I can’t say I was the biggest fan of director Ari Aster’s last film, “Hereditary.” Aside from a few gut-churning moments (including one visual that really ends up burned into your brain—you know the one), the movie often felt like an exercise in pointlessness. The chaos and violence on display was largely disconnected from any sense of moral desert, leading to a dispiriting and dissatisfying conclusion.
Alas, Aster’s “Midsommar”—despite its artsy affect and stylish trailers—is not much better. In Aster’s hands, a story that wants desperately to be about something, to build to a shatteringly satisfying climax, lands with a dull thud.
The journey begins with young Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) reeling from a horrible family tragedy. As part of her healing process, Dani tags along on a trip to northern Sweden with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper), mulish Mark (Will Poulter), and Swedish expat Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Their destination: Hårga, a small village home to Pelle’s family, where every 90 years a great Midsommar festival is held to commemorate the solstice. It promptly becomes clear, however, that Hårga’s festival is a surprisingly dangerous place.
It’s obvious that “Midsommar” (sporting a nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime) very, very much wants to be a kind of art-horror film in the vein of Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” remake. It is not such a film: at bottom, this is a gussied-up version of “The Wicker Man” with more existential angst and prettier cinematography. Virtually everything that happens in “Midsommar” is telegraphed well in advance, and even the movie’s climax is altogether too predictable.
To the extent there are underlying themes in play here, “Midsommar” seems to be a somewhat ham-handed parable about embracing the Dionysian element in life—staring defiantly into the cold indifference of existence and choosing to live (or die) on one’s own terms. (It’s surely no coincidence that Dani’s boring boyfriend’s name is Christian, while her last name is Ardor.) In line with that vision, the film sees to celebrate a kind of Nietzschean pantheism, a pagan ethos without a pagan cosmology. The naturalistic religion of Hårga does not appear to recognize an afterlife, any kind of deity, or much of anything beyond the rhythms of the world’s physical processes. Indeed, Aster’s camera regularly lingers on broken bodies and torn flesh, as if to say we are only masses of meat in motion. There is no room for transcendence in this world.
That angle isn’t particularly interesting: it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in the genre. But there’s an alternate reading of the movie that, I’d suggest, is a significant improvement. Just as in “Hereditary,” Aster implies that the therapeutic ethos of late liberalism suppresses the Dionysian elements of life. As the film’s conclusion makes clear, Dani can only become fully actualized—fully herself—in Hårga, far away from the world of doctors and therapists and antidepressants. But where the protagonists of “Hereditary” found themselves torn and destroyed outside the edifices of the therapeutic world—when they realized their enemies were not psychological, but demonic—the heroine of “Midsommar” embraces and assimilates her encounter with the weird. I have no idea if such an interpretation reflects Aster’s intent—it strikes me as a little extravagant–but it’s certainly a step up from the mundane take on Nietzsche that plays out onscreen.
That’s not to say that “Midsommar” is a total wash—Pugh is fantastic in the lead role, and the film’s production design and cinematography are both exceptional. But it’s hard not to see this movie as a major disappointment: why, for instance, doesn’t the movie end with Dani fully embracing her Dionysian side and doing something truly dramatic—like self-immolating, or ascending to oracular status, or violently taking over Hårga? Instead, we get a conclusion that anyone with a passing familiarity with this genre could’ve anticipated from the start.
In short, for a film that demands so much time and attention of the viewer, the payoff of “Midsommar” is tragically paltry. And given the movie’s obvious potential, that is sad indeed.