The sun shines down on a picturesque village as characters are killed off in outrageous ways. But folk horror Midsommar is more Wicker Man than Midsomer Murders, a hallucinatory bad-trip to a Swedish pagan festival with its own Pyramid stage and pyrotechnic climax.
Ari Aster’s follow-up to 2018’s Hereditary is also about family and grief. Both films feature nightmarish images that will be hard to erase from memory. If Midsommar feels slightly disappointing after Aster’s brilliantly disturbing debut, it is an atmospheric, ambitious and unsettling film, with added comedy value.
After a shocking family tragedy, college student Dani (Florence Pugh) travels to Sweden with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and three of his mates. They have been invited by one of them, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), to his home – a rural commune called the Hårga, which is holding a once-in-ninety-years festival.
In a long pre-credits sequence, writer-director Aster has already shown us that Dani and Christian’s relationship is under strain. All the signs are that this will not be a happy holiday: turbulence at the end of the flight; depth-charges of doom from Bobby Krlic’s creepy score. And a world turned upside down by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski as the group drive to their destination – the sky becomes a river with their car skimming along its surface.
The gateway into the Hårga commune is a through a homemade wooden sun and it feels like a portal into another world, like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. Almost immediately the group are offered drugs and things get progressively weird.
Midsommar goes on a bit too long, but its extended second act induces a woozy, trancelike state in the viewer, as if we, too, have been taking drugs and been out in the sun too long. When Christian asks what is in some potion he is being offered, he is told that the drink “breaks down your defences and opens you up to the influence.”
So many hallucinatory potions are swallowed or inhaled in the film that we doubt the truth of what we are seeing. Expected country customs such as maypole dancing and feasts (“Skol!”) intermingle with the jarringly unusual. The commune’s children play ‘Skin the Fool’ and carve wooden runes at school; we are shown embroidered sheets with graphic images (a girl has spiral eyes like Kaa’s in Jungle Book). Dani sees grass growing out of her hands. Is that a bear, there, in a cage?
Comedy highlights include Will Poulter’s character freaking out about the lack of darkness at 9 in the evening (“I don’t like it!”) and an assisted sex scene which defies description
Florence Pugh, who recently appeared in BBC’s The Little Drummer Girl, has a magnetic screen stillness and an open face that helps us side with Dani and empathise with what she is going through. Her grieving innocence also makes her very appealing to the villagers, if not her own boyfriend. Pelle helps her figure things out, telling Dani: “I have always felt held by a family … But do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?”
Aster has crafted a kind of slasher break-up movie about family and belonging, dressed up as a folk horror, which puts Dani through a harsh bout of Gestalt therapy. Seen in this way Midsommar almost offers us a happy ending.