Nightmare in broad daylight

Philip Cu Unjieng - The Philippine Star
Nightmare in broad daylight
Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor in a scene from the film

Film review: Midsommar

MANILA, Philippines — Ari Aster writes and directs Midsommar; and after his well-received Hereditary of last year, anticipation was high as to whether lightning would strike twice for this master of horror and suspense. The very first stark difference that registers with Midsommar is how everything is shot in broad daylight. It’s summer solstice in Sweden, the time of the midnight sun, when 9 p.m. still has the land bathed in glorious sunshine — and it’s against this particular time of the year that this chronicling of a Swedish holiday into hell takes place.

Our two main protagonists are the couple Dani (Florence Pugh) and boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). When we first meet them in New York, it’s firmly established that Dani is in the midst of personal and family issues, and fears she’s much too emotional and needy, possibly scaring Jack away.

A Social Anthropology graduate working on his dissertation, Christian intimates to his fellow students and friends that he’s one step away from breaking off the relationship. But when a family tragedy befalls Dani, Christian has no choice but to stand by her, and see her through this painful juncture in her life.

One of Jack’s friends hails from Sweden, part of a recluse community known for celebrating pagan/folk rites and customs. Think of an extreme Amish-like cult, or early day Mormons. To the anthropology doctoral candidates, the invitation of this Swedish friend seems like manna from Heaven, an opportunity to observe and live with this community in rural Sweden, as they celebrate over nine days, the Midsommar festival — something they hold only every 90 years.

While there are some jump scares in the film, this is more old school horror filmmaking, where foreboding, the power of suggestion, and first firmly establishing the premise, back story and local color, are just as important as providing the shocks and gory incidents.

If there’s a nod to a previous film, it would be to The Wicker Man, where the rituals, rites and customs of a specific community are placed in sharp contrast to accepted modes of social behavior. Fertility rites, Maypole dancing, Harvest Queens, these are weird beyond belief; and they’re only the icing on the cake, as along with our American tourists, we’re exposed to the dark and diabolical lengths this community will go to in perpetuating their beliefs and lifestyle. 

That all this happens in cheery sunshine only makes it more malevolent. Rather than work under the cover of night or in shadows, Aster purposely demonstrates how much of the horror in life can happen under the guise of everyday life, or a community’s voluntary acceptance of their shared set of beliefs. If you recall ancient civilizations like the Mayans and Incas, notions of human sacrifice were considered honorable. It’s with this in mind, that one approaches the Midsommar storyline — how what may constitute disturbing behavior for many of us in today’s world, is just part of a closed community’s “religion” and their version of normalcy.

Once again, there’s Aster’s trademark grim sense of humor, and how he loves pulling out the rug from under us — like when Dani entering a Manhattan bathroom segues to her being in the toilet of the flight heading to Stockholm. With Midsommar, rather than going for jump scares and all-out horror, Aster is more into winding the screws tighter and tighter, stretching the limits of what we can accept, as this holiday destination weekend becomes a calamitous descent into sun-bathed darkness of a different order. 

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