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Pagan poetry: the studied strangeness of Ari Aster’s ‘Midsommar’

By Luke Goodsell
The ‘Hereditary’ director micro-manages the mania in his new film

Midsommar

As the old Wiccan bumper sticker used to say: Magic Happens. Certain films arrive fully deformed from the dark souls of their architects; others are transformed by supernatural forces somewhere beyond the frame. Examples of the latter go back at least as far as Häxan (1922), and formed a micro phenomenon at the pagan-obsessed turn of the 1970s, when movies like Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Exorcist and The Wicker Man summoned unpredictable, extra-textual evil in ways that enhanced or outright overpowered their ostensible moral narratives, like viruses devouring their hosts.

This was “evil” in the best and brightest sense of the word, of course: the kind of straight-scaring, all-the-best-bands-are-affiliated-with-Satan alchemy that can elude a more studied work, no matter how evocative its images are. In its deliberate, languorous frenzy, Hereditary director Ari Aster’s new cult-of-the-damned riff, Midsommar, sets out to dismantle the mess of modern relationships in the manner of its spooky predecessors, bravely inviting explicit comparisons to the likes of the original Wicker Man in the process. But no matter how pungent the pictures it crafts – and there are more unsettling moments here than anything currently in cinemas, by some margin – the film’s mannered sensationalism keeps it from descending to the unruly depths of the work it evokes.

The much-hyped auteur’s sophomore feature is almost comically front-loaded with grief. New York psych student Dani (Florence Pugh) loses her entire family when her bipolar sister extinguishes both of their parents, and then herself, a tragedy with which her emotionally stunted, identikit boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is ill-equipped to deal. Christian considers the easy way out of the strained relationship, while he and his anthropology grad buddies – Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) – plot their summer retreat in Sweden, giddy with the prospect of “Swedish milk maids”, while Jayne Mansfield’s cleavage (and Sophia Loren’s disapproving eyes) looms ominously over them from a nearby cafe poster.

Put simply, Christian is kind of a dick – an effective enough cipher for his gender and culture. Much to his chagrin, Dani tags along on his and his boys’ would-be sex tour – via a beautifully executed cut between an apartment and an airplane bathroom – and, at the invitation of Pelle, the crew find themselves welcomed into a bucolic commune in Hälsingland, where the free-spirited locals are busy preparing for the coming Midsommar festival. Aster reuses Hereditary’s disorienting upside-down camera tilt to capture their entry into this other world, where the endless Nordic daylight casts a deceptively cheerful glow.

“Spirits! Back to the dead!” shouts the village MC (Björn Andrésen, strangely alluring all these years since Visconti’s Death in Venice), inaugurating the traditional search for the incoming May Queen, who’ll bless the community with fertility. Unisex white robes, flutes, eerie sing-songs and elfin smiles abound, while the locals bunk down in communal barns festooned with esoteric etchings and scored to the creepy sound of wailing babies. And you thought Ikea was a cult.

“We’re just gonna stop at Waco on the way?” jokes Mark, Poulter’s permanently arched eyebrow punctuating the movie with cynical scorn. Unlike the wisecracks of her cookie-cutter male counterparts, Pugh has an open, searching countenance, and her performance proves Dani is more attuned to this new environment. She celebrates a May birthday – her initial wariness suggests she’s a Taurus; no Gemini would need convincing to join a cult – and bonds with nature via magic mushrooms. Later, rocked by visions of her dead family, she gets psychically zapped by a suicidal village elder about to make a grisly plunge from a cliff top. It’s an electric sequence that needles Western culture’s long-entrenched notions of acceptable death; I found myself both laughing and genuinely chilled by Aster’s boldness, even as it doubles down on the film’s othering of unfamiliar spiritual practices.

To invoke another of cinema’s loony Euro caricatures, Goldmember: “Isn’t that weiiiird?” In Hereditary, Aster viewed alternative societies as demonic succubi inhabiting that most precious seed of America’s manhood – the suburban teenage boy – and here, he plays these wacky Swedes for a similar degree of ickiness, effectively unsettling his protagonists while offering cheap yuks for the normies. None of this potshot pagan poetry is exactly new, of course; one doesn’t have to look far to find modern man out of sorts against the ancient rituals and earthly powers of the unknown, particularly in the ’70s’ golden mile of post-hippie witchcraft cinema.

