Midsommar

Midsommar ★★★★

"We only do this every 90 years." ~ Pelle

Of all the trailers I saw in the theater during the first half of this year, the one for this Swedish folk horror drama intrigued me the most. Surprisingly, there was only one other patron in the viewing room with me for the afternoon matinee, and she walked out before the end. But I can say after watching writer-director Ari Aster's shocking new production, I am so glad I was able to see it on the big screen before its run ends.

The story opens in Utah one snowy winter evening with college student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) receiving the worst of all possible news. Her bipolar sister Terri (Klaudia Csányi) has just committed a murder-suicide, killing both of their parents (Gabriella Fón & Zsolt Bojári) as well as herself. Dani's grad-school boyfriend Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor), who has been on the verge of breaking up with her, tries to console the newly orphaned girl, but she can sense a distance between them that only adds to her misery and grief.

Fast forward to early June. Dani learns that Christian is planning to travel to Sweden with his friends: classmate Mark (Will Poulter), who doesn't much like Dani, and serious anthropology scholar Josh (William Jackson Harper). They've been invited by their Swedish classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to attend a nine-day Midsommar festival at Hårga, the commune where he grew up in Hälsingland.

Pelle explains that the event is a kind of costume fair honoring ancient lore and traditions. It occurs only once every ninety years, coinciding with the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, when the "midnight sun" occupies the sky for all but a few hours each day. The trip may help Josh with his thesis on folk customs. Mark is more interested in meeting beautiful Swedish women, but Christian? Dani can't understand why he didn't tell her what they were planning, especially since he'll be traveling on her birthday. She feels ignored, left out and neglected.

To keep their relationship together, and without consulting with his friends, Christian invites Dani to come along, too. She accepts, much to Mark's chagrin. Studious Josh doesn't care one way or the other. But Pelle is happy to hear of Dani's interest and warmly welcomes her to the expedition. The next thing we know, they are all aboard an airplane bound for Stockholm, where they'll rent a car and drive four hours north to Pelle's ancestral home.

Aster has said that this was originally pitched as a slasher film focusing on a Swedisd cult. However, he wanted the core concept to be a break-up, showing a devolving romantic relationship that ends with the central couple parting ways. He does an excellent job setting the stage with tension between Dani and Christian, but as soon as they arrive at Hårga, it's the mysterious "communal family" and their unusual customs that take center stage.

As Mark comments, "It's like another world." And that world includes wearing rustic white garments and flower garlands, ingesting psilocybin-laced tea, regimented group meals, interpretation of runes, lots of flirtation, dancing till you drop, and (here it comes)...


**** CAUTION ⚠️ POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD ****

...gruesome ritual senicide, ceremonial copulation, community condoned incest, deep secrets, bald-faced lies and human sacrifices, including disembowelment and immolation. Oh what fun it is as the outsiders begin to disappear one by one, and Dani ends up becoming the festival's Queen with a life-or-death decision to make.

Some aspects I totally enjoyed here were the visual cues hidden in plain sight by Aster. There's a picture of a little girl taming a huge bear on the wall of Dani's apartment that connects to a real bear seen later at the commune. A tapestry hung on a clothesline depicts a young maid winning over her love interest with a pie containing her pubic hairs before we see Maja (Isabelle Grill) seduce Christian in exactly the same way. There are also murals inside the communal building showing a blazing bear and other ceremonies that occur here later.

In fact, you might say there are few surprises as the Midsommar celebration progresses. Aster hardly even uses jump scares, although there is one that had me leap from my seat, when Christian has run naked to the barn and thinks he is safe, only to be taken prisoner from behind. Ouch! And the fate of poor blasphemous Simon (Archie Madekwe), the visiting Brit, was bit of a shocker, but not actually surprising. We all knew he didn't hurry off to the train station and leave Connie (Ellora Torchia) alone.

Likewise, Mark deserved his fate for pissing on the sacred burial tree as much as Josh deserved his for photographing historic documents after being told it was strictly forbidden. Nobody really gets blindsided. In that respect, it felt less like a horror movie aiming to scare us than an exploration of cross-cultural differences aiming to challenge our belief systems.

Other deep themes explored here include the true meaning of family, and the relationship of death to life. I was intrigued by the explanation of how the communal society divides residents' lives into four 18-year segments like seasons: Spring from 0-18 for growing and learning; Summer from 19-36 for reproduction and child rearing; Fall from 37-54 for work and reaping the harvest thereof; and Winter from 55-72 for leading and mentoring. Then, your useful purpose on Earth has been fulfilled; you merge willingly with nature and the universe instead of withering away, fighting illness in an old folks home or hospice.

I have to admit, I drank the Kool-Aid. Aster sucked me right down his rabbit hole. I really loved this, and I can see why some folks might walk out... for the same reasons the Catholic Church condemned the film as "morally offensive." So see it at your own risk, but if you ask for my opinion, see it by all means.

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