Put Ari Aster’s two features next to each other and you’d be hard-pressed to consider they were directed by the same guy. The man behind the breakout hit Hereditary follows up his debut just about a year later with Midsommar, a long, glibly funny slice of folk horror that takes place entirely in the daytime. Aster lost no time moving on to this next project, which he has described as more of a break-up movie than a horror movie. It’s certainly true that Midsommar is indebted, in a cosmic way to films that depict things that are horrific without actually not being horror at all. (It’s no coincidence, I think, that one of the characters is named Ingmar.)
“It’s interesting seeing the different responses from different audiences,” says Jack Reynor, who stars in the film. “Where some people laugh and other people don’t and they’re kind of freaked out that everyone around them is laughing. I think there’s a lot of interesting conversations and a lot of important questions that the film poses, and it’s divisive in the best way.”
Grad students Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Reynor) have been dating for years, but the relationship has all but run its course when Christian decides to end it so he can go spend the summer in Sweden with his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) and Mark (Will Poulter). Ostensibly, the trip to Pelle’s family (who live in what is essentially a commune but what Pelle calls a “small community”) is for the purposes of Josh’s grad thesis, but the trip is also mainly about doing drugs in the woods and hopefully getting laid. As Christian prepares to break up with Dani, however, an incredible personal tragedy strikes, leaving her flayed and traumatized. Unable to go through with the plan with Dani in this state, Christian begrudgingly decides to invite her along on the trip, which soon turns from a pleasant bucolic bit of pagan pageantry to a worrisome, flower-crown-spattered nightmare.
Although the film is very bright and colourful, it’s a disorienting watch, lightly swathed in psychedelic imagery and a general confusion and malaise that also translates to the characters. As Christian, Reynor goes through a slow disintegration of self as he detaches from both the relationship and the world around him — some of which is of his doing, some of which is definitely not). I asked Reynor if disorientation was part of Aster’s approach; if, while Reynor obviously read the script and discussed the film at length with his director, there was ever a true sense of disorientation on set.
“The film is designed to be a break-up film, more than it’s a parable about loss of identity, even though that exists as an element of the story,” says Reynor. “The conditions in which we were shooting and the vexing nature of principal photography definitely contributed to a tone of disorientation that translated into the film. We were shooting very long hours in blistering sunlight and heat. It was challenging insofar as… you can see from watching it that it’s very intricate cinematography and it’s very refined. There’s a lot of long takes and usage of long angle lenses — it takes a lot of time to set that kind of thing up and to execute it. There was kind of just a tone of being disoriented on set that played into the character.
“There’s also the drug aspect of the film, where the moment they get there, they take magic mushrooms,” he continues. “Through the course of the story, there’s more of these psychedelics that are consumed, and you can see the characters becoming increasingly disoriented by that. I think that all works in a meld with the folklore elements of the film and the humour of the film — because there is a lot of humour in it, albeit a sort of gallows humour. It’s all there to strip the audience of the social structures that we live in and the sort of moral code built into our DNA. So there’s this challenge to see just how far down the rabbit hole you can go — what you can and can’t laugh at. I imagine that for an audience who has no idea what the movie’s about, there’s a whole other sense of disorientation as well.”
When I interviewed Ari Aster for Hereditary last year, he seemed uncommonly confident and poised for a debut director. It almost seemed pointless to ask any questions; he so clearly and effortlessly knew what he was doing that it felt the answer to any question was already in the film. When speaking to Reynor, I couldn’t help but bring up the impression that Aster had left on me.
“He’s kind of a visionary director,” says Reynor. “I think he’s one of the most uncompromising directors that I’ve met with regards to his vision and his shot list, particularly. I think one of the challenges for him was that we had English, Hungarian and Swedish-speaking people on the set, and the kind of tribulation of trying to communicate to everyone what was going on and giving them all the same direction at the same time. That was very difficult for Ari to manage, especially given the fact that the film is largely exterior daylight, in the middle of the blistering hot summer. We were struggling with the continuity as well, because there were so many moving parts and there was so much to manage.
“I think that was a difficult thing for Ari. Like I said, he’s very uncompromising about his vision but he found himself being forced into compromising. It’s not easy when you’re that kind of director to adapt or be forced to think on your feet and change things. But he did! I guess he would say that when you’re a director, it’s always a question about having to kill your babies or whatever. I know for him there was certainly a bit of that, but I think that probably makes you a better director. Certainly, nothing that he had to compromise on changed the film for the worse. I think the film is really, really strong and what he intended it to be.” ■
Midsommar opens in theatres on Wednesday, July 3. Watch the trailer here: