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PostPosted: Sun Jul 07, 2019 11:09 am 
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SOME OF THE HÅRGA COMMUNITY IN MIDSOMMAR

Terror in the sun

If you believe horror movie directors can be real artists (a difficult concept for some), Ari Aster has achieved that level - even if Hereditary, his debut last year, is deemed by experts (given the Metascore disparity*) to be superior to this impressive, if flawed, second film. Midsommar follows, on the surface, a familiar horror pattern. A group of young, not very admirable Americans set out on a journey to some new, for them strange, place, and bad things happen. But this process is so elaborately conceived, that simple précis seems like an unfair putdown - even if what happens does owe a good deal to Wicker Man. As in the latter film, pagan rituals in a remote place play a huge part in the troubling proceedings here.

Aster has his own additional agenda. In particular he likes to start out by going deep into thorny family matters. This grounds his story in ordinary experience, before it becomes very, very weird. It's also logical. Doesn't "horror" in fact usually start right at home anyway, with one's parents and siblings? He has also described this second opus as his "breakup picture." Both these themes are heavily worked in a lengthy introduction to what turns out to be a hefty 147 minutes of run-time.

This seemed like too much run-time to me. But would it seem so, I wondered, if the director were Lars von Trier, and the film in question Melancholia? It occurred to me to wonder how Lars would handle this material and if he might not do so a tad better. But the fact that this name came up is a sign of how ambitious Aster's new film feels. This is a movie that ranges far beyond genre and even in some views flies out of it entirely.

In any case, given Aster's predilections, Midsommar starts out (in midwinter) with a detailed treatment of family and relationship issues, the kind of detailed background horror flicks don't usually provide. Or maybe you can consider the first half hour to be a horror movie already, a pretty intense one.

Like genre specialists, the director doesn't choose to delve much into the other personalities outside his two main ones. But in that intense first half hour we do very, very thoroughly meet up with Dani (Florence Pugh, star of William Oldroyd's impressive Lady Macbeth), and her erstwhile boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who definitely should, but do not, break up. Clearly, from events, Dani is too sensitive and needy for the brash, self-centered and immature Christian.

They don't break up because we see Dani suffer a family loss so terrible and so traumatic that she is devastated, and even Christian has the decency to see he can't dump her at this point. The emotions Ms. Pugh takes us through are extreme. Is all that really necessary? Evidently in the writer-director's view, it is. All this happens in the dead of winter, by the way, the better to contrast with all that's to come.

Now we meet the little crew about to go on a summer trip months later. They are Mark (Will Poulter), the designated offensive dork; Josh (William Jackson Harper), the articulate, competitive young black man; and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the key to the journey. The story doesn't delve deeply into these guys. Pelle has invited the three other guys to a unique - oh how very unique it will be! - "Midsommar" festival in a remote northern part of Sweden, a place of forests and lakes, for a celebration that happens only once every 90 years (really? okay) put on by a community he, Pelle, belongs to and grew up in. Their manners and customs will be of interest to the guys, who are anthropology graduate students. Mark has been telling Christian to dump Dani in no polite or uncertain terms. To the guys' disappointment, however, this opportunity to get away from her is lost because Christian invites Dani along. Don't worry, she won't accept, he says. But of course she does.

When Pelle accompanies Christian, Dani, Mark and Josh to the Hårga community, they meet a lot of quiet, nice-seeming people dressed in white peasanty outfits gathered in a big flat grassy spread with large mountain village-type wood buildings. They immediately offer the guests a dose of shrooms. (Though they're nothing like hippies (isn't this community centuries-old?), Hårga folks have a penchant for psychedelics.) It's obvious the still intensely bereaved and unstable Dani shouldn't have come along on this trip. Or partake of the shrooms. But of course she does.

Henceforth the shocks (which I won't reveal) arrive gradually, and build. They involve Hårga rituals that, to say the least, are dangerous and troubling - and that swallow up the visiting Americans, and wind up giving both Dani and Christian very, very special roles to play. Suffice it to say that their group's numbers will diminish sharply, and quickly. But Dani will be crowned May queen, while Christian will be chosen to impregnate one of the woman, because the community is so inbred it needs new genes. That is a ritual that is as hilarious as it is horrific, and this film is not without humor and an awareness of its own potential absurdity.

Conventional horror movie fans balk at all this. They say Midsommar is nothing but pseudo-arty nonsense and not a horror movie at all. They're wrong. It's a horror movie, a sophisticated and original one, and maybe a number of other genres as well. I think it's too long. I think it has well more than one strange, grating ritual too many. But this is a remarkable film and Ari Aster is a filmmaker to pay attention to.

In a long filmed interview for Variety[, Jack Reynor, an articulate young Irishman who plays the demanding role of Christian, has argued that the horror genre is taking on a new weight and seriousness that will grow, against the challenge of Hollywood's superhero franchise excesses, no doubt. That seems a very uncertain future for movies. But even without having seen Aster's debut, Hereditary, and I'm writing this without yet having done so, it's evident he can show us how genre sometimes takes us so deep into emotion and imagination that we have plenty to think about - without the creaky old house, the bangs and loud shocks. In fact making scariness happen in broad sunlight can be a higher accomplishment. And a really different twist on a seemingly mindless genre can make you think more than a more conventionally satisfying movie.

Midsommar, 147 mins., premiered June 24, 2019 in Los Angeles, and opened in cinemas in various anglophone countries July 3, elsewhere later in July or in Aug. or Sept.
*Metascore: 73%. Hereditary's: 87%.

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AROUND THE MAYPOLE IN MIDSOMMAR

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