I find it hard to take horror movies seriously and this is no exception. Highly-rated by several esteemed critics and slated by others, I am prepared for anything.
At one level it’s a story of a relationship break-up. Dani (Florence Pugh) and her anthropologist boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are struggling. She is addicted to anti-depressants, and Christian’s college friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Swedish Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) are urging him to dump her as she’s no fun to be around.
The murder-suicide of her parents and sister bring the couple together and Christian finds himself inviting her – much to everyone’s horror – to accompany them on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Pelle’s Swedish village to witness a ceremony that only happens every 90 years.
The contrast with the unremitting winter of the US with the never-ending sunshine of mid-summer in Sweden sets the scene for the horror that we know is coming. The unwitting group arrives and is immediately introduced to the pagan community by tripping on mushrooms. Their senses are dulled, their vision blurred as they gambol like sacrificial lambs with their new friends, all in white and garlanded with flowers. The Hungarian countryside and bright-light cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski provide a suitable bucolic backdrop.
The wide-eyed anthropologists ask questions about the seeming utopia – why are there no marriages, why does everyone sleep in dormitories, who parents the children, what about preventing incest and why does life end at 72? They witness the madness of this society by the willing leaps to death of two volunteers – after all they believe in reincarnation. The gruesome filming of this event is juxtaposed with the beatific smiles bestowed upon our hapless friends and the villagers’ sense of joy at what is to come…and what might that be?
When the English couple disappears – gone home apparently – the mood darkens. But the ritual must go on – more eerily-synchronised communal meals, more daisy chains, more pagan ceremonies, culminating in the quest for the May Queen and the film’s final denouement.
Ari Aster was much admired for his thriller Hereditary, also loved by the critics. Here he borrows heavily from The Wicker Man to create a society hell-bent on living their own dream. But at 2 hrs 37 it is a self-indulgent undertaking and were it not for the slapstick interludes it would be tedious in the extreme. There are some good throw-away lines, like ‘I didn’t know we were going to Waco’ when the friends first arrive, and when Christian is chosen to procreate to mix the gene pool the act is accompanied by a group of ancient naked harpies all howling and slapping his buttocks in time to his thrust. Nothing other than a belly-laugh will do but rather than add to the suspense, these scenes punctuate and burst the bubble of evil.
The Thriller Writer and I debated the central theme of the film. At one level it could be seen as a narcissistic film-maker’s romp through his own warped fantasies, or as a more serious examination of mental illness and other people’s reaction to it. Danni is a sufferer, and her life is devastated by the actions of her insane sister. She is looking for love and support, and Christian is unable to offer this, as his weakness is not only responsible for asking her to come with him (easier than dumping her) but also directs his own fate. Can the certifiable Midsommar community offer her what she seeks? Is substituting one kind of insanity for another really the answer?
On balance some directorial restraint might have led to a tighter and more focussed film while losing none of the impact. The midsummer madness failed to convince either way but it is nevertheless quite a watchable, if somewhat gory, entertainment which is not credible at any level.