Ars gratia artis. The latin inscription around MGM’s Leo the Lion is the best way I can describe Ari Aster’s Midsommar. The highly anticipated companion followup horror piece to last year’s Hereditary arrived in theatres nationwide last night–to a packed house, I might add. Although even I use the terms movie and film interchangeably in casual conversation, this is a motion picture that I will refer to as a film not a movie. For fellow cinephiles, this is the type of film that reminds us of the power of the moving image and the art of visual design. Film is a visually driven medium, and Midsommar exhibits that in spades. Although it was predicted to be then confirmed by the director to be a companion piece to Hereditary there is little similarity except for one important point: the theme of grief. Furthermore, Midsommar also comments on relationship revenge and drug culture. I’ve heard this film described as one long acid trip by folks on Film Twitter, and that is not entirely inaccurate. From edibles to cocktails, many of the scenes are viewed through the lens of a drug-induced reality that creates a fever-dream-like state of being. Trippy, is putting this cinematic experience lightly. And it is that. A cinematic experience unlike any other that I have ever witnessed. Whereas, in my opinion, this film’s greatest flaw is the lack of a compelling plot–and that’s a big deal, no mistaking it–the film excels at typifying film as art. More specifically, this film is like a work of art in a museum that confronts the viewer with thought-provoking imagery that elicits a plethora of interpretations. And the ability for an art film to prompt us to interpret it differently gives the film the added dimension that doesn’t come to cinemas often.
Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of falling apart. But after a family tragedy keeps them together, a grieving Dani invites herself to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village that is the home of one of their graduate school friends. The carefree summer holiday in a land of eternal sunlight takes a sinister turn when the insular villagers invite their guests to partake in festivities that are increasingly disturbing.
Juxtaposition. There is a brilliant contrast in the imagery of this film. While much of the film is brightly lit and colorful, within that serene landscape and color pallet are acutely disturbing moments that will stick with you long after the film ends. And the nightmare-inducing imagery is not limited to body horror, there are times that unnerving images are of a surreal nature, or perhaps an otherwise warped perspective that keeps you on the edge of your seat. From carefree atmospheres filled with laughter and positivity to depictions of suicide, murder, and mutilation, you will find it all in Midsommar. There is a rich, immersive nature in this film that is inescapable. You will be instantly sucked into the beautifully twisted visually stunning story. Every scene is crafted with such a commitment to the art of visual storytelling that the plot takes a backseat, which oddly enough suits this film nicely. If I was to compare this film to literature, then it would be a poem versus prose. Both poems and prose tell stories, but poems are emotionally driven whereas prose is plot-driven. This is clearly an emotionally driven motion picture that will have you along for the pleasurable unpleasure ride for the rather lengthy runtime. Each frame is an artful expression of the emotion of the moment, and it my delight or rock you to your core.
With it being such a unicorn amongst horror films, if you’re searching for film to compare it to (which can be unfair), for all intents and purposes, I feel that you will find elements of Eyes Wide Shut, The Wickerman, and Requiem for a Dream. It also appears that Aster took inspiration from directors such as: Kubrick, de Palma, and Friedkin. It is difficult to talk about the thought-provoking content without getting into spoilers, but there are many ways to interpret the content and intention of the film. I found the film to creatively express, through the art of the moving image, the ideas of dealing with the (1) PTSD of untimely death and the grief that follows (2) relationship revenge and (3) the effects of a drug-induced state of consciousness. The beginning of the film opens with witnessing the broken relationship between Dani and her boyfriend Christian followed soon by the death of Dani’s sister and parents (this is right at the beginning, so this isn’t really a spoiler). Although Christian begrudgingly keeps the relationship alive (in all fairness, he’s finished with it), he keeps Dani at an emotional distance from him and his friends. At the same time, Dani is suffering from the PTSD brought on by the untimely death of her family that has truly taken a toll on her psycho-social stability. Just like in real life, drugs (both Rx and recreational) are used as ways to both cope and attempt to rise to a higher level of consciousness to deal with the positive and negative elements of life. However, augmenting reality can lead to a dangerous path from which sometimes a return is unlikely or impossible. All three of these themes in the film inspire the mindblowing images through the story.
While I have spent the bulk of this article talking about the macabre nature of this film, it is not without its comedic elements. In fact, some have characterized it as a dark comedy. I’m not ready to refer to it as a horror comedy, but it certainly contains many absurd, laughable lines and images. To get into them would reveal some important spoilers, so I won’t do that to you. But just the very idea of these typical American graduate students in this completely foreign commune of mystic Sweeds in a surreal landscape is enough to make you laugh. And the humor is not limited to the dialogue or setting, but even the very nature of a single image is enough to bring about laughter. Again, more playing around with the contrast that juxtaposing images and music brings to a film. All throughout the film, you will be disgusted one moment and laughing the next. Still, the amount of comedy isn’t enough to bring this into the horror comedy subgenre, but it’s more or less an art house horror film with comedic moments. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the hauntingly beautiful score that becomes a character in and of itself during the film.
This is not a film for general audiences. Personally, I am shocked that this cut of the film even got a theatrical release. It strikes me more as the director’s cut that you would get on the BluRay. It is a hard R. So if you’re a parent or an older sibling, think before taking your child or younger sibling who loves horror as much as you. In addition to the drug use in the film (and it’s all within context), there is full male and female nudity and even a rather explicit sex scene. Nothing is in the film for simple shock value (tho, there are shocking scenes for sure), there is an intentional purpose behind element in this film to deliver the emotionally-driven story that Ari Aster has created.
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