2019 has been a great year for film. As this list has illustrated and will continue to illustrate, 2019 saw bountiful returns from budding auteurs Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk) and Greta Gerwig (Little Women), among others; a return to form for Tarantino, who sagged with The Hateful Eight but soared with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; to Netflix’s continued dominance with middlebrow, global productions including Marriage Story, Atlantics, and, of course, The Irishman. And yet, of all the tremendous films dotted across these past 12 months, arguably none have been more moving than Ari Aster’s Midsommar.
Aster’s return capitalised ten-fold on the potential he showed with Hereditary, a film that, while impressive, was a little too derivative of its forebears to really enter the conversation as the modern horror classic that some have championed it to be. As studio horrors such as It: Chapter 2 and Doctor Sleep opened by and large to critical indifference, and as Jordan Peele’s Us collapsed in its final act under the colossal weight of its ambitions, Midsommar steadily consolidated Aster’s mercurial talents for capturing grief’s cataclysm by way of an odyssey of allusion through horror’s rich textual past, a matter first brought to light by Hereditary’s markedly Kubrickian stylings. Aster’s aptitude for mining horror’s past to convey ideas about the present comes most plainly into view in Midsommar’s intertextual correspondence with Robin Hardy’s 1973 Brit-horror masterpiece The Wicker Man.
While both films, Midsommar and The Wicker Man, utilise their respective cults to make points about the dangers of fanaticism, Midsommar is less about cultist sects per se, and instead employs its radical commune as a backdrop for exploring the course and progression of one woman’s grief. Of course, there are vague reflectionist arguments to be made about sectarian politicking and communalist isolationism in the age of Trump, but crow-barred metaphorical readings such as these tend to crumple under close scrutiny, while circumventing what are arguably the more interesting and, indeed, simpler pursuits of the film.
Following a truly exceptional performance in Lady Macbeth, as an abused wife trapped in a loveless marriage to a man more than double her age, Florence Pugh has arguably never been better than here as Dani, a recently bereaved young woman who follows her emotionally estranged anthropologist boyfriend and a group of his friends to a remote Swedish province where they hope to observe a ritualistic midsummer festival. After a day of spirited festivities have taken place, albeit darkly punctuated by substance abuse, the atmosphere suddenly changes for Dani and her cohort following the death of two community elders by way of violent double suicide. From her spot at the base of the cliff from which they jump, Dani and her friends have no choice but to look on in terror as the sacrificial rite unfolds, a sequence grimly punctuated by their bones crunching on the rocks below.
The ritual suicide is equal parts excruciating and beautiful. In the context of Dani’s rite-of-passage towards the most bastardised form of peace imaginable, the scene effectively (and affectively) doubles Dani’s loss, providing by proxy a simulacrum of the helplessness she feels for not being able to save her family from the horrors of mental health conveyed at the film’s outset. Despite my own familiarity and enjoyment of horror, I found this sequence quite paralysing in its impact on me, as I’m sure many did. In an exquisite merging of function and form, the sequence captured both the horrors of loss and the affective capabilities of horror media almost simultaneously. It is not the only time that Midsommar captures perfectly the notion of horror as an embodied experience, but it the only instance that I will spoil here. I came away from my inaugural experience of Midsommar – a quiet weekday screening in Leicester Square, no less – truly believing that, in all my experiences of watching horror, I have never felt loss, or indeed the spectral ineffability of horror itself, in a more profoundly haunting way – it is a feeling I haven’t shaken since that first viewing. By way of Pugh’s scorching performance, Dani’s anguish is a piercing, agonising, and sublime expression of the inexpressible.
The sequence under scrutiny conjured an image that I have carried with me, for better or worse, throughout the remainder of the year. Midsommar was a film that shook me to my core. Film phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack has made attempts to conceptualise spectatorship as embodiment in her highly influential work of film scholarship Carnal Thoughts (2004). Writing on Jane Campion’s The Piano, Sobchack observes film’s unique invitation ‘to touch and be touched by the substance of images, to feel a visual atmosphere envelop us, to experience weight and suffocation and the need for air.’ Sobchack articulates film’s capacity to take us in its strange power and hold us there – indeed, in the case of horror, where shock functions as the genre’s raison d’être, that hold often comes in spite of our inclination to resist it.
Part of Midsommar’s enigma no doubt extends from the fact that it defies its own narrative logic in the last act. Leaving aside redundant debates over “post-horror” – little more than a critical reinstitution of snobbery employed to distance the horror genre from “serious” art – Aster truly takes his viewer down the rabbit hole, steering clear of any form of epiphanic denouement for Dani, choosing to offer, instead, a bracing, phantasmagoric finale shrouded in visceral gut punches and a large helping of Kubrickian mystic. While it may do a small disservice to its formal sophistication, the final 30 minutes of Midsommar are without doubt some of the most stomach-churning, provocative, and totally batshit crazy minutes of film this or any other year.