Breakup Festival: “Midsommar” an unsettling yet perversely cathartic and darkly funny daytime nightmare

Midsommar (2019)
147 min.
Release Date: July 3, 2019 (Wide)

Ari Aster greatly impressed—and divided audiences—with his core-shaking feature debut, 2018’s “Hereditary,” but no matter what, everyone could agree that he proved himself to be a daring, thoughtful filmmaker and artist as if he has been working in the business for decades next to any of the seasoned greats. While Aster carries over similar themes of paganism and loss with his follow-up film, “Midsommar,” he explores a different kind of toxic and disintegrating relationship between a couple who should have already called it quits long before one of them experiences a major loss. Deeply unsettling as it is strange and perverse, the film is a darkly funny breakup drama framed through a macabre fairy tale like 1973’s “The Wicker Man,” where the viewer is, by design, rooting for them to not stay together. Even if some of the breadcrumbs may take another viewing to click into place, unlike the meticulous construction of "Hereditary," "Midsommar" still mounts like a cinematic panic attack and then lands with a disturbingly satisfying catharsis.

After receiving a startling email from her bipolar sister, psychology grad student Dani (Florence Pugh) tries to get in touch with her and her parents, but it’s too late when a sudden tragedy strikes. She turns to her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), for comfort, but he has been trying to end their four-year relationship (he thinks they have been together for three and a half) and now feels obligated to stay with her as she grieves. When Dani learns that Christian and his two college friends, fellow sociology student Josh (William Jackson Harper) and group boor Mark (Will Poutler), have planned an overseas trip for a nine-day solstice festival with Swedish roommate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to the insular commune where he grew up, she gets a pity invite and tags along in hopes of exorcising her crushing grief. They arrive to the sunny, bucolic, ultra-inviting community with a warm welcome by Pelle’s friendly family and friends, all dressed in white frocks and tunics and ready to celebrate with games, dancing, and food. As the consuming of psychedelic properties get to be too much and the pageantry of the culturally unorthodox ceremony rituals prove to be too disturbing for these interlopers, particularly Dani, their fates might already be sealed.

From frame one, where a Nordic winter tableau with a woman chanting off-screen smash cuts to a ringing phone in suburban America, “Midsommar” immediately percolates dread and sustains it for the next 147 minutes through an unhurried yet hypnotic tempo and elegant craftsmanship. Then, like many a horror film about interlopers entering an unfamiliar place and ignoring the warning signs, the film presents the Swedish commune as a deceptively idyllic community, aided by exquisite production design, from intricate tapestries and wall decorations to elaborate dinner setups where the head of the table leads and a domino effect follows. Not only does the film fall into a vacation romp turned upside down into folk horror, it is a meditation on interpersonal communication in decline. Dani and Christian represent very different levels of gender communication in their relationship that is so dysfunctional it could be seen from space. They can’t even agree on how long they have been together, and Dani will apologize, even if Christian is the one who says something hurtful. Even as this would-be paradise full of wide open space seems like the right escape for Danny, there is no escape.

Much like the performance Ari Aster got out of Toni Collette in “Hereditary,” Florence Pugh (2019’s “Fighting with My Family”) is extraordinary, traversing a raw, overwhelmingly emotional  and always empathetic journey from fragility, neediness and fear to catharsis that demands her entire being. What’s more, Pugh is a dead ringer for a younger Kate Winslet. Jack Reynor (2016's "Sing Street") slides between playing Christian as charming and infuriatingly selfish and unsupportive, and while Will Poutler (2017's "Detroit") has a less complicated role to play, he is rather effective at depicting Mark as a complete prick.

In stark contrast with its floral countryside setting where the sun eternally shines, “Midsommar” is a daytime nightmare of insidious portent and encroaching doom. This time, though, Ari Aster filters an unexpected sense of humor through the disorientation of foreign, allegedly too-good-to-be-true circumstances, from one of the character’s observations of a bear casually caged in the field and Mark’s crass, disrespectful American attitude. Even then, these seemingly incongruous flashes of comedy still feel like harbingers of doom, along with Bobby Krlic’s increasingly sinister music score, and how Aster handles bursts of violence are unflinching and visceral. Pawel Pogorzelski’s tour-de-force cinematography and Jennifer Lame and Lucia Johnston’s seamless editing find a quixotic alchemy, like in an overhead shot of Dani running into Christian’s apartment bathroom that then becomes an airplane bathroom. The camera tends to put the viewer at a distance from certain characters in wide shots, but there is always an intimacy when Dani is on screen.

There is a cruel inevitability to where “Midsommar” is headed, like watching a train wreck in slow motion, and while the payoff is not quite as gutting, how it gets there is no less chilling and operatic, akin to “The Wicker Man, with a tinge of twisted hope. Watching a decaying relationship be tested in a communal camp of questionable traditions, “Midsommar” isn’t an easy two-and-a-half-hour trip to take, but the experience is an unforgettably disquieting one that crawls under the skin and will dash any plans of making a bucket-list trip to Sweden.

Grade: B +