Directed and written by Ari Aster
From 12th July 2019
Reviewed by Ashley McGovern
Art house cinema and lusty horror thrills aren’t an obvious match; after all, Jason Vorhees didn’t leap out from the misted waters of Solaris. Ari Aster is viewed as the exception to the rule. His horror movies are about occult belief and how families and friends can summon deadly spirits merely by inflaming their hatred for one another. They are veneered Gothic melodramas, pleasing enough to have convinced critics of a new horror style.
His latest is Midsommar, which continues his interest in everything pagan. A group of college students, on the recommendation of their Swedish pal, travel to see his own sequestered Harga tribe. Among the group are the impatient horny one, the curious academic one, and the couple on the verge of breakup. She is recovering from a dreadful mass family suicide, fragile, needy for reassurance from a boyfried who seems to regards grief as an indulgence; he is moody, disinterested, forgetful, and itching to breakup. He’s not a villain, but tired of caring togetherness.
At first the Harga are a charmingly eccentric commune. Aster cues up comedy of the ‘funny foreigners’ variety. They are constantly playing little instruments, dancing around Maypoles, cooking quaint dishes and explaining the more arcane side of their culture. But their unvarnished paganism eventually creeps out. The Harga are a good old-fashion harvest cult, fully accepting of human sacrifice in order to honour the goddess of nature.
One horrific ritual is the Attestupa, where elders of the village reach a certain age and must fling themselves off a mountain. This is when the group realise they’re in danger. A young English couple, also visitors, go missing and we start to learn about the Harga’s malign core: they deliberately inbreed to produce a kind of child sage, completely disfigured but gifted with the power to write down scripture that comes to him.
The film is very careful and detailed about their culture, which is supposedly a composite of Viking torture, Frazerian harvest mythology and European folklore. The students are anthropology majors so are also on hand to ask questions and find out about sexuality, living arrangements, attitudes to ageing and so on. Most of which we find repellant. In style, the cult dress like the members of Our Lord of Righteousness Church, their white smocks identical to the tiny Armageddon cult who believe their founder, Wayne Bent, is the messiah.
What horror there is the slow way horrific beliefs reveal themselves; the horror is one of seeing through a conceptual con. Worse still, people resist the urge to escape. There are plenty of scenes, though, to provide the grisly sights of traditional horror: a human leg peeps up out of small garden, one person’s face is scraped off like masks of Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and another victim is mutilated and hung in a chicken coup – his body carved with all the charming Arts and Crafts skill of the Harga.
One of the chief innovations is the visual aspect. As we’re at the height of midsummer, the film is unrelentingly sunny. The characters move around and explore the pagan playpen in queasy Northern light, and the viewer is confused. Aster’s compositions seem to come from a dated style of painting – that of the 18th century bourgeois landscapists. The way characters are framed in medium and establishing shots against the pretty green fields and timber dormitories function like that of Bernardo Bellotto’s landscapes, like his views of Konigstein. Painted specifically as type of documentation, the paintings show community; the workers tending to the gardens.
The same style is used by Aster, yet this time the lighting is more extreme and the eye has nothing like the solid, earth tones of brick, lane and tower to cling to; the eye dances about from white sky to whiter robes. The visuals may prove the most sickening element of the film, especially as the plot twists are so predictable.