Midsommar

Beautifully filmed, impressively performed and shot through with anarchic humour, Midsommar is a significant and distinctive arrival in this summer season. It has more-than-cult potential and could be the film everyone’s talking about.

Florence Pugh is, again, excellent as Dani, an American student who gets news of a terrible family tragedy. Director Ari Aster sets all this up in a very economical yet powerful opening in which we also meet her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his college mates – who all, incidentally, think he should dump her. Of course, he can’t do that now, so he invites her instead to join the lads on their summer trip to Sweden where they’re going to observe a solstice festival as part of their thesis studies in European folk traditions.

“It’s a lot of silly dressing up,” defends their Swedish pal Pelle, who’s invited them all. When Pelle finds out Dani’s coming, he’s the only one of the lads who seems pleased, showing her a photo of last year’s May Queen. 

On arrival they all take shrooms and get freaked out by the sky being light even at night. They go deeper into the woods and arrive at what one must term the ‘festival site”, a sort of spartan settlement in an idyllic valley, with wooden buildings, like an Amish village or island community with a large pole in the centre and various runic stones and patterns. Yes, we’re all thinking of The Wicker Man already…

There’s a sacred Pyramid temple, a bear in a cage, a love story tapestry of graphic violence and the sleeping quarters are in a sort of church-structure adorned with intricate carvings and tableaux that all look more than a little creepy.

The outsiders get welcomed, to varying degrees of warmth, by the elders and the youngers, nubile girls in traditional costume and bearded types offer tea with “special properties”.

It’s all a great set-up. I was loving it. Then things get weird. At first, they’re good weird, violent, offensive, claustrophobic. Dani has nightmares, brilliantly staged flashbacks incorporating her own tragedy into the narrative of what’s going on at this Dionysian pageant. Nobody, however, can escape. 

A couple of the lads disappear (a shame – Will Poulter was great every time his acerbic presence was on screen..) and it becomes apparent things are going to get Pagan from now on. There’s a dance competition for the maidens to decide the May Queen, while Christian has been chosen for other purposes, for which he will require more special tea.

Aster balances bizarre comedy with this rituals. It’s a comment, perhaps, on all religious pageantry and custom, this cult or sect carrying out their beliefs to the impossible maximum.

I ended up disappointed however, a little empty. Where did this all go, over 140 minutes? I thought cliches would be subverted but in fact they all seemed to be fulfilled. It promises much and keeps promising but, like Pelle protests at the start, it does get silly. Violent, baroque, bizarre, funny, strange, yes, but silly. It headed exactly where I thought it would go, unfolding with fewer surprises as it approached a climax it didn’t really know how to avoid.

I found myself saying “But, But…” in my head, probing the logic of it instead of being swept up in the horrors which aren’t really horrors, or no more than a bar mitzvah ceremony, or an Eidh or Passion Play are horrors. Or Burning Man.

I guess that was the point, but I think the film thinks it’s better than it is. There’s a slick smugness to its American view of European dangers – ooh those Swedes, ooh don’t go backpacking in Europe, they do funny things.

What happened to the thesis and the intelligence? Surely not everything need go up in smoke?