By Gary M. Kramer.
Heredity filmmaker Ari Aster’s eagerly awaited sophomore feature, Midsommar, is impressive when one looks at the craft that went into it. There are elaborate dinner table scenes for dozens of guests, as well as intricate tapestries, costumes, and wall decorations. Aster’s camerawork is showy – some might say impressive – as he includes many overhead shots, upside-down shots, and uses slow-motion, superimposition, and even psychedelic imagery as in one curious scene where food appears to be throbbing in the foreground of a shot. Aster also looks to jolt his audience, with a ringing phone that interrupts a serene moment, a surprising image in a mirror, and some disturbing scenes of violence and viscera.
But what Aster does not do in Midsommar is get viewers to care about his largely unlikable characters.
This long (140 minute) slow-burn drama concerns Dani (the magnificent Florence Pugh) who suffers a horrific family tragedy in the film’s pre-title sequence. She seeks comfort from her long-term boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), but he is not very reliable. Christian even admits to his friends that he is looking for a way out of the relationship. From the few early scenes the couple have together, they are dysfunctional. He acts badly – and she apologizes for it. He is obviously a cad, and she is too fragile to leave him. But the tensions in their relationship are barely addressed. There is no reason to root for this couple to stay together. The film is just a long set-up for a climactic moment that is neither surprising nor satisfying.
But that is getting ahead of things. Midsommar kicks in to gear when Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites grad students Christian, Mark (Will Poulter), and Josh (William Jackson Harper) – the latter is writing his anthropology thesis on midsummer festivals – to visit the Swedish commune that raised him for a 9-day midsummer event. Christian feels pressured to ask the grieving Dani to come along, which she does.
Arriving in Sweden and driving through the countryside, the camera spins upside-down indicating this is going to be a trip. And trippy, it is. The gang quickly meet Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg) and his British friends Connie (Ellora Torchia) and Simon (Archie Madekwe) and immediately take drugs. Dani, in particular, has an intense, surreal experience.
In their colorful clothes, the Americans (and Brits) stand out amid all the white-clad Swedes. The foreigners come to learn about the local customs of the festival that include the crowning of the May Queen. Josh asks questions about the runes he sees, and Christian decides to write his thesis on the commune (much to Josh’s chagrin). Mark looks for sex and drugs. There is a bear in a cage. (A plant for a payoff later). There is also an undercurrent of uneasiness as the strange and mysterious rituals begin.
The centerpiece of Midsommar is a sacrifice that Aster insists on playing for maximum shock. The deaths are shown graphically, and in one case, a large hammer is used to hasten death. Aster likewise cudgels viewers, showing them a badly broken leg, or a head being bashed in up close, to drive home the impact of the terror. Connie and Simon are horrified, and they become characters in a sinister drama the next day, perhaps as a result of their reactions.
Aster includes other scenes of characters behaving badly. The hedonistic Mark, who provide the film’s comic relief by making crude and sarcastic comments, is scolded for befouling ancient property. Josh is asked not to take photographs and disobeys that request. It is not surprising that these characters are punished for their actions, but what happens to them is not particularly suspenseful or upsetting. It is almost a relief when the unlikeable Mark disappears for a while because he is irritating; his character serves no real purpose.
Midsommar focuses on the Dani-Christian relationship late in the film when she gets involved in the May Queen dance competition and he is being wooed by a local girl who puts her pubic hairs in his food. How these strange episodes play out is compelling – Aster is a competent filmmaker – but they fail to create any strong emotions. Aster is intent on showing how clever he is, creating a mood with his vivid set-pieces, but they ring hollow. Most of the film’s big moments have too little impact. Viewers may feel distracted by all the look-at-me visuals and theatrics which are designed to disguise the fact that he is not really saying anything.
Is Aster attempting to make an anthropological commentary on how outsiders (or scholars) view an insular society? Is there a feminist message here in how men should behave? Is this a metaphor for America’s bad behavior abroad? Or is it a treatise on family and how people can replace a biological family for a chosen family? Midsommar could be any or all of those things, but Aster isn’t telling. And such ambiguity is fine, if it makes viewers think or feel. But Midsommar is more interested in manipulating its audience than creating anything genuine.
As Dani, Florence Pugh immerses herself into the role and is the film’s saving grace. She conveys so much emotion in her expressions and body language that she is the film’s only sympathetic character. Pugh keeps viewers engaged; Midsommar sags when she is off-screen.
As Christian, Jack Reynor is wasted for most of his screen time, but his performance comes to life during a remarkable, extended sex scene that is both mesmerizing and oddly comic. He acquits himself well as Christian’s fears develop among the strangeness that transpires.
Alas, Aster takes too long to get to the interesting if inevitable scenes. By the time the drama comes to a head, it feels too little too late. And then Frankie Valli’s “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” plays, ironically, during the ending credits. It is not subtle. Midsommar is distressing not because of the bizarre cult rituals on display, but because Aster’s film is all style with little substance.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.