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Folk-horror film Midsommar is morbidly engrossing


MIDSOMMAR
directed by Ari Aster

A journey to observe a Swedish pagan ritual has grisly consequences.

The setting of Midsommar, a morbidly engrossing folk-horror film from rising US director Ari Aster, is a tiny enclave in the Swedish wilds. It being solstice, the sun never sets and everything is permanently illuminated: fresh fruit, flowers, running water – always shining, even at night.

“It’s like another world,” marvels Dani (Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth), part of a group of American students who have come to this place to observe a once-in-a-century pagan ritual. She’s a reluctant arrival, still grieving her recently deceased parents and shackled to her grossly inattentive boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor).

In contrast to these gauche Yanks, the commune’s occupants are visions of health and vigour, flowing with rich white linen and braided hair and always, always smiling. Perhaps too much, because somewhere in the background, there’s an ancient book of macabre runes, a disfigured child considered an oracle, and a man who carries an enormous wooden mallet …

Right from the start, Midsommar glows with dread, riven with an atmosphere of relentless foreboding. That is, until the blood starts to flow and the film becomes an anarchic opera of gristle and grime. But it’s not all gloom and anxious carnage. Every now and again, moments of pure incongruity appear, acting as a release valve for ever-rising tensions. At Midsommar’s hysterical height, there are jokes of the kind that make one snigger and shiver at the same time.

Our guide through hilarity and gore alike is Dani, who has one of those open faces so apt for cinema, a ripe landscape for the interplay of conflicting emotions. Throughout, she’s caught somewhere between shock and satisfaction, incomprehension and acceptance. The film’s lingering final shot is an astonishing – and disturbing – demonstration of her skill.

Aster has clearly learnt lessons from Hereditary, his feature debut that has already become a horror classic despite being only a year old. In that film, the director explained away ghoulish goings-on by portraying the malevolent forces puppeteering the action. However, he could have done it without resorting to pentagrams and Ouija boards – the litter of cheap scares.

In Midsommar, he has calmed down, grown more patient. The slow glide of the camera, the idyllic stillness of surroundings, the absence of explanation – these things are frightening enough on their own.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★★

Video: Roadshow Films NZ

This article was first published in the September 28, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.