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Midsommar #MovieReview

Dani and Christian have a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship that is going nowhere fast until personal tragedy strikes. To escape from the darkness surrounding this event, the couple travel to Sweden with a group of friends to experience a unique, once in a lifetime event: a midsummer festival in the remote, beautiful Halsingland. The festival is steeped in tradition and laden with strange customs that are unnerving, mesmerising and ultimately, terrifying. 

Tagline: Let the festivities begin 
Starring:  Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe
Released: 2019
Runtime:  2 hrs 27 mins

Warning: this review contains mild spoilers. 

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Can we just have a moment to say one thing?  

Horror movies do not need to be scary to be horrific. 

You do not need to feel frightened to experience horror. 

You can be entertained, excited, unsettled, disturbed, and confused, and these are all valid emotional interactions, aside from mechanical jump-scares, that have a rightful place on the genre spectrum. Horror is many things to many different people. Lamenting a horror movie for not being ‘scary’ is narrow-minded and misses the point. 

This being said, here is something else worth noting, in my opinion. If you like the work of a certain film director, do not go the cinema expecting his next film to be exactly the same as the first. You don’t go to a restaurant you love and expect to eat exactly the same meal every time, do you? Lord, how boring life must be if you do. 

So now that we have that out of the way, you need to know that Midsommar (2019) is nothing like Hereditary (2018), thank god. Different premise, different aesthetics, different pacing, different (but still brilliant) musical scoring. In other words, Ari Aster knows what he is doing, so sit back, and enjoy the ride. Put all memories of other films aside, and take this for what it is: a perfect visual mess that will mind-fuck you. 

The concept is simple and compelling: a group of american tourists visit a remote part of Sweden to experience a Midsommar festival. They have been invited by their Swedish friend Pelle to partake of the rituals and customs of this festival, and it doesn’t take long before things slide into a warped mire of chaos and gore. ‘I was most excited for you to come,’ says Pelle to Dani at one point early on, and you know from then on that there is a dual purpose to this trip, especially when a family member later welcomes the visitors by saying ‘Pelle has excellent taste in people.’ What follows is predictable at times, but no less chilling. As you would expect, things are not what they seem, and once the haze of magic mushrooms has worn away, something sinister and ancient emerges from underneath the floral wreaths, intent on wreaking havoc. 

Floaty dresses and mysterious runes aside, the most malevolent thing about this film is the incredibly toxic relationship between the young couple that are Dani and Christian, played by Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor respectively. He, committed to her only out of a sense of duty after a personal tragedy strikes her family. She, bound to him by a fear of being alone, horribly aware of his inadequacies yet completely willing to accept everything as her fault, because her circumstances have made her ‘difficult’. We hear Dani talking to a friend at the beginning of the film, panicking because she worries that she is pushing Christian away by ‘needing him too much’. Her intuition is right- Christian is tired of being a stand-in therapist for his girlfriend, and wants out of the situation, but can’t bring himself to do it. The resentment between the two is palpable, and it manifests itself in increasingly grotesque ways. He becomes an utterly selfish creature, intent only on getting what he needs out of any given situation, screwing over his friends and disregarding Dani’s feelings at every opportunity, even forgetting her birthday. She becomes withdrawn and contained, isolated and criticised, meekly standing by and letting her anger at his behaviour simmer under the surface until it erupts, in glorious fashion, in the final act. I could write an entire essay on the interplay between the two, which is masterfully written, just as the relationship between Annie and Peter is portrayed in Hereditary. Aster understands how people work and what motivates them, and it is this humanist comprehension that translates so well into horror. Because, once you look past all the trappings of carnage and drugs and creeping dread, really this is a film about family, and not wanting to be alone, and also about taking control of your life- even of how you die. It’s also about murder and sacrifice and sex and herbal tea, but those seem at times almost incidental to the main heart of the movie: finding a home for Dani. 

Speaking of tea, Christ, I had memories of some bad trips whilst watching this film. There is a lot of drug taking and drinking of strange yellow hallucinogenic concoctions, and I personally found this one of the hardest parts to stomach, because boy do I remember those hairy half-hours. The crawling skin, the sinking inside yourself, the widening of vision, the sweats and the cold spells. The heavy breathing. As an exercise in unsettling an audience, it’s incredibly successful, and the insidious nature of the community’s cultural habits infuses itself into every part of the screen. There are entire passages of time where everything is warped but so subtly you don’t realise it until you find yourself staring, mesmerised, into the pulsing heart of a flower or a distorted face or a tree that seems to writhe about in ecstasy. Safe to say that Dani is in no fit mental state for this kind of chemical interference, and watching her struggle to process her intoxication made me want to pull my own skin off. The music only adds to the effect, and is like a living, breathing member of the cast. There are some incredible crescendos, strings scraping away at each other like mad, and I honestly can’t think of a better use of music in a film than this, except maybe the final twenty minutes of Annihilation (2018), which will reside in my mind forever more. 

Details are the things here, details: you could watch this movie a hundred times and find new things with each viewing. The blanket Dani sleeps under, for example, with a very familiar pattern on it. The paintings in her apartment at the beginning, particularly the large, framed image of a girl and a bear. The pink glass standing proud and obvious amongst a regiment of yellow glasses. The intricate and chilling folk painting on the walls. The symbology and runes. The actors in the background. The smart framing devices, including a transition scene in a toilet cubicle that is slick and masterful There is a whole scene that is upside down, and the camera work is insanely clever: I came out of the cinema with motion sickness. 

The beauty of the Swedish countryside is interwoven with moments of stark contrast: a foot sticking out of the ground, a beautiful golden archway, a graphic illustration of death, a meadow full of grass and flowers, a horrifying pyre, a blue, sunshine drenched sky. It all fits together so well that it hurts the brain at times. 

Midsommar is not without flaws- certain scenes do go on a little too long and labour the point. I would have liked more from Will Poulter, who is reliably unlikeable and funny, but underused, in my opinion. The charatcer of Ruben, disfigured by incest, seems unnessecary and I’m not sure what, if anything, he adds to the story. The humour in certain scenes is also a difficult one to get your head around- it’s unexpected and certainly creates relief from the onslaught of drama, but can also pull you out of the story at times. You could argue that what makes it laughable also makes it iconic- Aster’s fixation with mouth sounds, heavy breathing and hand gestures will also ensures this movie will fix itself firmly into the minds of many, and I’ll certainly never look at a pie the same way ever again. 

These are small things however, when confronted with the chaotic tapestry of colour and body trauma that Midsommar is. Florence Pugh is incredible from start to finish, her character arc equal parts terrifying and gratifying- particularly in the final scene, which finishes by focussing closely on her face. A riot of emotions play out there, and despite everything going on around her, you can’t help but feel like there is a demeted sort of hope on the horizon for Dani, an existential homecoming that turns the final girl trope nicely on its head. 

Go with no expectations, and prepare to have your eyes well and truly opened. A must-see. 

Rating: 5/5 Space Krakens

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