One year removed from releasing what could easily go down as best horror film of the decade in Hereditary, Ari Aster is back with his second feature film as writer and director with Midsommar which gifts audiences with another trip down a rabbit hole of horror which few other filmmakers today can match.
Like its predecessor, Midsommer is a masterfully crafted film which couples a never ending buildup of dread with spikes of shockingly horrific images and events to accelerate our dive into madness. Aster mixes things up by bringing us some brand new images of death to behold and to writhe over. This is not a filmmaker that shies away from gore, and his embrace of the various means via which the human body can be destroyed and defiled is refreshing. The mutilations here are even more extreme than Hereditary, as they do not limit themselves to just some quaint beheadings and immolation. A warning to anyone who is at all squeamish or fastidious, this film is not going to hold back.
Also like its predecessor, Midsommar does an incredible job of building the suspense throughout the film before culminating in an extended climax. However, compared to the crescendo of terror and dread from Hereditary, this film’s finale feels far more restrained, and this is due, in part, to the narrative at play. Hereditary dealt more with the supernatural than Midsommar, which has an obstacle of death far more glued to reality- or at least something which able to more closely resemble reality. Potentially the strangest aspect of the film is the lack of shock from the images on screen. Perhaps it is due to having been exposed to Astrid’s shocking style once before is desensitizing in a way.
Equally plausible is the fact that there is an odd purity to the rituals and ceremonies taking place in this village. Yes, they involve taking the lives of otherwise innocent people, but this is presumably a practice which can date back centuries to when this sort of thing would have been more commonplace. There is almost an innocence to the rituals; no matter how brutal they may end up becoming, they are never performed with any sense of malice or ill intent. This characteristic does just enough to humanize the otherwise shocking brutality and curb the sea of dread and foreboding which drowns the audience in Hereditary. Do not make the mistake however, or thinking that Midsommar is more easily palatable than Hereditary. Just because it does not dwell in the realm of the supernatural does not mean that it cannot deliver fear. Indeed, by lurking within a reality similar to our own, it is more reminiscent of stories such as The Lottery. More distressing still, though not a perfect parallel, the film is even able to conjure images and feelings from real world events such as Jonestown, which in some ways is more horrific than anything in Hereditary.
Midsommar manages the impossible: to forgo utilizing fear of the unknown, and still scare us despite many times telling us exactly what is happening.
One odd aspect of the film which is unavoidable is the at times unintentional comedic elements. The horrific scenes in this film can begin to embrace the absurd. They become outrageous, bizarre and foreign which is what contributes to their ability to unnerve and disturb an audience. Or they can trip over that fine line of absurdity and cross into a more comedic plane where everything is so weird that the only reaction is to laugh. This is not helped by some hard cuts which is one of the strongest comedic devices in cinema. Hereditary had a moment or two in it as well, though its hellish crescendo was better able to drown it out. Depending on the overall disposition and willingness of the audience to get lost in the events taking place, the seemingly unintentional humor could pass with anything from a couple of murmurs (which is what happened in the theater a year ago with Hereditary) to outright and distracting laughter from multiple sources, which is what happened in my theater during Midsommar.
Treading into spoilers, Midsommar is as rich in imagery and symbols as it is in terror and dread. There is heavy use of mirrors, deliberate framing and character blocking to add to the characters and their situations. Throuhout the film we see our two lead characters framed with some other force standing between them. First it was Dani (Florence Pugh) being separated from her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) by his friends from college before transitioning to the Swedish villagers. The highlife of the climax of the film is characterized by the transformation of both the leads as well.
Both Christian and Dani become part of the bizarre rituals taking place in the village. Christian succumbs to the temptation of the village and ends up being sacrificed (along with many others) while wearing a bear skin with only his face able to be seen. Dani, after winning a dance marathon to become the festival queen, makes her own transformation into a beast, as she is clad in flowers, again with only her face being seen. In addition to change and transformations, the mirrors are critical to the ideas of the film. Themes of duplicity, deception and duality permeate the film, with characters often hiding their true selves or intentions from others before it can be revealed in time.
It is even conceivable to stretch the theme of mirrors and reflections beyond the confines of Midsomamr and incorporate Hereditary as well. While the image within a mirror is opposite, the actions within it is the same. As such, the actions within these two films are closely related as well. Both films revolve around the use of sacrificial rituals and the toll that it takes on the protagonists. Further, within both films, the protagonists end up becoming not only part of the rituals, but conductors of them- even if they are unwitting actors. The rituals are not only about death, but life or rebirth in each, with nudity taking a predominant role as the symbol of rebirth, or of a natural order to things. Of course there is also the structural similarities between the two films which could either be attributed to the filmmaker’s particular style or a deliberate choice to present these films in a similar fashion.
These two films feel like a pair serving as reflections of one another. Hereditary is very dark; its color pallet is black and opaque. All of the significant actions take place at night within the home of the characters. Midsommar is very bright; its color pallet is white and clear with almost everything taking place during the extended day time. Though both films revolve around sacrificial rituals, their intent is far different. Matching is color pallet, Hereditary is about death. The instigating element is the death of matriarch with the grisly death of the daughter soon after kicking the machine of death into full gear. The aim of the ritual may be reincarnation, but it is achieved through death, and even the reincarnation itself is of a prince of hell, a being of darkness.
Midsommar, as implausible as it may be, is a film about life. The first deaths to take place are of an elderly couple whose names will pass on to unborn children, thus breathing life into them. The seduction of the boyfriend is done for the purpose of conception and to create a new life before he is part of a sacrifice for that same life he helped to create. Even Dani, while taking on her own beastly form is clad in flowers; she serves as an embodiment of spring and summer for the people of the village who will celebrate the life coming from these events.
In many ways it is now impossible to view Hereditary in a vacuum anymore. It and Midsommar are reflections of one another, and are two different ways to death and rituals. Whether Aster intended to or not, he has created two films which are able to stand on either side of horror and see the contents from two different angles. In doing such, he has now made two of the finest horror films of the 20th century, and I eagerly await what he has in store for us next.