underground speakeasies who will serve you pretty cocktails that give you nightmares. Despite its many shortcomings, it is exactly this sort of cultural landscape that makes films like Midsommar – that scramble in every direction all at once – feel so honest and imperative. It’s like colour is fighting back.