As far as cinematic debuts go, Hereditary was impressive; terrifying with the tensions of its familial angst and underhanded supernatural aspects. Ari Aster’s sophomore effort, Midsommar- is an ambitious and often engrossing experience. However, it’s marred by thematic confusion and the director’s ascetic intention often exceeding his reach. In this way, the film becomes the cinematic equivalent of the Icarus Myth, insofar as it flies too close to the sun of its cult plot and falls to the ground with a muddled sense of pathos.
Midsommar is about five students who travel to Sweden for a celebration in a remote commune. The five members are comprised of Psychology student- Dani (Florence Pugh), boyfriend- Christian (Jack Reynor), goofball- Mark (Will Poulter), studious- Mark (William Jackson Harper) and their guide/host- Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).
Conceptually, Midsommar is about a young woman who tragically loses her family and through her experiences within Pelle’s ancestral communion, she gains a family (in a spiritual sense), who collectively attempt to empathise with her feelings of loss and betrayal.
However, in execution, the film is actually about the continual breakdown of Dani and Christian’s romantic relationship. While this is a semi engaging plotline in its own right, the attempts to convince us that it’s the same thing is ludicrous. In a key scene, Pelle consoles Dani by telling her about the virtues of being raised in a community. He then goes on to ask her if Christian evokes the same feeling, with the pivotal question- “Does he feel like home to you?”
At best, this is emotionally disingenuous, creating a false equivalency between romantic and familial love. To compound the problem, the film forgets about its stark opening. Dani’s bipolar sister acts out by killing her Mum, Dad and herself (via the release of carbon monoxide into the family home).
Pugh’s emotionally raw performance never makes us forget this aspect. But it does not really factor into much of Dani’s transformation from emotionally fragile to ruthlessly detached (opting for her boyfriend to be sacrificed after discovering his semi-public case of infidelity). Dani’s transformation is the film’s biggest cross to bear, never feeling believable or justified.
Much like Hereditary, Aster ascetically excels at framing his characters like pawns in the larger scheme of life. In Midsommar, this quality is achieved with some quite stunning birds-eye view shots where the characters appear like ants within the confines of the community. Aster also creates some quite startling imagery. One such moment is when one of the elders bows before a stone tablet and smears it with their bloody hands.
At times, the film does sometimes dangerously flirt with being camp. The horror of a deflowering is somewhat reduced by a sudden breaking into a song from one of the surrounding cult members. And the aftermath of the event is like a Bennie Hill sketch that’s had a head-on-collision with the climax of a standard Friday the 13th movie.
Despite this, Midsommar is a commendably odd film that staggers in what it’s trying to evoke and say. This is particularly evident in the superior Director’s Cut, which pushes Christian’s general emotional distance, in favour of opportunism to the forefront. This comes at the expense of Dani’s transformation that felt sketchily developed in the original version and glaringly odd in the longer cut. One new scene involving an argument with her and Christian, over leaving, after nearly witnessing a child sacrifice, begs the question of her later abiding by the cult’s archaic practices.