Midsommar (2019)

“It’s like another world.”

Midsommar opens with a shot which summarizes the entire story in a four-paneled tableaux of Pagan paintings. In a modern sense, it’s like vague GPS directions telling us where the film might go without completely spoiling the sights along the way to its final destination. And just as we’re about to evoke some sort of feeling, and before we can invoke judgement, the camera cuts and descends into a chilly locale with snowflakes falling and darkness encroaching all around. It’s one thing to make a portrait of grief, depression, and tireless anxiety into a psychological horror film; It’s another to exist in a different astral plane altogether. As such, the real genius of Midsommar is that the entire picture mostly takes place in the light of day. There’s no room to hide or to run from your emotions in this evergreen and floral landscape. It’s a naturalistic reckoning of the self, for better and for worse, and is one of the best, most powerful movies of 2019. This is timeless, masterful film making.

Dani (Florence Pugh) can’t sleep after receiving a strangely cold email from her bipolar sister. Her parents don’t pick up her calls. She’s used to the cries for help but can tell this message is no plea; it’s a sharp, definitive period. Something is amiss. These first moments serve as the overture of Midsommar, slowly sweeping up the agony into a dust pan before Dani metaphorically bags the contents and carries the weight of her grief directly on her shoulders. She even packs the pain into her luggage as she joins in on a trip to Sweden with her feckless boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his three friends. Christian wanted to dump Dani before the tragedy, and is even encouraged by his friends to do so, but cowardly can’t seem to sever the tie afterwards. As for Dani, she feels guilt that she’s somehow pushing him away, further from the semi-charmed and comfortable life they once knew. Maybe a trip abroad will do them well. Or maybe the old saying, “distance makes the heart grow fonder” only works when you go your separate ways.

Christian’s casual invitation extended to Dani frustrates his friends, so they merely feign pleasantries when she’s around. Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) is the planner behind the trip back to his homeland. Josh (William Jackson Harper) is an anthropology student hoping to do his thesis on Pelle’s village. There’s also Mark (Will Poulter), the most frank of the bunch. Mark dreams up sexual conquests with beautiful blonde women, has no filter, and he’s the kind of mouthy man whose thoughtless blabber bears no substance (but does serve as a large chunk of the film’s surprising sense of humor). They don’t want her there, although Pelle is pleasantly happy she’ll be coming along, and yet because she’s so broken and alone (that she seemingly has one female confidant with whom she hardly confides in over the phone speaks volumes about her sense of abandonment), Dani chooses to accompany people who’d rather not share her company. Her emotions are on life support and she’s afraid to pull the plug, haunted by the idea of being empty, of having no place to call home and nobody to share one with.

She endured panic attacks on the flight over, and upon arrival suffered a jarring trip after being prodded into taking mushrooms with the group (hallucinogenics play a character in the picture, teetering between roles as a devil or an angel on the shoulder’s of those who partake). There’s a subtle uptick in Dani’s disposition though as they enter Pelle’s commune. Flowers line the entrance through makeshift gates, the sun never completely sets, and the people embrace outsiders, although their motivations are immediately baffling and overwhelmingly open to interpretation. And because it’s a deftly dark fairy tale, Midsommar is less concerned with swaddling its happily-ever-after than it is in finding the most tragic – and for that reason, the most substantial – sense of an ending. The film takes it’s sweet time getting there over the course of nearly two and a half hours, showing great patience and an uncanny ability to lull the audience into a cognizant state of unrest. Many will call it boring. Some will call it indulgent. But to me, Midsommar earns its length by grazing its rich fields in a calculated pattern and justifies its ambiguity by alluding to what things might be rather than distinctly stating what they are. You become part of the equation to finding an answer.

There’s a stark difference between Ari Aster’s work here compared to 2018’s Hereditary. They’re both masterpieces of the psychological horror genre, but Hereditary was a darker, more morose film devoid of empathy and full of antagonistic leeches. The satanists were all take and no give. Midsommar differentiates itself by having something to offer in exchange for a gift. It’s a mysterious story where the members of the cultist commune dress in the white garb of Picnic at Hanging Rock, they perpetuate the same tragic customs easily likened to those from The Ballad of Narayama, is inspired by the gradual hysteria of 1973’s The Wicker Man, and occasionally leans into the unexplained cruelty throughout The White Ribbon. But Midsommar is its own unique haunt and jaunt. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski guides us on the path towards reinvention and awakening (overhead cameras tell us where to go, slow pans tease terror, and mirrors are used to emphasize detachment from the moment and between the people during early and estranged conversational scenes). And with Bobby Krlic’s (whose stage name is The Haxan Cloak) house of horrors score vibrating throughout with natural strings and symphonic echoes, Midsommar assaults all of the senses with hugs and with mallets.

Most importantly though, Aster looks deep into clashing cultures with precise control over the narrative. The Westerners are – quite appropriately – out of touch with the world around them and the cult members are entirely in tune with nature and their brethren and themselves, yet are completely stuck in their iconoclastic ways. The greatest and most threatening evil in Midsommar isn’t the cunning cult, but rather the leading lady’s anguish and her internalized self-deprivation. There are demons stirring inside Dani, ripping her apart from the inside out until she’s finally able to puke them back up. Nobody enjoys vomiting, but there’s a strange, almost cathartic sense of satisfaction that comes from ridding your body of something foul that’s making you feel sick. Dani’s heaving, desperate retches are of the mind, the body and the spirit.

Midsommar is deranged, disturbed, depraved, and an all-time great breakup film full of conflicted interests. Through Florence Pugh’s stunning performance (up there with the best of the year thus far), we’re left to wonder how we should feel about the events that take place, and whose side we should take. The commune members do terrible things that they justify through love. The oblivious outsiders are taken advantage of, but are still morally repugnant. Which is why Ari Aster’s bold choice for the film’s final shot works so beautifully in the picture’s thematic depiction of tender empathy. Dani wears a dress and a crown made of flowers, her face stone cold before turning into a sinister looking smile. She’s a bouquet of feelings, a reverse Joan of Arc who doesn’t burn at the stake but instead is in the gallery, and finally with a family. She’s the ripest plant in Midsommar’s garden, once and for all free from the weeds of her past and rooted in a place where she might prosper, proving that happiness can be cultivated even in the most twisted and barren of places. A fairy-tale ending indeed; just not the kind you’re used to.

“Nature just knows instinctually how to stay in harmony.”

Rating: 5 out of 5

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