Death, dying, and the grieving process can be a personal and unique experience. For each individual who must endure watching someone leave, mourn the death of someone important in their lives, and ultimately grieve the fact that life will proceed without that person in their lives, the process can be a mixture of emotions both good and bad. But it is a process that is wholly unique for the individual.
In some cultures, this process has a defined set of steps that must be followed. For Native American tribes, the grieving practice is often incorporated into the processing of the burial arrangements, with each tribal community having a different set of operations that are incorporated into the traditional practices. Some of these specific practices are vastly different, oftentimes misunderstood or challenged by non-tribal people, from the “normal” process demonstrated throughout traditional America. But when you break it down, all the steps in the grieving process are present.
Director Ari Aster, who expertly crafted one of the best horror films of the last decade with Hereditary, which also featured one of the most stunning lead performances of 2018 from Toni Collette, returns for his sophomore film and focuses again on emotional trauma felt and caused by humanity. Midsommar is a film about clashing cultures, emotional codependency, and romantic manipulations wrapped up in dark shrouds of black humor.
Dani (Florence Pugh) is still grieving a family tragedy when her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) invites her to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer celebration in Sweden. Dani, lost in utter heartache and grasping to remaining fibers of her relationship with Christian, reluctantly pushes herself to commit to the trip. Not long after entering the mysterious community at the start of an 11-day festival, the couple begins to participate in strange rituals, drinking concoctions that lead to hallucinatory nightmares and partaking in bizarre ceremonies with unusual outcomes.
Midsommar functions on numerous levels, with influences ranging from films like The Wicker Man for thematic control and The Color of Pomegranates for color and design. However, the films of Ingmar Bergman seem most influential throughout the film, specifically Scenes from a Marriage pairs beautifully with the narrative components and tone being operated throughout this film.
It’s within the narrative that Midsommar is most impressive. Aster has already proved with Hereditary why genre film is such a good vessel for complex narratives and emotional storytelling, but also why horror films can specifically evoke so many different types of emotions in the process of deeply affecting the viewer. Midsommar is operating with many of the same processes, but the story here is reaching farther, tackling issues of foreign predispositions, cultural misunderstandings, gender dominance, the power of femininity, relationship codependency, and the many meandering meanings of romantic relationships.
At its core, Midsommar is a break-up film mixed with the grieving process that follows the end of a relationship. It’s an examination of that terrible relationship everyone has tried to save only to suddenly, and often times disastrously and painfully, come to the realization that it cannot be saved. Mr. Aster layers relationship concepts ingeniously throughout the film; through the ritual of cult ceremonies that operate as metaphors for sex and desire, through the process of aging and the death and dying rite involved in the relationship one has to another and the pain of moving forward without that person, and through the miscommunication of culture and tradition in examining just how different perceptions of love can be.
The composition of this film is familiar in tone and structure to Hereditary, however, the themes are fashioned in a far different way. The horror elements, which are violent and shocking throughout, accommodate the bleak yet humorous tone that Aster is trying to achieve. It’s interesting that throughout this film, where the emotional strings are being plucked at vastly different strengths, the humor feels so natural. It helps bring some levity to the dark subject matter that is transpiring in bright daylight scenes, with sometimes tinged hallucinatory perspectives.
These concepts do not work without the brilliant performance from Florence Pugh, who in the first few minutes of the film completely invades the viewer's emotional space through devastating pain and sorrow. The remaining performance is a range of emotions that are genuinely composed. Jack Reynor plays Christian, the not-so-great boyfriend character, who convincingly displays that he is more self-obsessed and self-concerned than he is dedicated to his relationship.
Midsommar is a beautifully photographed film that is most often composed in the bright, shining sunlight. There is an uneasiness to horror films that operate in daylight, that the evil being orchestrated has no remorse for whatever it plans on doing in full, clear view. It’s an achievement to the director of photography Pawel Pogorzelski, who has proven such an immense range with the collaboration with Ari Aster in two films. From stunning wide frame shots of peaceful yet inescapable environments to unnerving wandering shots seemingly taken from something watching in the clouds, all the way to the gory glory of shocking violence, it’s all beautifully and purposefully rendered.
Midsommar is the second film for director Ari Aster, and it’s already an impressive two-film catalog. Mr. Aster continues to strengthen his voice and skill set as a filmmaker, but his perception for how one can utilize genre to tell emotionally complicated stories is the real achievement for this filmmaker. Midsommar demonstrates that sometimes the scariest monster isn’t a monster at all—sometimes it’s the emotion connected with the fear of loss and outlook towards the unknown.
Movie Score: 4.5/5