Breaking up is hard to do. So here’s how. First, pack up your troubles. Then, head off with your other half and his post-grad buddies - like The Big Bang Theory gone wrong – to a hippy-trippy commune in Sweden for a midsommar festival. Take some weed from the creepy-smiley kaftan-wearing folk with flowers in their hair. Then let the constant daylight discombulate you into seeing yourself and your nearly-ex in very vivid detail, where everything becomes clear.
And in Ari Aster’s Midsommar everything become clear quite quickly. From the get-go, Florence Pugh’s note-perfect insecurity in her relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor) is nailed in a tense, single-shot phone conversation, the camera awkwardly close. Dani (Pugh) is clingy and knows it’s pushing him away. But when a devastating family tragedy hits her - slowly revealed in the opening minutes - Dani goes into a tailspin. And instead of ditching her, as Christian’s mates have urged him to, he instead invites her on the lads’ anthropology field trip.
So, the first forty minutes is pure drama – and brilliantly realised, with flesh and blood performances from Pugh, Rayner and the speak-it-straight Will Poulter. And the snows and darkness of urban America, with its tragedy and tangled emotions, cut to the bright sunshine of a midsommar village that promises freedom, peace and renewal. But although Poulter quips “it’s like Waco”, clearly none of them have seen The Wicker Man. Or The Stepford Wives. Or Get Out. Otherwise they’d have run for the hills.
Instead, the eeriness bursts into horrific violence with a Logan’s Run style euthanasia of two elders, a choking close-up of spattery detail that earned the film most of its 18 certificate. Witnessing that, you’d think: ‘Time go to’: so two peripheral characters try to leave and are not seen again in this lifetime. Given a lift to the station by villagers? I think not. And so it goes, quirky happenings notch up the sense of foreboding. A person peeing on what turns out to be a holy tree also disappears. And that’s where the film goes bonkers, literally and metaphysically. Boring too, because by then several of the main characters have been whisked away, and Aster has undermined the drama he so carefully crafted.
But as with his frightener hit Hereditary, Aster studiedly telegraphs everything that’s going to happen. In Hereditary, Toni Collette’s dolls-house pre-figures the action. In Midsommar, beautifully rendered folk-art tapestries spell everything out: a burning bear, pubic shaving, a sabbat-like gathering of women. It all happens just as pictured. It’s a bold construct, suggesting the cosmic inevitability of the threats and dangers.
Yet the inevitability is already there in others’ work, including The Wicker Man and Aster’s own Hereditary. Like that film, Midsommar climaxes with a smorgasbord of over-the-top imagery, beautiful yes, but laughable in its piled-on excess. Pugh, festooned in flora, moves across the screen like a flower-bedecked dalek at Glastonbury. Flames burn, nakedness abounds, the score by The Haxan Cloak gets even trippier, a bearskin gets a new owner, pains and problems are purged away. It’s like a poor pastiche of Peter Greenaway.
Pugh (Fighting with my Family, Lady Macbeth) is one of Britain’s best and most versatile actors. A fabulous first half though can’t save the film from a drawn-out denouement, its main cast depleted in such a bungled, badly-edited way. And while everyone is offended these days, it’s also uncomfortable in places: an ugly person is the inbred one; misogyny, a curse of many scary movies, has no place here, because it’s the blokes who are apparently the baddies - and are certainly punished for it in no uncertain terms.
Powerfully acted, with mind-bending camerawork from Pawel Pogorzelski, it’s just way too long, laughable when it shouldn’t be, and not aware enough of the movies that went before it, which did this better and in under two hours.