With Midsommar, Aster approaches grief with a macabre twist that winds up making the weight of grief seem…am I repeating myself?
Aster’s two films take staid, empty, and largely silent burdens and makes them bleed into
their opposites. Coping with loss within a cocoon of oneself is impossible, as outside forces poke at the vulnerabilities of the grieving psyche. Staid becomes ornate. Empty becomes cluttered. Silent becomes a chaotic, dissonant, chanting chorus of screams.
In the case of Midsommar, the latter is pointedly literal. If sonic comfort is what you’re after, Midsommar should be the farthest from arm’s reach you can make it. The same goes for head trauma, if that’s not your thing…
Following the death of her parents and sister, Dani (Florence Pugh) rightfully feels distraught and alone. Her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who may or may not be interested in even being with Dani, is planning a trip to Sweden with his three friends, one of whom is going there to study the cultural idiosyncrasies of Midsummer celebrations. Christian feels guilty, and invites Dani along, to the chagrin of his friends.
They find themselves in Helsingland, in a quaint commune in the woods. But what seems like an idyllic Summer in nature will, clearly, devolve into chaos.
Aster has quickly made a name for himself in the horror genre. But what reads to some as gleefully shocking reads to me as unsubtle. In Hereditary, there is less of an issue with this. The clunky plotting is a minor issue, with some over-explaining and telegraphed foreshadowing of future reveals.
Midsommar suffers much more from unsubtle scripting. For the amount of brilliant visual storytelling on display in the film, it is surprising how often the dialogue relies on hinting at future plot points. The machine-like way by which conversations become signposts for future events makes the dialogue feel alien, and it lessens the impact of what is to come.
This is not to say that Midsommar is a conventional horror film. Yes, it takes large swathes of its plot (particularly its final act) from The Wicker Man. But Aster makes sure to subvert convention when possible. Depictions of sex and violence, in particular, stray from the tiresome norms of the genre, in that they are not used as cheap tools for titillation.
Aster has a vision. You see it straight away. The first act, before the cast of characters travel to Europe, is washed out by an undoubtedly intentional color palette of pale blues. When this blue is contrasted by the blinding warmth of sunshine in Halsingland, there is no wonder that Dani does not see the trouble that is brewing on the commune.
Of course, there is a turning point for that benefit of the doubt. Past the midpoint of the film, the American characters’ intelligences are compromised. For some, like the bristly, oblivious jerk Mark (Will Poulter), this lack of awareness makes perfect sense. For everyone else, their consent to not only remain on the commune but to partake in mind-altering rituals is baffling. Even for Dani—who it can be argued is allowing herself to be part of the cult-like events as a means of coping with her grief and panic attacks—this inability to act on suspicion lessens one’s sympathy for the character.
Given that the final act is a rollercoaster of drug-infused mayhem, this lack of sympathy for the characters makes it easy to complety tune out of the flurry of events. Ultimately, by the final frames, the impact might be entirely lost.
Aster polarizes in this way. It is almost as if he wants to risk sabotaging his films during their final act. He burns structure to the ground in favor of this mayhem. For some, it will come off shining with brilliance. For others (including myself), it lessens what could have been.
Midsommar is a beautiful and deliberately constructed film. In terms of the cliche that film frames are paintings, Midsommar has more than enough shots that can prove that cliche true. And many scenes maximize the effects of unease and suspense without relying on modern generic tropes.
Take, for example, the ritual on the cliff. This is the closest thing to perfect filmmaking I’ve seen in a horror film since the car scene in Aster’s Hereditary. The staging, the choreography, that overhead shot. The use and non-use of score throughout the scene. The nonchalance of how certain actions are depicted, juxtaposed with the extravagance of the ritual’s preamble. It’s everything you want in an unsettling scene.
For such a deliberate film with so much on its mind visually, the plotting and scripting takes away by adding too much in places where restraint would have sufficed. What this does is make the experience feel long. This is not a short film, and, when the script is tipping its hand about what is to come, it is hard not to get antsy waiting for those things to happen. This ruins the intentional slow burn that is at play. It is like watching a long fuse burn when you can see the massive amount of fireworks that are at the other end. You didn’t come to see a fuse burn for two hours.
And this is not to say that Aster has nothing on his mind when it comes to the plot and its potential interpretations. There is plenty here to chew on and imagery in the film that bear those interpretations out. I am particularly drawn to the motif of breathing, especially as it pertains to Dani and her panic attacks.
But, ultimately, there is something lacking when we hit the ground running toward the climax. Plot threads abruptly end. Characters’ backstories are forgotten. The action becomes so insular to this one moment in time that it becomes harder and harder to care about the thematic implications. Because, at its end, this is simply another film about a nefarious and manipulative cult. The larger victimization of the characters outside of that shiny horror trope fades away. What there is to chew on turns rotten or is charred to a crisp beyond burnt.
Florence Pugh, to her credit, nevertheless gives her second greatest performance to date, and she certainly provides ample reason to watch.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)