Midsommar ★★★★½

It was my birthday yesterday and it seemed too depressing to spend it in the office, so I took the day off. Decided to go see a film in the afternoon and Ari Aster's paean to sun-drenched pageantry seemed like a fitting choice. As you'd expect for a weekday matinee, attendance was sparse. There were all of half a dozen of us scattered throughout the empty auditorium, which is slightly eerie in that complete absence of atmosphere but also quite pleasant - no noisy neighbours, craning your neck to look around some dude with an Eraserhead chop or squirming with indignation every time someone kicks the back of your seat.

But lights down, on with the show. An extended break-up metaphor through the lens of folk horror isn't delivering anything particularly revelatory but there's a lot of joy in the execution. Anyone well-versed with genre tropes, and certainly anyone who's seen The Wicker Man, will know from the outset that this trip isn't going to end well for its protagonists; it's how we get there that sustains its fascination. The devil is in the detail, and this film is testament to that, with excellent production design, an abundance of symbolism and carefully crafted foreshadowing devices. It takes its time to unfurl, allowing you to luxuriate in the details and drink in all of its polychromatic splendor.

I'm a fan of The Haxan Cloak and he proved to be the perfect choice to score this, his baleful strains creating a sense of dread that the bright blue skies and luscious flora do nothing to dispel. It's a major part of the film's success, as is the lead performance from Florence Pugh. Without the emotional complexity she brings to the role, the film doesn't work nearly as well - it's just a bunch of new worlders ensnared by an old world trap; the kind of fish-out-of-water parable we've seen many times before. How you respond to the character of Dani will probably play a large part in determining how you respond to the film as a whole. She could be dismissed as needy and selfish and emotionally parasitic (as she is by Christian's friends), but given what she's gone through and the fact that her partner spends a lot of time subtly gaslighting her, accreting psychic damage through his half-hearted attachment, a lot of her actions don't seem unreasonable to me. The cleansing fire that completes her arc felt earned. Whether it's real catharsis, or she's simply exchanging one kind of toxic codependency for another is a different matter.

Opposite Pugh, Jack Reynor does a good job of portraying someone who seems superficially supportive but is actually all about self-interest and damage limitation. The supporting characters are less well defined: Josh's rivalry with Christian offers an interesting, if underdeveloped, commentary on academic disingenuity and Mark's utter douchiness is the source of most of the film's comic relief as he wanders around blithely puffing on his magic wand, pissing up the tree of the Hårga's ancestral dead and proving himself to be the last asshole control freak you want to find yourself tripping with. Lying down is good. PLEASE lie down. Everyone LIE DOWN NOW goddammit!

If I have criticisms, they mostly stem from a feeling that the whole thing is a bit unfocused - we lurch around the Hårga's field from one sideshow grotesque to the next without a lot of connective tissue. There's a flatness and remoteness to the film like a beautifully embroidered quilt spread out and covered with glass. In a way though, that just underlines how unusual the structure of the film is. With this and Hereditary, Ari Aster has really established himself as a unique voice in modern horror. It's not as gory or frightening as I'd been led to expect, but there's a unnervingly hypnotic quality to it that puts you under its strange spell from snowbound inception to fiery denouement.

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