Review: Midsommar

I just came back from the largely-empty opening night of Midsommar in Helsinki.

I think the smaller crowd might be related to parallax between the US and Finland. While the US doesn't really have any functioning religions anymore other than money and RuPaul's Drag Race, in Finland and the other Nordic countries pre-Christian seasonal traditions, including Midsummer's Eve, are still strong, celebrated with bonfires and flower crowns.

Hereditary writer-director Ari Aster draws on eclectic elements to build a kind of half-Viking/half-Aztec nature cult splashed with flowers and boldly-painted houses in a remote village. The whole effect visually is, and I say this without actual sarcasm, what you'd get if Wes Anderson directed The Wicker Man.

This is only Aster's second feature-length film and it's clear he's still maturing. I liked Hereditary and in Midsommar Aster doesn't just borrow but outright steals a lot of the elements that made that film work. In particular, horrific familial tragedy and the trauma therefrom setting the stage for a psychologically vulnerable protagonist to be drawn into the local shenanigans. (There's also the old trope of "mentally challenged = mystic powers" again -- he should be more aware.) The sheer number of self-quotations broke the immersion...watching what was, like in any decent country-horror film, a deeply silly plot demanding mental letting go, I kept finding myself analyzing the film, referring back to Hereditary again and again.

We don't have the star power of Toni Collette here, so the development of the characters is not as good as it could be. Florence Pugh does all right with the script but her character is given very little agency--even when she's finally given an important choice right at the end of the film, it is in every way a railroaded decision. This is because her boyfriend, played by Jack Raynor, is portrayed as uncaring and unsympathetic at genuinely every opportunity possible.

While this choice isn't invalid, there was space here for a bit more work. The boyfriend and the other anthropology graduate students rounding out the supporting cast of outsiders act like no anthro grads I've ever met, good or bad. They're just amoral and kinda dumb, missing major clues about the society they find themselves in even when those clues are literally waved in front of their, and the audience's, faces.

All this is balanced out, though, by the portrayal of Hårga, the remote village where the film takes place. In this respect, Midsommar presents a portrayal of Swedish countryside life that looks exactly like I always imagined, right down to the frankly quite restrained level of human sacrifice. The AV Club chooses to read Midsommar as a comedy and while I wouldn't portray the film that wat I can't deny how, especially in the final third of the film, there are some well-placed jokes and moments of absurdity to break up the bleakness that could make a film like this too heavy.

Is Midsommar a masterpiece? No -- it's too intellectualized, too much a work of craft rather than art. Is it worth seeing? Yeah, it was all right. I just hope the director gets the impetus to keep developing.

Edmund Schluessel

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