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Front Page - Friday, July 12, 2019

Critic's Corner: Sunlight more scary than darkness in ‘Midsommer’

In “Midsommar,” writer and director Ari Aster trades the smothering darkness of “Hereditary” for the sun-dappled fields of a remote Swedish commune without sacrificing any of the disquieting horror that marked his previous film.

As Aster made clear in “Hereditary,” darkness is the domain of demons. In “Midsommar,” he suggests we’re never more vulnerable to evil than when we’re bathed in light.

There are no supernatural entities in “Midsommar,” though. Rather, the atrocities that occur are born in the human heart – or, more specifically, a version of the human heart that has confused an ancient runic religion with reality.

We begin with Dani, a codependent college-age woman who’s clinging to a corpse masquerading as a relationship. Her boyfriend, Christian, has been trying to muster the courage to break up with her but keeps coming up short.

Just when Christian has steeled himself for the split, Dani receives news of a murder-suicide involving her sister and parents. As she collapses into grief, Christian makes a half-hearted attempt to console her.

If you see “Midsommar,” compare this moment, in which Christian silently holds a screaming Dani as he looks blankly at the room around them, to a scene later in the film in which a grieving Dani is surrounded by women who collapse and cry with her.

In “Midsommar,” Aster invites viewers to unlock the secrets of the narrative by studying this and other moments of contrast.

It might help knowing “Midsommar” is a breakup film. But unlike the Jennifer Aniston-Vince Vaughn comedy, “The Break-Up,” the movie conveys its story through a vicious slice of horror.

Initially, that film might sound a little like the 2005 shocker “Hostel.” To help Dani recover, Christian invites her to accompany him on a trip with three of his buddies to a secluded commune in Sweden, where they’ll observe a festival commemorated once every 90 years. Once there, unspeakable things unfold.

But Aster wasn’t interested in making a simple slasher pic. Like “Hostel” director Eli Roth, he stages a gory production, but unlike his lesser colleague, who succeeded only in splattering the screen with blood, Aster coats his horrors with subtext and thoughtful imagery.

Some of this will be hard for viewers to swallow. For example, to convey the deep connection the members of the commune have to one another, Aster filmed a scene in which the female elders surround a young couple as they have intercourse and mimic their pleasure.

It’s a bizarre scene that nonetheless reveals Aster to be an imaginative filmmaker who finds unconventional ways to tell his stories. While this is bound to alienate some moviegoers, his originality is refreshing.

So is Aster’s camerawork. Shots like the one in which the camera does a bird’s-eye flyby of a car and then dips toward the road, making the world appear as though it’s turned upside down, give “Midsommar” a deeply cinematic feel.

The cinematography only enhances the film further. “Midsommar” was beautifully shot and is full of color, light and fantastical imagery. I won’t soon forget the shot of a woman robed in flowers as she trudges past a burning building, or the yellow rays of a wooden sun splashed across the greenery of the forest.

Aster uses the edges and depths of these carefully composed frames to hint at the horrors to come. Violent and sexually graphic imagery covers the walls of the commune’s sleeping quarters like cave paintings by a mad druid and little dramas between residents play out in the distance. Aster doesn’t linger on these images but uses brief glimpses of them to make viewers peer closely at the screen and increase tension.

I risk belaboring my point by mentioning how Aster connects his viewers to Dani’s mental state after she drinks a hallucinogenic tea by having the flowers in her hair, the trees behind her and the food in front of her subtly pulsate and swirl, but I’m compelled to share this fascinating detail. Aster truly immerses his audience in a metaphysical experience.

All that said, actress Florence Pugh’s performance would have been enough to captivate viewers. Not only does she brilliantly convey Dani’s co-dependence and grief, she also perfectly projects her character’s journey through pain and catharsis. (Like Neil Sedaka sang, “breaking up is hard to do.”)

For all its fine qualities, “Midsommar” is still the lesser of Aster’s two films. Some of its themes are beyond reach, leaving viewers to focus on the core story, which is rather bare-boned. Despite this, “Midsommar” is a slow-burn that takes its time traveling from one point to the next.

I also balked at the rubbery corpses. This would have been a good area for the film’s studio, A24, to spend a little more money, considering how much care was invested in the movie’s visuals.

In the final analysis, however, “Midsommar” overcomes these minor flaws to stand as a finely crafted film that’s more disturbing than frightening. Arriving on the heels of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful “Hereditary,” Aster’s second serving of brutal but elevated horror firmly establishes him as a filmmaker to watch, no matter where he goes next.