Hell doesn’t so much break loose as steadily ooze out through flowers and bright sunlight in Ari Aster’s second feature Midsommar, a mesmerising tale steeped in intricate symbolism that the director insists is more of a break-up story than a horror film.
Much to the dismay of his eager PhD anthropology friends, Christian (Jack Reynor) invites his emotionally unstable girlfriend Dani (Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh in great shape), who’s trying to recover from a family tragedy, to tag along to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer celebration among an isolated community in rural Sweden. Once the group enters the serene postcard landscape of the festivity grounds, they gradually move from being puzzled onlookers to active participants in the festival – with very different roles to fulfil. Herbal drinks, embroidered dresses and runes soon take on new meanings as Dani starts doubting whose side she’s on and becomes more and more estranged from Christian. When she confronts him after a not-for-the-squeamish ritual that involved two elders and a mallet, he replies, “Yeah, that was really shocking. That’s culture.”
Sounds somehow familiar? Undeniably, references to The Wickerman are plenty; even the dire 2006 remake gets a nod (which involves a bear costume, not Nicholas Cage, phew). There are also echoes of the tiptoeing claustrophobia of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and somehow, the vast amount of blonde people made me think of Village of the Damned. But instead of offering quick thrills, Midsommar’s Lynch-scented horror flows thickly and slowly as Pawel Pogorzelski’s merciless camera guides us down an unwholesome (or is it?) rabbit hole. The narrative is a code-cracker’s delight, packed with symbolism of varying difficulty that allows the story to move between fable and mystery. From coded colour palettes to foreshadowing paintings, group screaming sessions and Dani’s blossom overkill gown at the culminating ceremony – no detail has been small enough for Aster to not cover it in secondary meaning. As we concentrate on the dialogue, the black centre of a small flower on Dani’s wreath starts pulsating – like a warning you’re free to ignore. At the same time, two or three moments of actual humour – mainly thanks to the deadpan antics of Will Poulter’s character – hit you with shocking unpredictability.
Midsommar doesn’t rose-tint the horror genre, but turns its tropes upside down to create a holistic, unescapable world that swings pendulum-like from unease to fascination (a single pubic hair in a glass of lemonade?). This is a betwixt-and-between world: as the group drives down a deserted Swedish country road in bright daylight, Pogorzelski’s camera slowly starts turning by 180° and we know that from now on, what we see might only be half the story.