After terrifying audiences with Hereditary, Ari Aster returns with an equally-forbidding Norwegian folk horror
Ari Aster burst onto the scene last year with his feature-film debut Hereditary, a critically adored effort that became A24’s highest-grossing film globally to date.
The fan-favourite distributor has allied with Aster’s genius/absurdist/horrific vision once again for his sophomore film Midsommar, a nerve-shredding film inspired by the Swedish tradition and folklore.
After suffering a severe family trauma, college student Dani (Florence Pugh) is reluctantly invited by her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) to Sweden with him and his friends to attend a midsummer celebration.
However, their peaceful and cultural retreat transpires to be far more sinister as the group find themselves in the clutch of a cult.
Horror movies usually facilitate larger themes to shine through, and Aster seizes this opportunity to address some hefty ones.
If Herditary was a mediation on family, grief and mental illness, Midsommar serves as an extreme metaphor for the end of a relationship.
Aster, who also wrote the film, has described it as “a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film”, and it’s within these themes where the true horror manifests.
In some of the film’s earliest moments, Dani experiences an incomparable tragedy and the rest of the story shows her trying to navigate her way through grief, all the while attempting to cling onto her crumbling relationship with Christian.
Christian neglects to tell Dani about his plans to visit Sweden for the summer and acts coldly when she reasonably attempts to address the situation, an interaction resulting in her apologising to him.
She also blames herself for their strained relationship, believing her dependence on Christian for comfort and support in times of strife is pushing him away.
Whilst Midsommar explores the destructiveness of toxic masculinity, the character of Christian (Reynor - in what looks set to be his breakout performance) is imbued with the appropriate complexities so audiences simultaneously understand and despise him.
Despite the shocking customs that the outsiders are exposed to, Dani quietly gains a strength over the course of her stay at the commune where she is welcomed by the villagers after months of feeling isolated in her relationship.
In one scene, Christian’s suspiciously sympathetic Swedish friend Pelle asks Dani, “Do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?” Her expression that follows speaks a thousand words.
Following on from Toni Collette’s powerhouse portrayal as grief-stricken Annie in Hereditary, Aster has cast another fearless female lead in Florence Pugh.
Dani is a character plagued by an unspeakable tragedy and Pugh gives an utterly unrestrained performance in the role.
High-profile award ceremonies rarely honour performances in horror films, but Pugh’s is one to be remembered.
Hereditary boasted a remarkable set design with miniaturist artist Annie’s work foretelling the most shocking aspects of the narrative. Midsommar employs the same technique of sowing seeds for the audience to clue in to and reflect upon once the story’s wild denouement has been reached.
Aster and his production and costume designers (Henrik Svensson and Andrea Flesch respectively) have crafted a rich tapestry (in some instances literally) of visual foreshadowing, including individually hand-stitched runes that symbolise different meanings to whoever is wearing them.
At nearly two-and-a-half hours long, the film patiently mounts dread and anticipation, relying on a slow and methodical unveiling of the horror rather than the instant gratification of jump scares. The resulting impression is much more long-lasting – there are no cheap thrills to be had here.
Whilst Midsommar is sure to give some audience members nightmares, it has emerged as a film analyst’s dream; littered with subtle inferences throughout that coalesce to deliver a wholly unique and chaotic conclusion.
Words: Evie Brudenall