Coming out of Midsommar I immediately saw a very blonde woman dressed in a blue and white folksy-style dress, her expression friendly yet with sinister undertones, and nearly legged it, before realising it was my own reflection in a shop window.
Midsommar‘s crowd of smiling, fair-haired, prettily dressed cult members are ominous to us from the beginning. Though for the six Americans and Brits who’ve travelled to this isolated Swedish community for a once-every-90 years summer festival, it takes a while for their hosts’ endgame to become clear. Even then some of the visitors seem a little too eager to embrace this new way of life.
Writer-director Ari Aster’s film is primarily about relationships, family, and belonging – the twisting of normality until it’s a perverted version of what it used to be, by which time its victims are so befuddled they can’t quite explain when and how they got to this point. The Swedes’ ideas of the circle of life are a warped version of nature; rearing its head too is also that age-old driver, jealously over women.
There’s a lot of gaslighting: the locals invite their visitors into an abusive relationship that looks envy-worthy from the outside, while also mocking them; Christian (Jack Reynor) ensures girlfriend Dani is always apologising to him in their arguments; and Aster constantly manipulates his audience (though after watching this, and feeling heady with both flower-induced hay fever and Stockholm Syndrome, I’ll defend him to the death for laughing at us).
Dani (an exceptional Florence Pugh) is already broken after a horrible family tragedy. It should make her more susceptible to the commune’s pressure to accept their weird idea of family, though actually for a long time it means she’s less easily manipulated. Her experience in the ways of dysfunctional families and the horrors they can contain makes her a flawed but interesting heroine we can root for, while still being unsure what choices she might make as she searches for somewhere to belong. Pugh is sensational as Dani blossoms from lost girl to sisterhood, her screams changing from anguished to cathartic.
Christian is a rubbish boyfriend who’s been trying to escape the relationship for months; he sticks around after her tragedy but seems to want to punish her for his goodness. His Swedish college friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) has invited Christian, Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) to his home village in Sweden for a summer festival; Christian invites Dani thinking she won’t come along, but she does. Pelle’s brother Ingemar has also brought people: a couple from London, Connie (Ellora Torchia) and Simon (Archie Madekwe). The group aren’t given “local” clothes for a long time and they stick out in their shapeless tees and denim dungarees among the white outfits decorated with colourful embroidery.
The basics of this folk horror story are derivative, though it only suffers in that the film isn’t particularly frightening; there’s no shock of the new to blindside us. Aster always shows craftsmanship when it comes to surprises within tropes though, and the gore here is different. He’s brave too: one particular sequence, where the young people finally witness something that they can’t explain away, is stretched out for an age. Their trauma, shock, and “what did we just see?” disbelief is palpable (and even then the locals fall back with ease into reproachful cultural relativism, to confuse some and reassure others who want to smooth things over).
Midsommar isn’t exactly joke-heavy though there are some funny lines, particularly from Mark, a dimwit with no sensitivity chip who’s only there for the women. The locals amusingly play on Swedish stereotypes: “we don’t break traffic laws!” one tells Connie, who is desperate to leave but discovers Simon has already been driven to the station without her because there weren’t enough seats in the truck. And wait til you hear their definition of recycling.
The humour also comes from the ease with which Christian and some of the others ignore what their senses are telling them, because they want something (sex for Mark, scholarly access to a hidden community for the studious Josh, for the lazy Christian a more freewheeling attitude to relationships and an easy thesis topic). Sometimes they’re bluntly told what will happen but believe it to be a metaphor.
(I should point out that in the showing I went to I was the only one cackling, and the only woman out of four people watching. Make of that what you will.)
People disappear, yet the group (what’s left of them) still seem to think they’re in some kind of anthropological theme park. And no one realises that the more they see the less likely they are to leave. How long can they ignore everything? (It wouldn’t surprise me if Midsommar‘s colourful images soon become an easy visual shorthand while also ignoring what is behind them – with some Instagram influencer getting their bucolic Midsommar-themed wedding splashed across social media and OK! magazine.)
Aster piles on the weirdness, disconcerting even as it increasingly happens in plain sight (or hearing). Drugs, love spells, a barely setting sun, all leave them confused and tired. The festival happens every 90 years when we’re used to multiples of 10 (18 is their magic number). In the car from the airport we see them and the road entirely upside down; throughout the movie, scene edges move and wobble. Like the group, we often know it’s going on and that we’re being teased, but we can’t stop it (and we too want to know what happens next).
There are some inconsistencies, and the history of the festival feels muddled: it’s apparently a once in a lifetime event yet they seem to have more frequent May Queens and celebrations, and Pelle’s comments about his dead parents imply this too. The film is unnecessarily long (2.5 hours), and while we need time for the sinister implications to work themselves through, we don’t need that long for ideas that we’ve seen before.
Its denouement dives headfirst into traditional horror territory, though I suspect people who love that will find the preceding two hours too slow a burn. Likewise those who adore the gradual unravelling beauty as the commune’s dark heart is gradually revealed, may find the ending too silly.
It’s all incredibly pretty though, using western society’s traditional ideas of beauty to show its superficiality and the harms it can hide: blondness, lots of pristine white, a perfect village green. It’s all so neat and curated, despite the commune’s claims to the wildness of the natural world.
For me though, ultimately what elevates Midsommar is its undercurrent not of evil but of wit – this is a (gorgeous, gruesome, overlong) revenge comedy.
Watch the trailer for Midsommar and scroll down for images: