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Movie subjects include pagans, authors & assassins

The films this month concern contemporary pagan rights, a classic French writer, and an entry in a thriller series.

Midsommar

Stories of ancient blood rituals–usually sacrifices to pagan gods in some form–are favorite subjects of young film makers, but they are very difficult to bring off. The Wicker Man is probably the most successful, but it requires seeing Christopher Lee looking uncomfortable in flowing apparel without remembering his performances in Horror of Dracula or The Lord of the Rings.
Stephen King has discussed the difficulties of having horror and ghosts in broad daylight, and although it can be done (see A Ghost, for example), it’s not easy; pagan rituals, usually vaguely explained, are even harder. Ari Aster, director of the recent Heredity and now Midsommar, achieves some success, but in his most recent film, just when I thought I should cringe with a sense of dread, I often had to stifle a giggle when a group of Swedish ritualists, both male and female, old and young, went by in white knee-length robes, embroidered with flowers, wearing garlands of additional poseys. Is this northern Sweden or 50s LA?
The plot is simple enough. Dani (Florence Pugh), the heroine, confronts an overwhelming family tragedy as the film opens, and some months later tries to refocus by accompanying her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), on a trip to northen Sweden to study folk rituals.
Also accompanying Christian are his buddies Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), who is researching Midsummer rituals for a thesis he is writing. Their goal is a commune where Christian’s Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) grew up. Although the film is slow in the U.S., it picks up when they reach northern Sweden (actually Hungary). The open fields, farm structures, and welcoming people make the visitors feel at home; of course, the drugs that the visitors and residents take ease any tension and bring a few hallucinations into the mix.
The Americans have come to witness a special nine-day solstice festival that occurs only once every nine years. They aren’t sure what to expect, but each day brings a new element of ritual and demonstrates how it affects the community; some of the folkways presented are apparently based on real cultures. Ari Aster, the director, has described his brand of filmmaking as “existential horror,” and, with the exception of one or two scenes, I found it more unsettling than frightening.
The acting is competent, the costumes are believable, although repetitious, the settings (with several references to Kubrick movies) are worth looking at, and a bear locked in a cage keeps a note of tension front and center. On the other hand, a paralyzed man staring out of a bear skin; choreographed maypole dances; a ritual marriage followed by a scene in which a dozen women encourage the groom as he deflowers the bride; and other such scenes can be more funny than frightening.
The worst aspect of the film is the incredibly uneven special effects. Supposed corpses look like blood-leaking straw dummies, the carried dead have almost no weight as they are moved about, and the views of burning buildings leave a good bit to be desired. Given the level of technical expertise in most modern films, it’s rare to see a mainstream film with so many technical flaws, especially after so much money was spent on hand-making all the individual costumes.
The pacing of the film is uneven, yet it has its moments; some scenes from it stick in my mind; and together with Heredity, it provides an interesting overview of a young filmmaker. As a horror film, however, it did not work for me; my disbelief (and occasionally a giggle) kept intruding…

 

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(All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org)

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