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Pervading the psyche

Five-star horror in Midsommar

Midsommar (18)
Running time 2hr 78min
Rating: *****

SOME films seem to fall from the sky, and Midsommar is one of them, a veritable mise en scène of anguish and delirium, unlike anything else in contemporary cinema. This is the second film from horror maverick Ari Aster, who made his feature debut with 2018’s Hereditary; like that shockbuster, it’s an exceptionally difficult watch, shot through with appalling violence and punctuated with languorous, primally sensuous sections. But it’s effortlessly cathartic, marking Aster among the first great filmmakers of the 21st century.

As in Hereditary, the action finds its basis in an unutterable family tragedy, which threatens to push unstable student Dani (played by the terrific Florence Pugh) over the edge. Battling to save a relationship that’s already on life support, Dani’s boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), invites her on a trip to Sweden, where he and his narcissistic friends intend to partake in a cultic festival that occurs once a century. The sect in question (of which one among Christian’s entourage – played by Vilhelm Blomgren – is a member) is a greatest-hits compilation of pagan horror tropes and New Age fads – maypole rites, hippy apparel, dancing manias and freaky flute quartets. It embodies a preposterous Nordic idyll, a quintessentially Yankee conception of Europe’s dim and distant past. But not all is as it seems…

Though the premise is reminiscent of The Wicker Man, the psychotic essence of Aster’s vision owes far more to the hysteria of Bergman and the feverish diligence of Kubrick (a mid-movie dream sequence shamelessly apes The Shining). Contrasts of weather play a role here that is roughly analogous to Hereditary’s audacious experiments with time and light – while the US is realised as a snow-battered labyrinth of decaying suburban abodes and crummy college dorms, rural Sweden is a sun-drenched Arcadia, ripped straight from the front of a knockoff postcard. With this crucial transition, the film disposes wholesale of narrative consistency; it’s not long before it drops dialogue, too, giving itself over to the impulsive madness of the cult’s bacchanal. And we, of course, go along with it, keen to feast upon the sumptuous visuals, utterly invested in an intangible mystery we won’t see the end of. Even the film’s most singularly brutal moments are rendered with technicolour
splendour, invoking a profound unease.

Whereas Edward Woodward’s policeman in The Wicker Man was comically repulsed by the heretics of Summerisle, the kids in Midsommar are nothing if not enamoured with the pagans and their way of life, even after bearing witness to an uber-grisly incident involving a cliff edge and some runestones. Christian urges his friends to keep an open mind in the face of all the depravity, while even the sickened Dani finds a temporary, drug-induced peace with the villagers. One might interpret this as Aster taking an asinine, Eli Roth-esque jab at the folly of modern, liberal yoof (indeed, it’s not long before tourists start to go
inexplicably AWOL, à la Hostel). But the remarkable thing about Midsommar is that its gloss and sheen is not purely superficial – even after the full extent of the cult’s ghastliness is made apparent, we frequently find ourselves won over to the colour and rhythm of commune life, all too aware that this charming veneer will soon give way to new, excruciating horrors.
Precious few films have juggled dread and whimsy with such calculated discipline; David Lynch’s Blue Velvet could perhaps be described as a spiritual third cousin, but even that comparison doesn’t do Midsommar justice. This kind of movie tends to invite walkouts at the multiplex (there were certainly a handful when I watched Hereditary), yet this critic was surprised to find that, when the lights came on, the original audience had survived its two-hour runtime totally intact. That’s testament to the film’s uncanny ability to infiltrate the viewer’s psyche; above all, it’s a uniquely captivating picture, packed with grim and beguiling detail.

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