Summertime is here, and with it you can expect blockbusters, family films, and movies set in the sunshine to crowd your theaters. However, if you’re looking for a bit of shadow to mellow out the glare, something truly distinct and very much not for the whole family awaits you on July 3rd. Midsommar is what you should be seeing over the holiday weekend if you’re looking for a summer movie that will leaving you deeply shaken, mentally stimulated, and asking, “Is Ari Aster OKAY?”
The premise is simple enough: Dani and Christian are a young, struggling couple, kept together only by a sudden family tragedy. Shortly after, they take a trip with other grad students to a remote Swedish village in order to observe a once-in-a-lifetime festival that begins idyllic yet turns desperately more terrible with each sun-drenched hour.
Aster’s sophomore feature as writer and director is again produced by arthouse studio A24, a company whose consistent success is the result of their continual devotion to implementing bold visions from independent artists. This is true again of Midsommar, in which Aster wastes no time delving deep, yet also never rushes – if anything, the patient pacing of this film only serves to enhance the startling sensation that the audience is experiencing a psychedelic journey alongside the movies’ main characters. Like their trips, both to a remote Swedish village and via repeated consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms, Midsommar is a visually stunning experience that repeatedly toggles strange enlightenment with a ritualistic nightmare.
This film truly shows a mastery of simply stated display, something that I think we can expect to always see from Aster’s work. In the beginning, it’s the brutal, sudden shift from folk singing among actual forestry to bland, flowered wallpaper and a blaring alarm clock. The immediate, wordless communication is clear: there’s a huge difference between the reality of certain places or imageries, and the thin, domestic, Americanized version we like to hang in our dorm rooms or decorate our suburbs with. With anthropology students at the heart of this narrative, there is a strong thematic thread about the nature of studying something – or someone – that you just don’t understand. The conundrum at the heart of anthropology is highlighted here: no matter how deeply you seek to immerse yourself in another culture, the fact remains that it will never belong to you, and you will therefore never fully be capable of understanding it. Anthropologists are forever seeking to grasp something unattainable – the closer they get to discovering and defining other cultures, they more they must understand how impossible it is for them to know the fullness of being it.
The same can perhaps be said of mental illness, though with far less fondness and not a little bit more issue. Like Hereditary, Midsommar very seriously addresses the confusing reality of having disordered family members. Largely, there is an unfair, negative stigma associated, and the family is forever trying to combat it. They try to normalize or downplay the frightening aspects of it, so as not to alienate others who “can’t deal” or isolate themselves for fear of related events being “too much,” “too dramatic,” or “too needy.” Simultaneously, there is a real reason to ask for help, address concerning flags, and a desperate need for support and understanding from others who claim to love you, because sometimes bad things happen as a result of these conditions to both the mentally ill and their families.
Midsommar gracefully navigates the tremendously difficult and confusing realities therein. It paints a painfully realistic picture of just one kind of experience, but makes it accessible and clear to the viewer. Aster truly knows how to delve into the heart of these things in a way that demands investment and care from the audience. He also has a great deal to say about the strange juxtapositions involved in concepts around communal suffering, and the inexplicable immunity that we, as a society, tend to assign to our family groups when they are the cause of our suffering.
More anxious and distressing than it is scary, Midsommar also provides one of the better depictions of hallucinogenic tripping that I’ve ever seen. It’s nearly too accurate for comfort, but that’s certainly deliberate. The fine details of the plot are telegraphed throughout by well-crafted set pieces and a cultural simulation that is masterfully designed. It rewards the attentive viewer, and would probably also evolve after multiple viewings, though I can’t say that’s something I’m willing to test anytime soon.
Don’t jump in without considering the content, however. Warnings abound: suicide, dubious consent for (potentially underage) sexual situations, and some intensely graphic gore. I would submit Ari still has some growing to do, as a film maker – he needs to learn to try something different from gruesome head wounds, prolonged scenes of women screaming through their grief, and traumatized protagonists moving through his finales in catatonia. We’ve seen all three in both of his films, so I do hope he experiments with something else in his next project. Midsommar, however, may actually be somewhat more effective than Hereditary (which was itself a masterpiece) because of being more firmly grounded in reality, and entrenched in more natural, relatable fears like running naked among strangers or being abandoned in a strange place, rather than witchcraft and demons.
Nonetheless, this is a fantastic venture into some deeply interesting and visually stellar storytelling. Whatever you analyze in this film, you’ll find a wealth of material to support useful discourse. Aster’s statements on the way we perceive or handle people with mental illnesses are intriguing, but so is his commentary on the complex and contradictory expectations involved in communal suffering – particularly within family groups, regardless of whether those units are defined by blood or choice.
I give the movie an A-, it’s an excellent movie all around.