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Ari Aster's Midsommar Is an Ambitious, Blurry Horror Trip

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In the climax of writer-director Ari Aster’s supremely un-fun debut, Hereditary, a character saws off her own head in what might be the all-time grisliest metaphor for surrendering to groupthink. Aster’s equally grueling new movie, Midsommar, offers a sunnier alternative to sawing off one’s own head: sawing off someone else’s — or incinerating them, or removing their innards and stuffing their bodies with branches, fruit, flowers, etc. The theme, however, is the same: The allure of an alternate family with clear-cut (if murderous) values. Instead of a coven of dour witches, it’s now a cult of radiant pagan Swedes who believe themselves in harmony with the natural world, along with a bereft American protagonist, Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), who finds herself slowly coming into harmony with them: Hey, maybe these crazy pagans are onto something. Instead of darkness, Aster gives us light — blondes in white frocks in the midsummer Swedish solstice. Midsommar might be the whitest horror movie ever made.

The most ambitious horror blurs the line between the psychological and the mythic, between ordinary human emotions and symbol-laden Blakean nightmares, and Aster is very ambitious and very blurry. Midsommar opens with an inconsolably hideous tragedy involving Dani’s bipolar sister and parents, but as she howls with grief, her boyfriend of four years, Christian (Jack Reynor), is emotionally miles away. His buddies, Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter), think Dani’s a drag on his ambitions and invite him to the rural home of their Swedish buddy, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), where Josh plans to do research for his Ph.D. thesis on ancient European midsummer rites and Mark plans to have sex with Swedish girls. Christian half-heartedly invites Dani, hoping that she’ll say no. But Dani, having lost her family, doesn’t have much else in her life.

As Dani, Pugh is amazingly vivid. Her face is so wide and open that she seems to have nowhere to hide her emotions. Everything about her is insistent. Her intensity reminds me of Lili Taylor’s, but her voice is throatier, and she bends Midsommar toward her. She’s uncannily in sync with the score by Bobby Krlic (who records under the moniker the Haxan Cloak) — harsh and unmoored before Dani arrives in Sweden, more attuned when Dani stumbles into that Swedish landscape with its soft green hills and simple geometric buildings. (The film was actually shot in Hungary.) Aster and the production designer, Henrik Svensson, have designed the “Hårga” village from scratch. It’s like a child’s rendering of a happy, bucolic place, a mixture of circles, squares, and triangles that’s so elemental it’s otherworldly.

Aster paces Midsommar more like an opera (Wagner, not Puccini) than a scare picture, and for a while I thought he’d get away with his longueurs. The characters are fed hallucinogens and he must want you to feel as if you’ve been fed them, too, so that the pagan hymns cross the blood-brain barrier and the villagers — smiling but oddly formal, and so damn white — make you giggle and shudder simultaneously. The problem is that apart from the extremeness of the gore and a quasi-orgy (two naked people having sex in front of a naked female choir) that will make at least half the audience whoop for all the wrong reasons, the movie has no surprises. From the start, runic murals and paintings have signaled the characters’ fates. The names are symbolic: Dani Ardor is a woman denied love. Christian, like Christianity itself, has become less empathetic in the modern age, more identified with self-gratification. Screw Christian(ity): It’s paganism that offers true family values to the woman who has been robbed of a sense of connection. As Dani is gradually stirred by the Hårga, there’s nothing much to do but watch the non-Swedish characters get mauled or disappear outright and wait for the crowning of the “May Queen” that’s a foregone conclusion.

After the first press screening, Aster spoke of being approached by Swedish financiers to direct a sort of Wicker Man–like hack-‘em-up and rejecting the idea. He thought he had no way into the story until he had a messy breakup and decided he’d take the Swedish money and make the ugliest end-of-a-relationship movie ever. Perhaps Midsommar doesn’t jell because its impulses are so bifurcated. It’s a parable of a woman’s religious awakening — that’s also a woman’s fantasy of revenge against a man who didn’t meet her emotional needs — that’s also a male director’s masochistic fantasy of emasculation at the hands of a matriarchal cult. Aster seems sure of only one thing: that he wants to make you feel as if your head is being sawed off.

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