By Andrea Thompson
Some events – and movies – are all the more disturbing for unfolding in broad daylight, in the literal and metaphorical sense. “Midsommar” certainly manages well, in spite of its refusal to rely on nature’s darkness, preferring to revel in humanity’s. The only ones who are in the dark (pun unavoidable) about just what is happening are those who’ve somehow decided it was a good idea to visit an isolated Swedish commune with lax attitudes about death, sex, and incest. The locals don’t even bother trying to conceal their beliefs, and they barely attempt to hide that they’re killing people off.
The only one who has any thing resembling an excuse is Dani (Florence Pugh). She was already in a bad relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), the kind most women somehow find their way into during their 20s one way or another, where she thinks she’s too needy simply because she asks him for emotional support in a rough situation, and he simply doesn’t have the backbone to move forward, either by ripping off the Band-Aid with Dani or finally doing the work required for his academics. They’re the kind of couple you cheer on for separating.
Their breakup is put on further hiatus after a horrific family tragedy befalls Dani. An unspecified amount of time after, she learns Christian and his friends are heading to Sweden for a festival that only happens once every 90 years, and she basically invites herself along, desperate for any kind of escape. Do the horrors begin? Well, kinda. This is Ari Aster, who also wrote and directed “Hereditary,” one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had in a theater. That film, like most in the horror genre, relied on the unknown, the unseen machinations that unknowingly sealed the fate of every family member before they were even born. When all those machinations are unfolding in plain sight, then what’s left?
More than you’d expect as it turns out, even if quite a bit is exactly what what you’ve seen before. The lack of surprises begin with this small isolated community being something of a (gasp!) cult. They really do share everything, from sleeping quarters to food to rituals to sex. And if you’re a young man who is offered a virgin on a literal bed of flowers, beware, because it won’t be a male fantasy. Accept their offer, and you’ll be used in a truly bizarre fashion for the fresh DNA you can provide this insular place and quickly discarded.
For Dani, who is grieving the loss of her family and spends much of the film in baggy, ill-fitting clothes where any kind of effort is too much, the village is a deeply unsettling place that only becomes truly seductive until the last fifteen minutes, where the true horror of its potential finally blossoms. Death is openly acknowledged and embraced, not a dirty secret you have to keep even when it rips apart your life. That this is so apparent is mostly thanks to Pugh, who is just as much of a marvel of the internalized scream as she was in the period film “Lady Macbeth.” Even if her pain is far more external in “Midsommar,” Pugh’s face is practically a showcase for a devastation that must find catharsis one way or another.
Unlike Christian and his emotionally stunted friends, whose lack of any kind of emotional intelligence is the main source of the film’s comic relief, the locals, especially the women, share and feel Dani’s pain, cradling her and crying out when she does. For a girl recently bereft of her loved ones, what could be more tantalizing than an environment where family isn’t only everything, but everywhere, and the ugly realities of life aren’t ugly at all, but part of the everyday fabric? And darker still, offers the tantalizing possibility of revenge on those who refuse to meet her emotional needs?
At a certain point, there are only two paths left for Dani, barring some kind of miracle. And miracles are in short supply in “Midsommar.” Will she perish as the Wicker Man, the righteous victim who dies in a fiery blaze of glory? Or will she survive as the Witch, relishing the pleasure and the ecstasy of living deliciously? Oh, that these tantalizing possibilities were forbidden fruit ripe for the picking throughout “Midsommar.” But only at the end does this world become seductive.
If the film is a bit of a mess, it’s an absolute pleasure to watch it unfold. What makes it so enjoyable is Ari Aster’s awareness of just how much our most beloved fairy tales have in common with our darkest nightmares. Just how much it shares with both is a bit unclear. People are clearly allowed to leave, but those it seems to mostly be the men who take advantage of this. Do the women choose to remain, or are they forced to in order to keep them invested in producing offspring? If so, they don’t seem to be lacking in positions of authority, or as sources of the film’s truly wicked sense of humor. Because if “Midsommar” is short on surprises (and a few explanations), its stylish take on the breakup movie is one arthouse audiences can truly enjoy watching with their most despised exes.