I imagine most people have experienced a fever dream, but as a chronically ill person who has always been irritatingly prone to a high temperature, I’ve had more than a few in my life. What has always struck me about them is that, along with the spatial and temporal inconsistencies that feature in most of my regular dreams, they seem so unnaturally vivid. Inconsequential noises pound like a drum, neon colours seem synesthetically linked to odours I can’t really smell, and unlike most nights, I usually have a clear memory of the incoherence I have experienced when I awaken. Through Midsommar, director Ari Aster captures the sensuous horror and confusion of this experience, utilizing it to depict the unexplainable, unjustifiable cruelty of betrayal, death, and primal instinct.
Midsommar begins with a long take of a single drawing – one that depicts the typical and the strange, the enjoyable and the painful simultaneously. A hard cut to the biting winter winds then takes us to our protagonist, Dani, who is about to experience a cataclysmic personal tragedy. Before an equilibrium can even be established, we are shown our characters in crisis mode – Dani, in the throes of grief, is reliant on her reluctant partner Christian, who clearly just wants to escape with his friends on a hedonistic trip to Sweden. When she is awkwardly invited along out of a sense of obligation, the tension between the group is at its peak, not helped by the bizarre situations they soon find themselves in at the titular Midsommar festivities. As the celebrations become increasingly violent and unthinkable, the friends splinter even further – but to the Family, it seems as though every emotion, however intense, is to be induced and ritualistically explored.
While it doesn’t feel quite fair to compare Midsommar to Aster’s tighter, more carefully structured feature debut Hereditary, the thematic links do lead me to view his newest venture as something of a spiritual successor. Both feature a nihilistic view on humanity, one that coldly sees death and pain as an unfortunate inevitability, while still not downplaying the suffering that tragedy brings to undeserving people. Notably, they are also lead by powerhouse performances, with Toni Colette and now Florence Pugh each starring as jaded, beaten down women whose old wounds are being torn open. Once again, I hope she receives an Oscar nomination, and once again, I doubt that the Academy will reward horror this year as it should.
It would be a travesty not to mention the stunningly eerie cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski, which creates much of the horror regardless of what it is framing. Often he lingers on shots packed with information at every corner, allowing you to draw your own conclusions, and thus to unmask the horror yourself. His methods of visually depicting mental instability and intuitive dread are wonderfully creative, as exemplified by my favourite shot of the film: as they drive down through the meadows on an empty road, the camera rolls over, eventually leaving us upside down, unsure of where we stand or what we can trust. As mentioned at the start of this review, spatial discontinuity is a key feature of dreamlike spaces for me, and his ability to leave you constantly guessing about where we are and why we’re here actually shook me more than the artistic gore on display.
Interestingly, Midsommar, isn’t truly a film about killing; instead, it is about the horrifying yet mundane presence of death, expressed by the medieval methods of displaying corpses, and the terror of the characters who discover them. Their deaths, in the context of a horror film especially, were inevitable, and prolonging their lives would essentially be artificial and unnecessary. This is the view that the Midsommar cult takes on life, one that shakes the foundation of our beliefs as people and asks one of the scariest questions possible: why do we keep going?