BY ROGER KEEN
The noun ‘trip’ and the adjective ‘trippy’ have long been embedded in the language as generalised indicators of anything that is weird, far out, uncanny or whatever, and when it comes to movies they are customarily overused. But with regard to those genuinely trippy cinematic journeys, the ones which connoisseurs know, love, recognise and seek out, then we have to dust off those words once again because there are none better.
Movies which are simpatico with the psychedelic experience have been around long before alternative culture flourished in the 1960s, tapping into a collective unconscious thread, perhaps, from the shorts of Georges Méliès through to mainstream entertainment such as The Wizard of Oz, Fantasia and fortuitously big budget art films like A Matter of Life and Death. The direct impact of the ’60s gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey and a slew of films featuring actual showcased trip sequences, including Easy Rider, Altered States and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, together with hippyish alternative cult movies such as Performance and The Holy Mountain.
I went to see Midsommar on the biggest screen I could find, and it absolutely did the business, a cinematic high like those of old.
Those same terms of reference boosted the sci-fi sub genre cyberpunk, with the riffs of Philip K. Dick echoing through Tron, Total Recall, The Matrix and A Scanner Darkly. Then there’s the freeform, madcap quality of early Surrealist films such as Un Chien Andalou and The Seashell and the Clergyman, pointing to the later works of Buñuel – notably Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The French art film tradition, including Cocteau’s Orphée and Le testament d’Orphée, Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad and Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating also project that same dream/fugue/ trip quality. With all this feeding through, by the early days of the twenty-first century, we had a clearly established phenomenon – the postmodern weird mind-bending movie that nods to psychedelic experience, regardless of whether drugs are present or absent.
Of these the standout example is David Lynch’s Möbius strip surreal-noir masterpiece Mulholland Drive, quite rightly voted the greatest movie of the century so far. Lynch has never taken drugs, but then neither did Salvador Dali, yet in the works of both of these artists the sensibilities are there to see, getting knowing recognition from those who are ‘experienced’. Lynch’s splendid dive into a hallucinatory netherworld where higher dream logic has supplanted quotidian cause-and-effect and linear space-time is, to coin a word, definitively trippy. There are many other examples from the last twenty years, too numerous to discuss, and each of us will have favourites. My own are Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.
This piece discusses the plot of Midsommar, but it attempts to be only mildly spoilerific, not directly spelling out the movie’s many shocks, writing around them instead, for the benefit of those who haven’t yet had a viewing.
So, wishing to add to the cannon of such rarefied treats, we connoisseurs and weird film buffs are constantly on the lookout for new blood (appropriate word!) that ticks the boxes and floats the boat in the ‘trippy’ department, and in this summer of 2019 such a new movie has emerged that has absolutely sealed its place in that cannon of greatness. I first heard about it from a five-star review and article on folk horror by Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph, and from there the five-star eulogies piled up, including bellwether critic Peter Bradshaw’s in The Guardian. There was a buzz on Facebook, with horror-writer friends such as Gary McMahon and Jeff VanderMeer clearly very excited. So, I went to see Midsommar on the biggest screen I could find, and it absolutely did the business, a cinematic high like those of old.
Right from the start, in the quotidian world of American student life, there is that signature sense of impending dread, and I got a similar visceral creepiness to the one I had first watching Polanski’s Repulsion – heavily stoned – back in the 1970s. This is a horror film: the trip will not be a good one. Guaranteed…
This noirish American setting is supplanted by the dazzling bright light of a sylvan Swedish idyll, where the girls are prettier and the midsummer sun never sets.
A familiar and credible scenario is established between a clingy girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh) and her partner Christian (Jack Reynor), who fields her anxious phone calls with deadpan reactions as his mates shake their heads and suggest he dumps her. But Dani’s fears proved justified as a chilling and devastating family catastrophe engulfs her, which puts Christian on the defensive. The upshot is that this noirish American setting is supplanted by the dazzling bright light of a sylvan Swedish idyll, where the girls are prettier and the midsummer sun never sets. A broken grief-stricken Dani has been permitted to accompany Christian and his friends on a holiday-cum-field trip to witness the seasonal festivities of the Hårga, an ancient tribe of which a native friend, Pelle, is a member.
Naturally we see the references to any number of films where a set of credulous kids enter remote rural space and, at the hands of the locals, all kinds of shit breaks loose. But there is a clear precedent here in one particular film, a much-loved and much-imitated classic British horror film – The Wicker Man – which I was fortunate enough to see on its release in 1973, on a double bill with another, even greater, work of horror: Don’t Look Now. And forever after the two are paired in my mind. Neither of these films featured drug use, but because of their ambiences, their material and indeed the era in which they were made, they both have a noticeable psychedelic coefficient. By this time the counterculture had unfolded like a technicolor wave to encompass all areas of art, films, music, advertising, whatever, and such concepts as pagan atavism, precognition and supernatural destiny fitted right into the mind-altered jigsaw.
