Midsommar, before we even set foot onto frightening flowery Scandinavian pastures, is excruciating. Early in the film, we are stuck at a party, where Dani, the film's protagonist, finds out about a secret trip her boyfriend, Christian, has not invited her to, or even told her about. Ari Aster, Midsommar director and writer, refuses to walk away from this intensely awkward and uncomfortably real scenario, where Christian ignores Dani as she tries to voice her unhappiness while avoiding confrontation. We linger, at this party, in the taxi, in their apartment, as this couple shuffles about, unable to address what really is the issue. In a way, this scene captures so much of the pain of Midsommar. The transformation the characters go through may be violent and in some cases fatal. But ultimately, it is Dani and her relationship with Christian that cuts through the bone and gore to strike at the audience's hearts.
Christian, played by Jack Reynor, is the most convincing awful boyfriend I've seen on screen. His two best friends, Will Poulter's beguiling Mark and William Jackson Harper's neurotic Josh fill out this trio of boys, each armed with their own unique flaws that ultimately end up as their undoing. But to focus on their deaths is to reduce Midsommar to films like Final Destination or Saw, where we only care about how grisly and macabre the filmmakers can get. Yes, there is body horror abound, but that is secondary to Dani's journey towards forgiveness and mourning, brought to life by the inimitable Florence Pugh. This is only my second movie I've seen with Pugh (the other being Greta Gerwig's Little Women) and I am astounded by her range as an actress. Range can be an empty thing, if we think of it as the extremities of emotion. In Pugh's case, her range is much more complex, capturing the nuances of the human condition in fully embodied characters, whether she is the self-asserting Amy March or the grief-stricken and Dani.
Christian and his friends are all students of anthropology, searching for the perfect ethnography for their master's theses. Aster applies the abstract ideas of the ethnography to their pastoral retreat, unpacking what it means to be observe, to study, to try and make sense of rituals foreign to us. But rather than vilify the many marginalized non-Western spiritual traditions in the world, Aster deliberately otherizes the Aryan. The blonde blue-eyed Swedes of Midsommar are made more eerie by their whiteness, instead of less. It's such a rare treat to see the lens twisted back onto European culture, a treatment often reserved for the savage barbarians of Asia, Africa, or anywhere else non-white.
With this anthropological lens, Aster designs a striking landscape of flowers and flesh. Aster is nothing if not bold in his choices as a director. Every image in this film is either serene and spectacular, or nauseating on sight, reflecting the most primal fears of our own bodies. Whether they be beautiful or horrific, you lose your eyes in every frame. Part of this can be attributed to Aster's lighting design, where scenes are sun-baked rather than dripping in darkness. This lighting choice makes the actors the focus, rather than the fears they evade in the shadows. In this bright and colourful backdrop, Pugh's performance in all its fullness becomes the visual centerpiece of the film.
That's what makes Midsommar such a delight. The film feels as if it was designed around Dani, and the rest of the parts fell into place later. The Swedish paradise, as detailed and unsettling as it may be, is merely a setting through which Dani must pass through to come to terms with her life. Midsommar is not a happy movie. But by the end of the film, bodies abound, it is intensely cathartic.
In the film's last moments, we watch with Dani as bodies burn and voices cry out. Yet, it is not horrific. It is freeing. And as the orchestra swells and flames lick the sky, we float with Dani above her pain, her suffering, and sit with her atop an ornate throne of pulsing sunflowers and throbbing lilacs.