In Midsommar, the cult is a communal space that threatens to subsume the individualism of the American interlopers; the fear of emasculation, egged on by the spooky but irresistible advances of local girls, hangs over the movie like the decaying musk of days-old sports deodorant. And the film’s questionably mixed sympathies – cheering on Dani’s emancipation while empathising with its male audience surrogates – is complicated by Aster’s admission that Midsommar evolved from his own relationship ending.

What is it about men post-breakup making movies about cults? George Lucas’s and Steven Spielberg’s acrimonious marriage splits (though not from each other) helped sire the subterranean kiddie-torture nightmare of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, while Andrzej Żuławski’s messy divorce gifted us a shadow society of wife-swapping doppelgängers and adulterous calamari in Possession – two of cinema’s more unforgettable tantrums, and all the richer for their nastiness. Aster professes to see both sides, and he at least nails one aspect: a world of “deranged” women and the men attempting to wrangle them – a tale older than the movies themselves.

Though he’s a little too comfortable with his male characters, to his credit Aster works hard to deflate the familiar spectre of the obnoxious tourist, juxtaposing their hoodies, shapeless jeans and T-shirts against the arch aestheticism of their surrounds. There’s amusing delight, too, in watching these man-boys become unlikely horror-movie fodder, and chuckling as – from their perspective, anyway – bros befall hoes en route to their justly deserved doom. The Americans’ red-blooded sexual braggadocio gets its comeuppance via some properly kinky shit here: incestuous mystics, spells baked into pubic-hair pies, and the film’s now-infamous sex scene, which functions as a microcosm of Aster’s best and worst tendencies – his knack for grotesque, loaded imagery milked beyond impact and into farce. Unless you’re a men’s rights activist, the scene is extremely funny – a neat, hilarious inversion of the girl-as-cult-vessel in films like Hammer’s To the Devil a Daughter – but Aster also allows it to run ragged, enamoured with too much of his own lurid good thing.

Is there anything that mainstream, heteronormative America – built on 400 years of puritan delusion – finds more unsettling than esoteric rituals and the cosmic natural order? How about women? For a time, anyway, Midsommar manages to roll with such a thesis. But Aster’s is a studied film, one that never feels out of control even when it purports – and desperately needs – to be. This is a director who tacked on a calculated (and superior) crazy-town ending to the snoozy domestic-grief metaphor of Hereditary, but delirium is not his natural register. Much like Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth and Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Midsommar belongs to a growing series of films by anointed male auteurs using cult homages to explore female sexuality – yet can sometimes seem contrived in intuiting the desires of their subjects.

Where The Wicker Man pointed towards the danger of cults (the film unsurprisingly played to the approval of many Christians), director Robin Hardy made it ambiguous enough to allow the film to get away from him, setting the stage for one of cinema’s all-time feelgood endings: a nosy cop burned on a pagan pyre of his own logic. But because he’s too knowing, Aster, by contrast, overloads meaning into every moment, micro-managing the mania so that it looks incredible but never quite resonates within his movie’s meandering, confused agenda.

As Dani twirls and writhes and screams in cry-shouting unison with a gang of commune women to exorcise her bad-boyfriend blues, I started to wonder at the extremes to which she apparently needs to go in order to free herself from a mediocre man. Is good old-fashioned hysteria really the one path to her freedom? The ecstatic appeal of Dani’s climactic trance – an outlandish showstopper replete with slow-motion pyrotechnics, Godzilla floral-dress stomping and other treats that shan’t be spoiled – throws enough at the wall to convince that Aster’s gestures towards the super-feminine might be real, or at least really well researched. At last, Midsommar pivots from long-winded Instagram influencer visuals to full-on daytime nightmare.

At the very least, as a friend commented to me after the screening, the film’s signature image – of Florence Pugh spinning out of control in a floral headdress and away from the terrifying abyss of a deadweight man – might help put an end to the contemporary plague of free-spirited flower crowns at millennial weddings. And for that, we should be thankful.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

Midsommar

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