Dir. Ari Aster; Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor
[3 out of 4 stars]
Ari Aster already proved himself to be a master of the horror genre with last year’s Hereditary (2018), relying not on cheap jump scares but on the weight of familial relationships, grief and pain to craft his fear. His latest film, Midsommar (2018), further cements his status as a creative and talented director. Midsommar, like Hereditary, is unlike any film I’ve ever seen. While it is ultimately, in my opinion, less of a horror film while remaining creepy and grotesque, Midsommar is nonetheless fascinating and well-crafted, with a sweeping vision and stellar acting.
The film centers on Dani (Florence Pugh) a college student dealing with severe trauma. Her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) has, we learned, been looking for a way out of their broken relationship for a while but feels the need to stick with her because of “what she’s been through.” He feels so sorry for her that he invites her to accompany him and his friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) on a trip to northern Sweden, where their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) has invited them to his community for a midsummer celebration. Christian is hardly the perfect boyfriend (he forgets Dani’s birthday), but she always forgives him and is nonetheless looking forward to the trip. When the group arrives in Sweden, Pelle’s commune seems like paradise: rolling grass fields, rustic barns, sunshine and flowers. The whole thing seems like a wonderful dream, a quality that is only enhanced by the hallucinogenic mushrooms and questionable tea that are consumed there. As welcoming as the community is, Dani is uneasy, unsure why she is there. After witnessing a disturbing ritual, she wants to leave immediately. But Pelle convinces them to stay, and so the group continues to explore the commune — particularly Josh, who is writing his anthropology senior thesis on midsummer celebrations across the world. He finds, however, that this particular celebration is markedly darker than any other that he has researched.
Aster’s filmmaking style is almost unwisely broad yet extremely effective and refined as he oscillates between long, wide shots and extreme closeups. He rarely seems to concentrate on what we might think is important. For instance, he never shows Christian asking Dani to come to Sweden, only him telling his friends that he has. Many of Aster’s shots are quite long — whole conversations unfurling on screen without a single cut — or quite wide — encompassing entire swaths of land and multiple buildings. During important conversations or heated moments, he often won’t focus on the characters involved, rather choosing to set his camera much farther away. The human interactions seems almost incidental in such vast landscapes. One wide shot features a barn, in front of which one character talks heatedly with another while Dani watches in the doorway. As the two characters debate emphatically and Dani listens, the camera never moves. We never get any closeups on anyone’s faces or even a medium shot or a two shot. All the while the camera sits static, almost as if a wandering passerby had happened upon the scene and was watching from afar. The effect is disquieting, as we want to get closer, we want to figure out exactly what’s happening. We feel like we’re missing something, an unsettling feeling that pervades the entire film. Like Dani, we wonder “what is going on?” Aster has other methods of leading us to empathize with Dani. While much of the film is wide shots and vast expanses, with smaller scenes and character interactions peppered throughout, with Dani we get many extreme closeups coupled with hyperventilation or gasps. We spend so much time watching her face that we begin to tune into small shifts in expression — eye movements, half-smiles, shudders — and identify with her view of this world.
Pugh is excellent in her role, and one of the most interesting aspects of her performance is her breathing. Across the film, she exhibits a range of gasps, sobs and howls to portray a variety of emotions, from grief to confusion to horror. And it’s not just Pugh’s character; the members of this commune use breathing as an almost spiritual act as well: sharp intakes of breath or wails coordinated with one another. These breathing sounds are uniquely human and take place in a location, and during a time of year, that is completely centered on life and death. While midsummer is a celebration of life and love, this particular commune is also strangely familiar with the cycle of death, and the characters seem to relish their abilities to breathe and make such sounds while they still can, enjoying their physical bodies and their strength. At one point, Dani and other women in the commune kneel on the floor in a group and scream together, breathing and gasping as one, their shrieks echoing around the barn. It’s a primal human sound, both terrifying and, somehow, comforting in the idea that we are not alone. Much like the well-known tongue click from Hereditary, Aster uses seemingly innocent sounds to terrify or move us.
Howling in such fashion is especially notable for Dani, who has previously concealed her grief from the others. She stumbles to the bathroom or to a private place to let out her sobs, holding them in until she is alone. When she finally wails in such a public fashion with a large group of women, it’s an enormous relief, not only for her, but for us as the audience. And these women seem to mourn with her as they breathe and scream with her. She faces her grief head on and does not hide it; earlier in the film, she worries to a friend that she is asking too much of Christian (her boyfriend of four years) when she needs him to help deal with her emotional trauma, thinking that maybe he will leave her. With these women, she cleanses herself of the horrible internal weight of all that she has been dealing with for so long on her own.
Despite its clarity and inventiveness, Midsommar is not a perfect film. The plot is hardly original. From Children of the Corn (1984) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999) to The Master (2012), cults have long been portrayed as creepy, demonic or murderous and used as the location of various horrors. In Midsommar, a group of friends heads to a creepy commune in the middle of the woods, so, of course, we know right off that something bad will happen to them. Other aspects of the plot seem unlikely (why is no one but Dani concerned when their friends start disappearing without a trace?) Still, Aster’s work is notable for its scope and creativity. The fear he crafts is born not from ax-wielding murderers or giant sharks, which are obvious, external terrors. No, the horrors in his films are internal, personal: a mother, a boyfriend, family, grief, shame, confusion, sadness. These are human relationships and emotions, and their familiarity is what makes them so disturbing.