Ari Aster's widely anticipated third feature, Beau Is Afraid, was released in theaters today. The surrealist black comedy horror film is co-produced and distributed by A24, the independent studio behind Aster's two previous films, Hereditary and Midsommar. In yesterday's retrospective, I revisited Hereditary in all its creepy splendor; today, get out your sunglasses and get ready to drink some dandelion water -- let's talk about Midsommar.
Several friends travel to Sweden to study as anthropologists a summer festival that is held every ninety years in the remote hometown of one of them. What begins as a dream vacation in a place where the sun never sets, gradually turns into a dark nightmare as the mysterious inhabitants invite them to participate in their disturbing festive activities.
Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) is an American psychology graduate student who has just suffered a traumatizing family tragedy and is drowning in an ocean of emotional and psychological trauma. Her sister has just committed a murder-suicide, killing herself and their parents by way of carbon monoxide poisoning. She is now an orphan in some sense, the last surviving piece of a family that has disappeared. In the wake of this nightmare, her boyfriend of four years, Christian (Jack Reynor), decides not to break up with Dani despite their gradually failing relationship. At a minimum, his presence in her life provides some sense of stability, even if his heart isn't in it anymore. Christian is a cultural anthropologist graduate student, and he and friends from his cohort, Mark and Josh (Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper), have plans to travel to Sweden at the invitation of their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) this summer. What's in Sweden you might be wondering? The guys plan on attending a once-every-90-years midsummer festival at Pelle's ancestral commune, the Hårga, in rural Hälsingland, Sweden. This is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," particularly for Josh, whose graduate thesis focuses on European midsummer festivities. All is shaping up to be one hell of a boys' trip in what will likely be a drug-fueled but also an academic-focused celebration of the summer solstice! That is until Christian, who failed to even mention these plans to Dani (as he thought they were going to break up), feels more or less obligated to invite her along. Dani, who is somewhat hesitant to go but also doesn't want to be left behind, agrees to join. Little does she know...
The group soon arrives in the transcendentally beautiful countryside of rural Hälsingland. Because it's the summer solstice, it is especially bright outside -- the sun will linger high in the sky around the clock this time of year in Sweden. But this isn't your Swedish grandparents' midsummer festival (hopefully). The Hårga commune is hardcore to put it lightly, and these pagan Swedes partake in an exceptionally sinister and disturbing celebration. There's little time wasted before things begin to go sideways. First up is a bad trip on some laced, hyper-hallucinogenic mushrooms that trigger a rather intense psychedelic crisis for Dani. Nothing like a minor psychosis to kick things off. Next the group witnesses a suicidal, cliff-jumping ättestupa ceremony -- "Don't worry," says commune elder Siv (Gunnel Fred), as this is considered a great and predestined honor for members of the Hårga community. Oh yeah sure, this is a totally normal way to spend the first day of a summer vacation. And just in case you thought things might settle down after a while, let me assure you that there will be plenty of ritualistic mutilation and human sacrifices on the sun-soaked horizon.
Few filmmakers would be willing to stick their necks out as far as Ari Aster did with Midsommar, his second feature film released in just under two years' time. Instead of playing it safe, Aster doubled down and raised the stakes with this warped, folk horror / breakup movie set in broad fucking daylight. Locked and loaded with an incredible crew of filmmaking talent and a stellar cast of performers, Midsommar manages to push beyond the long shadow cast by Hereditary out into the direct sunlight, where there is everything is fully exposed and there is nowhere to hide. The sun never sets in Midsommar whilst in Hälsingland, and the backdrop of perpetual lightness creates a relentless anxiety that is quite literally "a slow burn" -- I'm all about the sun puns, okay? To try and pull off such an unnerving and stress-induced movie without the luxury of dark corners and ominous shadows is a radical choice. Maybe even a risky one. But the decision more than pays off -- how many films have you ever seen that execute this so assuredly?
