Movie Review: Midsommar

Content warning: Multiple suicides.

Midsommar is a film about a group of students who, at the behest of their Swedish colleague, take a research trip to his secluded commune in the far north of the country. They are there to attend and observe the midsummer festivities, but when it becomes clear this ceremony is far outside the ordinary, the group gets suspicious and begins to disappear. The film stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, and Vilhelm Blomgren. It is written and directed by Ari Aster.

I put the content warning up at the top because this film while it is considered horror, is not "scary," but grim. In the first scenes we see Dani, played magnificently by Florence Pugh, as she tries to get ahold of her sister, or any of her immediate family, after she receives a dark e-mail from her sister. It turns out the sister has committed suicide and has taken their parents with her. It's a gruesome scene and one that's etched in my memory.

That's the kind of filmmaker Ari Aster is, though. He's not a provocateur, in that he doesn't wallow or revel in the grotesque nature of his films, he treats the fantastical as banal. He explores the darkest parts of people without exploiting them. In Midsommar he builds the world of the people of Halsingland, their comfort with their own traditions never feels like a false front. Even those that have been to the outside world, lived outside the community, don't come back to change everything, they come back for their sense of normal. In films like this the cult members may drop the facade or show their true evil, but in Midsommar, it's just another festival. There is no facade, just a day to day life.

That comfort with what's going on and why they have their rituals is likely why Dani is drawn to them and why Pelle encouraged her to come on the trip despite everyone else's insistence she would ruin it. After her tragedy, she seeks the comfort of a life where people care about her pain and who love her through it. Her boyfriend is distant and wishy washy. He can't or won't meet her where she is, but he also can't seem to do the right thing and break up with her. We watch as Dani goes from shocked, to calm, to strong and accepting. She no longer looks at herself the way she used to.

Aster shoots into mirrors in this film. I interpreted it in a sense of characters on opposing sides of view, but it could also harken to the fact that the characters are experiencing two different worlds. It's especially evident in the scene when Christian invites Dani up to the apartment and only casually mentions to the others that he's invited Dani on the trip to Sweden. Then, when Dani arrives, she and Christian are seen through the mirror as they're in their own world, their own bubble outside of the group. I love that technique and it's employed a few times to great effect.

Though, Aster uses some of the tricks he also has in his bag from Hereditary, like the "dollhouse" aesthetic of making everything seem like a scale model with the artificiality of movement through rooms and in buildings. They don't always work, but they're cool to watch and they're almost as cool as the incredible design that builds this world. From the more childish paintings, to the detailed wallpaper, from the plain costumes, to the fantastical regalia, the tables, the buildings, the wooden entry way, and the ominously large maypole, everything looks utterly incredible and so very lived in.

There's a lot to unpack with Midsommar. Grief and family and ritual and truth are among them, but with these intense themes and intense grotesquery, there are times when the film falls flat. I definitely checked my watch once during the two and a half hour runtime. Yet, it's still a compelling and wholly original nightmare from one of the most interesting filmmakers on the scene. I think Midsommar should be seen and discussed at length. It's a film that deserves a conversation, not the least of which should be about mental health and how to understand grief.

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