Midsommar, dir. Ari Aster, 2019
Hereditary, Aster's previous film, impressed me for its fine sense of characterisation and for what I recall as being a slow-burner plot which succeeded in building up a series of disjointed strands into a nightmarish overall horror vision while at the same time tapping into some interesting aspects of anthropology, particularly those practices which are woven into the fabric of mainstream suburbia and seemingly lie dormant until fatally triggered by some or another discrete happening. Midsommar tries to recreate this simmering cultural inquiry to a degree but this time it inverts the trope: it inserts the outsider into a hermetically sealed environment and watches them observe and tacitly intersect with the oddness and strangeness of what they cannot bring themselves to understand. This is then married to the idea that the customs and practices of secluded and marginalised people appear at first glance to be innately benign, celebratory, even Utopian, until, of course, they suddenly aren't. By then it's always too late to realise what's really been going on: small clues have been missed, misdirection has been deployed, utter horror breaks out.
The problem is Midsommar is tonally disingenuous to the notion of the neutral, objective anthropologist while only radically cementing the negative elements of the "obnoxious American abroad" stereotype. The movie centres on Dani (Florence Pugh) who is a needy and emotional drain on her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), which only gets worse when her sister kills her parents and commits suicide: a fact which naturally haunts Dani but is never explained or linked to anything else which later transpires, except, perhaps to suggest that the experience of death at close quarters is what perhaps gives Dani the longed-for closure and catharsis that she has been desperate for. Dani inveigles herself into a boy's trip abroad with Christian's friends to Sweden, where they plan to experience the midsommar festivities native to one of their group, Pelle's (Vilherm Blomgren) "commune-based family."
The problem is that Christian and his two buddy friends, Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) are really only going off on a glorified sex and drugs fuelled extravaganza to see how many "trippy scores" they can notch up and the greatest weakness (and tragedy) of this film is the way the script panders to the crude Hollywood obsession for exemplifying American cultural domination by, perversely, in this case, highlighting how crass, inconsiderate and uninformed its sensibilities really are when exposed in stark contrast to a system which is ostensibly highly organised, ritualised and sacred. It's one thing for a group of friends abroad to be smitten with a generalised notion of "how hot all the women are" but to then immerse themselves into a very particular and localised cultural experience (the Hårga community) which, from the moment they catch sight of it, signals nothing but a very unique, contained and highly ordered way of life, and to still be so insensitive to all that experience entails, still insist on being so American and perform being American so totally, just establishes a long discordant note which jars against the entire tenor of this film.
The don't only set about to sexualise all the young women in the commune by immediately rating them for potential encounters, but are continually loud, arrogant, rude, complaining and do outrageously insulting things with no apparent comprehension of their levels of offence (blithely urinating on sacred ground, for example). And to make matters worse: these are so-called cultural anthropology students! Really? What, their studies wouldn't have prepared them for the shock of witnessing an alien culture? They wouldn't have been taught a little bit about reverence and respect? A scene involving an elaborate ritual of senicide which I thought was in and of itself particularly moving and well-handled, and, to add, very well reasoned by the community matriarch (it's noble to choose death over suffering and decline, etc.) devolved rapidly into a hysterical screaming match by the Americans and completely destroyed the beauty and power of the moment. To say the characterisation woefully misses the mark is an understatement: it actually sets about to erode the very essence of the film itself. Then again, there are other glaring plot oversights: why do these people allow the Americans to witness such acts without any prior explanation or forewarning? It almost seems as if Aster is straining the credibility of reason for the sake of establishing drama.
Of course the commune community is actually a deranged cult and the Americans have in fact been lured to them to firstly impregnate the virgins with outside blood and so preserve their bloodlines and then secondly to be sacrificed as part of an elaborate rite to rid them of evil spirits. So of course, the Americans end up looking like the heroes and the victims of foreign depravity. But I guess this is essentially an American product, although it could have been so much more if it had only bothered to aim for density and subtlety. Dani is an unlikely winner of a maypole dance-off at her first ever attempt and is named May Queen (a fact the other young Hårga girls just accept without the slightest hint of resentment) and so becomes de facto "ruler of all", while Christian is lured into an uncomfortable sex episode with the maiden after which he's stuffed into the carcass of a bear (poor creature) and duly set on fire. Mark and Josh, meanwhile, have been offed long-ago for their various insults against the lore of the cult: serves them right if you ask me.
There are some beautiful scenes in Midsommar. The cinematography capturing the airy purity of an isolated Scandinavian summer festival is gorgeous and the flowers which garnish everything add a sense of a fairy tale aesthetic which is neatly juxtaposed against the growing menace of madness and murder. The set design is exquisite at creating a unique environment which looks as if it has stood there for several generations: the pastel coloured murals on the walls and ceilings, when viewed closely, tell the whole story clearly enough and it's a clever touch to suggest that outsiders never really bother to take such depictions with any sense of seriousness. Pugh, a commanding actor, is initially only annoying but later grows in depth as she firstly tries to abhor what is going on and is then hypnotically drawn towards its very centre, becoming the ultimate enabler of its fiery climax. Reynor as Christian, however, lacks any appeal whatsoever and comes across as insipid and dull and self-obsessed, concerned only about plundering the cult's mythology for his doctoral thesis: an interesting proposition seeing as he appears inarticulate and incapable of stringing two decent words together. He's not even very attractive as a prospective mate for the cult's virgins: it's a wonder they seize on him so lustily in the first place. Desperate times obviously call for desperate measures ...