Midsommar ★★★½

With ‘Midsommar’, rarely has the bleak looked so beautiful. Director Ari Aster demonstrates versatility, transitioning away from the oppressive pallet of his 2018 hit ‘Hereditary’ whilst tackling similarly troubling subject matter. Aster’s ability to delicately craft the film in a short space of time shows why he’s at the forefront of modern horror. Every frame and image seems to have a purpose.

The opening scenes are arguably the film’s most harrowing material as protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh) suffers a family tragedy. Aster is meticulous in showing us her mental state, the fragility of her relationships and the synonymy between the two. Dani’s boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), grudgingly invites her to the Hårga’s idyllic isolated festival in Sweden with the hope and expectation she’ll decline. Much to his friend’s chagrin: she accepts. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience a celebration which happens every 90 years. Only Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), member of the Hårga and instigator of the trip, seems pleased that she’s joining them.

As with Hereditary, so much of the tension is drawn out through a combination of sound design and drawing your attention to hints in mirrors and people lurking in the background of conversations. It’s all the more impressive considering the setting is perpetually drowned in light. Hints of the uncanny continuously unsettle us, Pelle refers to one of the Hagar as his “sister, she was born on the same day”. It indicates that they see family differently, or perhaps that being “born” isn’t in the traditional sense.

The film leans heavily into the horror trope of characters making irrational decisions. Whilst this might feel frustrating, it seems redundant to look for rationality in a film where characters are often consciously, or unconsciously, taking drugs. The decision to establish these characters as PhD students seems half-hearted, and the subplot never really coheres into anything valuable. Serving only to create an artificial conflict between Christian and Josh (William Jackson Harper) as they seek to study the Hårga’s traditions. This is one of the film’s shortcomings, the characters often feel one dimensional.

Their selfish desire to study the Hårga’s way of life sees them excuse warning signs that things aren’t what they appear to be. Whilst Dani seems to be seduced by the familial bond the cult has in the absence or decay of her own relationships. Aster has spoken about the influence of a bad breakup on the film and it’s easy to make that association. We often seek to move on in the most destructive ways from grief and trauma.

In that sense the film seems to warn how grief can leave us open to indoctrination and encourage destructive tendencies. In one scene Dani speaks fluent Swedish despite arriving with no prior understanding. In the early stages there are no subtitles until the group arrives at the village – past the point of no return.

The film’s climax is a spectacle which, although not surprising, manages to feel poignant. This is largely down to the performance of Pugh, who carries the audience. We invest in her plight because grief is universal. Whilst the conclusion is predictable, that also appears to be the point. Inevitably, we must move past our grief – the breakdown of a relationship or a family tragedy. Aster appears interested by the process in which we do so, leaving the nature of the films closing image down to your own interpretation.