Pagan cults in Horror filmmaking are one of those specific niches that very few people have nailed, there are only maybe two or three films which have remained staples in the canon whilst body horror or ghost stories have many variations. Pagan horror remains indebted to The Wicker Man (1973, Dir. Robin Hardy) and possibly Witchfinder General (1968, Dir. Michael Reeves). With Midsommar, Ari Aster and his cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski have created a vision of hell on earth bathed in sunshine and psychedelic imagery that will stick in the mind long past its first viewing.
Much like his last film Hereditary, Aster ties all the events of the film to a tragedy that happens in the first act and from there things spiral out into disturbingly strange territory. Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are on the rocks following this tragedy, and a trip to Sweden to visit one of Christian’s friends’ mysterious Swedish commune, and witness their Midsummer festival presents a chance for them to get away and possibly start afresh. This is of course a bad idea that we as viewers are intensely aware of as soon as we see the white robes and overly smiley faces of the members of the Hårga. I will let the film reveal the events that happen with the Hårga in Halsingland, as it is important to experience what they do first hand, just as the characters do. It is safe to say though that your initial impressions of these pagan oddballs are correct, and things go downhill quite drastically by the end of their trip.
Midsommar is an ambitiously long film running at over two and a half hours long, but the visuals alone were enough to carry the film to another plane for me. It is not a snappy, fast paced, shock a minute film, but this is clearly a conscious choice by Aster. He is ambitious in his focus on horror storytelling and has obviously set out to create a lethargic rhythm to the film which will draw you in and challenge you. The film is probably closer in tone to Gaspar Noe’s Climax (2018) than a conventional horror narrative. There is more story at play here, but the tone and pacing help mirror the disorientation of the central characters to you, pulling you in whilst not being sure what is happening.
The fact that you can stick with the film as easily as you can is in a large part in testament to the cinematography and vivid colour of the film. The film is beautiful at points, with Halsingland’s green grass and beaming blue sky contrasting with the creeping horror on screen. There has clearly been a concerted effort to make the experience of watching the film as visually pleasing as possible, despite many people in my screening having to look away when the Hårga really let rip in their pagan ceremonies. The natural beauty of the setting and the strangeness of the events which take place within it make the feeling of increasing dread even more palpable. A strange unease comes over you when you see such disturbing things happen in full daylight, Aster gives you nowhere to hide and you see every element of whatever horror he is showing you. There are multiple moments throughout the film where Aster employs the same dead eyed long shots of his characters going through hell that he used in Hereditary, not giving the viewer a chance to escape from the emotions within the scene. The film even harks back to Bergman at points; it’s hard to imagine a character being named Ingmar is unintentional. Think Wicker Man (the original obviously), mixed with Climax and maybe a little bit of the human angst in The Virgin Spring (1960, Dir. Ingmar Bergman) and this is quite close to what you get.
Leaving the film on first viewing I wasn’t quite sure what I made of it, however having sat with it in my head for a while now I can appreciate just how original an experience I felt it was. If you go into this film expecting to be terrified from beginning to end you could be pretty disappointed. The thrill for me came from Midsommar’s slowly unravelling sanity, until Aster finally releases the tension and the Hårga are shown for their true colours. Of course, there is much to be drawn in terms of meaning from the events on screen, especially about the film and its relation to theories about toxic masculinity and relationships in the modern world. However, for me I just really enjoyed the darkness Aster conjured in broad Swedish daylight, and the slowly building power of its images.
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