Don’t Look Now, with its story of spiritualistic wish fulfilment, its grandiose cinematography making startling use of the colour red, and its breathtaking kaleidoscopic editing, supporting non-linear plotting, is definitively trippy, taking us out there to another place. So too is The Wicker Man, where the stoic Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), representative of the quotidian world, washes ashore on the island of Summerisle, on a missing person case, and the tricksy weird islanders, led by their charismatic Lord (Christopher Lee), systematically dismantle every component of his being with the heavy artillery of competitive beliefs…and their consequences. The feel is trippy, and later when the islanders don their wigs, masks, animal heads and jester costumes, it gets a whole lot more so!
This scenario has become the cornerstone of the sub genre known as ‘folk horror’, which encompasses those other influential early ’70s pieces The Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General, that collectively deal with pagan-versus-Christian culture clashes, reflecting the times. More recently there has been a revival of interest, reflected in films such as Apostle, The Witch and parts of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and A Field in England, which also features a shroom-based trip sequence. How is Ari Aster, Midsommar’s writer-director, going to build upon this and be different and relevant?
Well, for a start he too gives us actual drugs and trip sequences, and like Enter the Void, Midsommar informs us on how much visual effects technology has moved on from the old days of The Trip and Easy Rider. In interviews, Aster has said he wanted to avoid such excesses and go for nuance and subtlety, experimenting to find the right level – not too much so it becomes distracting, and not too little so you fail to notice.
In the climaxing of the Hårga’s hair-raising ritualistic ceremonies, hallucinogenic potions are drank and the scenes take on peripheral distorting, swaying and inhalation-like effects, with shimmers and glows…
In the first outdoor shroom sequence there is hypnotic warping of foliage, background landscapes and facial features, and grass texture appears on Dani’s hand. Ominous ambient sound design frames paranoid reactions, and it all feels threatening in a very authentic way. Later, in the climaxing of the Hårga’s hair-raising ritualistic ceremonies, hallucinogenic potions are drank and the scenes take on peripheral distorting, swaying and inhalation-like effects, with shimmers and glows, but again not so stridently that it takes over the attention. One is left with that disquieting existential drift and the sense of being sucked deeper and deeper into something unspeakable… just the right effect.
All of this is boosted by Pawel Pogorzelski’s sumptuous cinematography, filling the screen with summer light, sometimes ramped up into the borderline of the overexposure zone. In contrast to Aster and Pogorzelski’s previous film, Hereditary – a more familiarly noirish horror piece that they shot as darkly as possible – they here go totally the other way. The pair aimed for a fairytale magical atmosphere, and they did tests using different cameras, lenses and times of day to gauge the varying qualities of luminescence. When it came to colour, they referenced the three-strip technicolor process – of Powell-Pressburger Black Narcissus and Red Shoes fame – as a guide, seeking that same feel and richness. They also played a lot with soft focus, adding to a hazy dreamy sensibility, and despite the production restraints the overall results are magnificent.
And cinematography and visual effects are not the only trippy reference points; more tellingly there is what is actually happening, the deviation from normality and comfort, and here the Hårga themselves and their behaviour serve as a metaphor for the otherness of a tripped-out world. With careful research and terrific input from costume and production design, Aster has created a believable, and at first sight innocuous, present-day version of a Nordic pagan cult. Their mainly white clothing, decorated with colourful embroidered patterns and floral designs, has a happy Morris-dancer air, and their good manners and genial disposition puts one at ease. The Hårga traditions and history are evident from their tapestries, runes and codices, a suitable subject for the anthropology students in the party to study, and the Hårga feasting and dancing celebrations have a pleasant charm. We are lulled into a calm state in this idyll, away from the quotidian world of urban living and mobile messaging, but we know that sense of security is false.
A key tipping point is reached in the protracted middle section of Midsommar, which is superbly handled with drawn-out tension. Here the first serious institutional dysfunction in the Hårga belief system is demonstrated, and our worst fears are confirmed – the trip, ambivalent up till now, starts to become a bummer. What is so excellent about the happening is the way it is greeted with initial silence – the Hårga just stand in reverence, whilst Christian and his mates are simply gobsmacked, and Dani takes it stoically as another increment to the trauma she’s already undergoing. It is left to the English couple, Simon and Connie, to make a protest on behalf of the quotidian world, shouting for a return to normal values – just as Sergeant Howie screamed forth his Christian beliefs in The Wicker Man when facing the pagan apocalypse.