But this is not just a movie centered around a lighting and staging gimmick with Scandinavian pagan mumbo jumbo. Much like Hereditary, Midsommar is a human drama costumed as a corrupted horror movie. This time around, Dani serves as the film's North Star and audience avatar, the sympathetic center of the story. Like all great characters worth rooting for, she's wrestling with both internal and external conflict. We see her struggling to cope with her inescapable trauma and feelings of guilt -- she's damaged and vulnerable. We also come to realize that's she involved with a romantic partner who does not appreciate or care about her in a meaningful, below-the-surface way anymore. To be fair, Christian isn't to blame for Dani's fractured mental state, and he is only half-culpable for their floundering relationship. The real problem is that they're still together for entirely different reasons -- Dani is emotionally dependent on Christian, and thus Christian feels obligated to stay with Dani. The two of them no longer share a substantive connection, and though one of them feels it is time to break apart, the other feels the need to stay. Sometimes the hard, honest truth is too painful to say out loud and is left unspoken -- this realism and heartache only add to the stakes of the overall storytelling.
The back half of the film is a series of interwoven rising and falling character arcs that end with Christian's demise and Dani's ascendance. Just after her winning the maypole dancing competition and being crowned May Queen, Dani sees Christian partaking in a copulation ritual with Maja, a younger member of the commune, surrounded by naked Hårga elders (this ritual was explained earlier when Christian is propositioned to take part in this a "mating process," which is an effort to avoid incest within the community -- ya know, just trying to keep you up to speed here). This flagrant act of infidelity causes Dani to have an extreme panic attack, one that is mimicked in solidarity (or condescension?) by other women from the commune. Over the course of these two sequences, we see Christian, despite being coerced, decide to engage sexually with Maja surrounded by onlookers; meanwhile, Dani assimilates with the commune in other ways and mourns the end of her relationship with Christian in unison with her new "family." It is notable that both Dani and Christian are separately served hallucinogenic drinks that lead to Dani's rise and Christian's fall -- there are in fact outside influences pushing these two apart. In what proves to be a final "Boy, bye" moment, Dani chooses Christian to be the final human sacrifice used in the midsummer festival's closing ceremony. Temporarily paralyzed, stuffed into a disemboweled bear, and placed in a large wooden temple ready to be set ablaze, Christian is burned alive at Dani's hand. As Dani's face changes from sobs of horror and grief to a radiant smile, we see her, covered in flowers, having undergone a complete metamorphosis, standing in full bloom. It's a provocative way to finish a film, leaving the audience to piece together their own thoughts on Dani, her psyche and decisions, and the slippery slope of her and Christian's toxic relationship. There isn't just one way to read these tea leaves.
In terms of where this sits in the Aster filmography, I'm going to chicken out and avoid any sort of ranking -- at least until after I've had a chance to sit with Beau Is Afraid for a bit. Aster avoided a sophomore slump in thanks to his A24 Justice League team consisting of producer Lars Knudsen, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, and editor Lucian Johnston. When you add in Bobby Krlic's eerie score and incredible performances across the board -- with special recognition to the amazing Florence Pugh -- Midsommar not only exceeded expectations but raised the figurative bar going forward, both for horror films as a medium and Aster as an overqualified genre filmmaker.
I've been known to be complacent in my beer + movie pairings. I've missed a lot of golden opportunities to combo my film with my froth in order to capitalize on a tasteful pun or witty juxtaposition. But this time, in honor of the hallucinogenic dandelion drink that's served in Midsommar, I made sure to have a ready-to-crack Daisy Cutter Pale Ale from Half Acre Beer Company in my fridge. It's one of the first beers conceived by this Chicago-based microbrewery and also happens to be one of the first beers I tried upon moving to Chicago. This is a sudsy, beautiful golden ale that combines easy day-drinking hops with both herbal and citrus notes alike. I'm ready to enjoy these at my own midsummer festival! -- minus the Scandinavian pagan rituals, Swedish folk horror, etc.
Daisy Cutter American Pale Ale | 5.2% ABV Half Acre Beer Company @halfacrebeer