Midsommar

2019-07-28 10:44
 
A scene in 'Midsommar.'

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

After the tragic death of her entire family, college student, Dani, joins her boyfriend, Christopher, and his friends on a trip to Sweden to spend some time taking part in a mid-summer festival on the commune in which one of these friends was raised. What at first seems to be just a bunch of arcane rituals by a group of harmless hippies soon proves to have a far darker underside than any of the young Americans could ever have expected.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

I’m often left to review films within hours of the last-minute, night-before public screenings that have become increasingly common in the past couple of years. This is generally fine, but it can cause a bit of an issue when the film in question requires a good bit of thought to really parse your feelings about it. Ari Aster’s highly anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough horror movie, Hereditary, isn’t just an example of one of those movies but it’s one of the most extreme cases of it that I can remember in all my ten years of reviewing films. Don’t worry about that 3-star rating you see attached to the review, in other words: I only rated it that because Channel24 does not, as of yet, have a rating system that includes an overall score of “?”.

I’m no doubt going to chewing over Midsommar for days to come, so it’s entirely possible that my thoughts about it will evolve considerably. Indeed, in just the couple of hours, since I saw it, my feelings towards it have at least moved away from numb shock towards something vaguely coherent. 

This is, after all, a film that doesn’t fit neatly into any specific genre; is as ludicrously silly as it is seriously disturbing; is as much about symbols and metaphors as it is about what happens on a literal level. This isn’t the stuff of a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”, in other words. All I am at all certain about the film so far, then, is as follows: it’s incredibly compelling, audaciously unique (but not original... more on that in a bit), beautifully put together and it, absofreakinglutely, won’t be for 95% of most movie-goers. Beyond that... well, let’s give it a shot, shall we?

To even begin getting a handle on Midsommar, it is crucial to understand that whatever happens through the bulk of the film should be judged through the prism of the events of the film’s opening act. In particular, Aster starts the film off with a family tragedy that gives that infamously upsetting scene in Hereditary a run for its money (Aster is almost too good at this) and whatever happens when our group of mostly obnoxious American young-adults reach Sweden is a clear reflection of that. Aster also notes that, above anything else, Midsommar is a “breakup movie”, which is evident in the way that the film constantly goes back to Dani and Christopher’s relationship even as the most insane things are happening around them.

Midsommar, on a thematic level, is partly about dealing with grief but is also very much a visual representation of “breaking up is hard to do”. These concrete themes help make sense of the film, which, though perfectly understandable on a simple narrative level, can easily look like nothing more than a filmmaker trying to test the constitution of his audience. It probably is that too, to be sure, as the film very easily earns its hard 18 rating, being both graphic and extremely nasty. And that’s before we get to a sex scene that is, by turns, fairly explicit, bizarrely comic and completely and utterly off-the-hook bonkers.

But, then, if you have seen Hereditary, it’s not exactly surprising that Ari Aster has made another movie as intense, as hysterical (though slightly more in the humorous sense of the word this time around) and gleefully demented as Midsommar. What Aster has done, in fact, is that he took that final half-hour of Hereditary (you know, the part where depending on who you ask, it either goes completely off the rails or at least only stays on course purely by virtue of the inertia built up in the previous 90-odd minutes) and doubled and then tripled down on it here.

Midsommar isn’t quite a horror movie, but it is genuinely horrific, disturbing and unsettling in a way that most straight-up horror movies can’t hope to match. Were it not for the fact that it is so completely insane that it tips into the darkly comic and frankly silly; I would argue that it would be far too much too handle. As it is, it’s hard to know whether to scream or burst out laughing.

Now, as I mentioned, it is worth understanding that however much Aster’s own idiosyncrasies make Midsommar unique, it is not, in fact, actually original. Anyone familiar with the cult-classic 1970s horror film, The Wicker Man (the one with Edward Woodward and certainly not the reviled later remake with Nick Cage) will find a lot of similarities here. They’re ultimately about different themes as Midsommar is far more interested in using the horrors of old-world pagan rituals as a way of exploring the intimately personal themes of grief and (dis)connection, while the Wicker Man was all about pitting the “new-world” religion of its leading man’s Christianity against a group of very “old-world” pagans, but it’s hardly a stretch to call Midsommar the Wicker Man on acid (or at least magic mushrooms). In fact, if you want to know if you will be able to handle Midsommar at all, giving the Wicker Man a watch should at least give you some indication – though, on the other hand, while I was solidly creeped out by the Wicker Man, I was damn-near shocked into submission by this.

I can’t, therefore, easily recommend this film to anyone but those who enjoy temperamental and challenging extreme-cinema. I do recommend it for such individuals, though, because Midsommar is as extreme a film as you could hope to find in South African multiplexes and because it is a flawed but quite extraordinary piece of filmmaking.

Aster has a very distinct directorial style that is just as effective in this brightly-lit (and beautifully and intriguingly shot by Hereditary’s cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski) mirror-image of Hereditary’s overall darkness. It also boasts another star-making turn by its up and coming star, Florence Pugh (almost unrecognisable here for those who have only seen her in the terrific feel-good comedy/drama, Fighting With My Family) who brings real emotional weight to both the film’s quieter and more hysterical moments. The rest of the cast, including Will Poulter in a much-needed comic-relief role, as well as other immensely talented young actors as Jack Reynor and the Good Place’s Chidi, William Jackson-Harper. And that’s to say nothing of the excellent work done by the Swedish cast who are far too believable as a bunch of earnest and truly terrifying hippies. 

All told I’m pretty sure Midsommar is fairly excellent if a bit flawed and a lot insane, but I’ll be damned if I can easily recommend it. I can say this, though: if you thought Hereditary and the Wicker Man were too tame for you, boy have I got the film for you! As well as the number of a very qualified psychiatrist...



NEXT ON CHANNELX
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.