The patterns of life repeat, a circle of birth and death marked by tragedy all the more terrible for their inevitability; her sister Terri suffering from severe bipolar disorder, she has leaned heavily on Dani who in turn has leaned heavily on her boyfriend Christian, an anthropology graduate student struggling with his thesis.
He has tried to be supportive and considerate, perhaps too much, but focused on her sister Dani ignores what his friends see clearly, how unhappy he is, and when the telephone call comes from the police it is Christian she falls upon in her grief, the snow beyond her window continuing to fall indifferent to her loss.
Months pass, and Christian is still looking for a way out or at least a break; an invitation to a festival in Sweden along with fellow students Josh and Mark from their friend Pelle seems ideal, but Dani reacts badly and Christian’s guilt prompts him to invite her along despite his reticence.
A nine-day celebration of pageantry and costume among the Hårga in the rural commune at Hälsingland where Pelle grew up, in summer it is a land of near-permanent sunshine where they will lose track of time and themselves as their world is turned upside down.
The second film from writer/director Ari Aster, Midsommar reflects many of the same themes as his debut Hereditary with which it initially shares an endemic gloom before moving through the path of flowers through the meadow to the fields and mountains bathed in the healing glow of summer, the ancestral home of the Hårga.
Less overwrought and more satisfying than Hereditary, despite running to almost two and a half hours Midsommar is perfectly paced with the leisure of a summer’s day, serving nothing but itself with long, sweeping shots of movement and ritual among the Hårga, a perfect dream of harmony, both musical and with nature, animals freely grazing among the people.
A corollary to the torture porn of Hostel where arrogant American tourists invite their fate through their swaggering ignorance, the visitors may make mistakes, particularly Mark (The Revenant‘s Will Poulter), but they do not actively antagonise their hosts other than occasional sarcastic comments, and while far from perfect humans they are understandable, Christian (Free Fire‘s Jack Reynor) trying to navigate the path of least harm.
As Dani, Outlaw King‘s Florence Pugh is the river of flowing grief which must be redirected and renewed, barely holding on and unable to face her bereavement or accept that others have experienced loss, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) an orphan who sees the Hårga as his family, tagging along out of desperation and completely unprepared for the cultural transition as reflections in mirrors are displaced by overwhelming reflections of emotion.
A film of setting and delicate atmosphere, Aster’s direction is detached, at times presented almost as a documentary, but built around ritual and nature and with a soundtrack by the Haxan Cloak it fits perfectly within the peculiar realms of folk horror, and despite Aster’s stated intention to achieve otherwise it is inevitable in such a small field there are pronounced parallels with Robin Hardy’s monolithic touchstone of that subgenre, The Wicker Man.
Occasionally shocking, frequently funny but always mesmerising though perhaps too obscure to become a mainstream hit, comfortable in the particular niche in which it has taken root, and alongside the many films touted as “elevated horror,” a term equally as dismissive of other works as it is praising of the subject to which it is applied, Midsommar is a blossoming flower which rises above the field even as it feasts off the decay of its predecessors.