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SWEDE DREAMS ARE MADE OF THIS
Director: Ari Aster
Screenplay: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter
Review: RJ Bland
Arguably the standout horror film of 2018 was Ari Aster's Hereditary, an ominous and disturbing portrayal of family breakdown, trauma and grief. The fact it was Aster's first feature film made it all the more extraordinary. Although it was something of a love it or hate it movie, most of the movie's detractors recognised the technical and visual flair on show. Genre fans were quietly hoping that Aster's next feature would be horror (we're protective like that) and sure enough, within a month or two of Hereditary shocking audiences worldwide, it was announced that his next movie, Midsommar, would be a Swedish set folk horror film that revolved around a pagan festival. There's a problem with making a stand out first movie however; and that is that expectation levels (and therefore pressure) are sky high. Is this film-maker a one hit wonder or are we seeing the early works of a true auteur? We donned our white floral dresses and tuned in to find out...
In the film's opening scenes we are introduced to Dani (Florence Pugh), a young anxiety ridden woman who is on the brink of losing her long-term boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). However, after a family tragedy, their break-up is put on hold and Christian sticks around to help Dani through her grief. Dani then agrees to accompany Christian and three of his grad -school friends on a trip to Northern Sweden, where they plan to visit a rural commune. One of the group, Pelle, was raised there and thinks his friends would love to see the once in a lifetime pagan festival that is due to take place. People in white robes dancing around, loads of flowers and magic mushrooms – what could go wrong? Well, quite a lot as you'd expect...
If you pair a storyline that sounds something like a Wicker Man sequel to the mind of someone capable of creating a nightmare like Hereditary, you know the result is going to be intriguing if nothing else – and that's precisely what it is. Viewers expecting the dark foreboding dread that Aster conjured up in his debut feature will find something quite different on offer here. Midsommar is a stark, bright, dreamy, lingering affair that is more psychological drama than anything else. One of the reasons that Hereditary was so effective was due to the characters that Aster created and how real they felt, which made what followed all the more traumatic. Human drama was vital to the movie, as it is with Midsommar, which is at it's heart, a film about breakdown and loss. Loss of family, loss of identity and the break down of relationships. That's not to say that Midsommar isn't unsettling or horrifying, because it is in places. The creeping sense of unease and dread is dialled down a little here but it is punctuated with some moments of graphic violence (Aster loves smooshing people's heads) and a few moments of macabre imagery that stay with you long after the credits. The opening ten minutes in particular build to an event that is nightmarishly grim. However, there is also a vein of dark humour that runs throughout the story that does help lighten the mood at times (which is necessary for a film that's 140 minutes long).
Although this reviewer doesn't want to keep comparing the film to Hereditary, I'm going to do it one more time. Where Hereditary was elevated by a scinitilating central performance by Toni Collette, Midsommar features an equally impressive turn from young actress Florence Pugh, whose portrayal of the grief-stricken and damaged Dani is worth seeing the film for alone. Jack Reynor is also great too as the reluctant boyfriend and the relationship between the two leads is horribly realistic and unbiased. At times we side with her and others, we see things from his perspective. It makes what happens all the more ambiguous and troubling.
It's fair to say that Midsommar is not going to be everyone's cup of (herbal and medicinal) tea. The running time will undoubtedly bother some and it's true that in the middle act, there are some scenes which outstay their welcome a little (there's only so long we can see people singing and dancing surely?!). Those who have seen Wicker Man may also feel that they know where this is all headed and there is a sense of inevitability about it all that will turn some off. Like Hereditary (I mentioned it again!) and David Bruckner's The Ritual (also set in Sweden), the last twenty minutes or so will see some people unable – or unwilling – to make the necessary leaps to fully enjoy the spectacle. To some it will all end up feeling a bit absurd and hysterical.
But some films take a little while to cast their spell and whilst some may dismiss the movie as fussy folklore nonsense, others (ourselves included) will find new meaning and respect for it in the hours and days after they have witnessed it. Easter eggs and ambiguities and clues are scattered liberally during the course of the movie and whilst a second (or third) viewing would result in even more being noticed, there is something rewarding about picking through and dissecting certain scenes and images and bits of dialogue that give new meaning and context to what you thought you already knew or understood.
Midsommar may not match Aster's debut feature in terms of horror or scares, but it's portrayal of breakdown and loss is superbly visualised and Florence Pugh is sensational in the lead role. Yes it's too long and at times, feels a bit too familiar but it's another intriguing,and unsettling feature that firmly establishes Aster as one of the biggest creative talents in horror right now.
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