From here the slow burn of unsettling events continues as Midsommar rolls out its horrors, but each development remains plausible, therefore more frightening. Yes, the Hårga are psychotic but convincingly so, cloaking their madness in a facade of friendliness and carefully calculated denials. As the rituals and festivities reach their climax, delirious levels of grand guignol are achieved, with Aster riffing expertly on the grotesque elements of the genre, but for him this was not the most important factor. He wanted to create a ‘relationship breakup’ movie, following a personal experience of this, and here the main thread of Dani and Christian’s liaison takes a mind-expanded turn, as each goes on a separate journey of geometrically spiralling insanity.
In the middle of this there is a wacky sex scene that we see coming from quite a distance away, and when it arrives it is indeed masterful in its execution – and somehow obligatory in this kind of movie. The pairing of sex and death is a signature feature of dark drama, the yin/yang equation that rules us all. In The Wicker Man the sexual elements seem dated and naff, particularly Britt Ekland’s nude dancing in an attempt to seduce the righteous Sergeant Howie. But Don’t Look Now contains probably the most famous, and controversial, sex scene in the history of cinema, and within the movie’s structure it is the essential central pivot that counterbalances the harrowing deaths at the beginning and end. The fact that it is neither licentious nor amoral, taking place between a married couple, makes it remarkable in cinema, and its earthy realism only adds to that quality.
The controversy concerns the claim that protagonists Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie were really having sex during the filming – asserted by producer Peter Bart in his book Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob, (and Sex), and strenuously denied by all the other parties. It is too big a subject to deal with in depth here, but one fact seldom mentioned is that in the original British edit, the sex scene was passed uncut to receive an X certificate, and in the version I saw at the age of eighteen, with two friends, the sex and the subsequent dressing up were not intercut but separate. The familiar intercut version was produced to satisfy the stricter standards of the MPAA in the United States, and has become standard, with that other version airbrushed from history. How come? Possibly because the sex appeared even more earthily real – it certainly did to three teenage lads with their mouths hanging open!
I digress, but the point here is that such notable and indeed baroque sex scenes highly enhance a work of horror by counterbalancing the prevailing gruesomeness and mayhem – it is like a different section of the orchestra entering the fray. Ari Aster understands this well, and his ritualised transaction of the flesh is a supreme discombobulation, seen to a large extent from a hapless Christian’s point of view, plus his stunned reactions – drugged with a hallucinogenic potion containing an extra ingredient, just for him, further primed with an aphrodisiac for good measure, the poor guy is so zonked he doesn’t know what universe he’s in, and this is conveyed by some marvellous facial and physical acting from Jack Reynor, who says he’s done his share of shroom trips. Afterwards, when he runs naked from the ceremonial lodge and covers his genitals, we get the full measure of his abandon, yet there is much more weirdness to come.
Meanwhile Dani is off on her own trip, identifying, integrating and becoming one with the Hårga, who work like a surrogate family, mirroring her groans of pain in symbiosis. The emotional range of Florence Pugh’s performance in the role has been highly praised, and indeed she shows us the full gamut. Dani receives the highest Hårga honour, and as a result she is festooned in ravishingly beautiful flowers, with only her face visible. In another visually startling yin/yang counterpoint, Christian is also encapsulated, showing just his face, and the denouement of their relationship is expounded in operatic terms, as the director envisaged. So it goes, and the loveliness of Dani in her floral raiment is set against the horror and chaos of a system gone completely insane and broken down into hysteria, the final necessary yin/yang equation out of which comes resolution and catharsis.
The Hårga are an exemplary creation, in one way verging on non-naturalistic, but so expertly rendered that we don’t want to question them too much, because we want to stay in the rapturous nightmare with Dani and her friends. Thus they work as a metaphor or fantasy rationale for something else – and that something is trauma. It’s no coincidence that at the movie’s commencement Dani suffers a major normal-world catastrophe, and soon afterwards undergoes another, way out of kilter with normality. We are witness to Dani’s mental breakdown, but it’s turned inside out, so it’s not just in her head but infecting the whole of reality around her. This is a classic psychedelic concept, and reveals Midsommar as more of an art film than a horror film, and it works on the same level as other masterpieces about mental illness, including Repulsion and Luis Buñuel’s El.
But in this respect, the movie it most reminds me of is Melancholia. Here a tripped-out science-fiction story of a rogue planet, about to crash into Earth, becomes a telling metaphor for the depression suffered by Kirsten Dunst’s Justine. The planet Melancholia is eerily beautiful and a preternatural shade of sapphire; at night it shines luminously over the aesthetic setting of the deserted country hotel, with its ornate topiary gardens and lake, so enchanting Justine that she sheds her clothes to bathe in its glow, becoming transfigured into an ethereal goddess figure. Similarly in Midsommar a tripped-out folk-horror tale about a deranged death cult reifies the inner ravages of traumatised Dani, and it succeeds on that same visionary plane. With it Ari Aster announces himself not just as a master of horror, but as a master of cinema per se.
By Roger Keen
Roger Keen is a writer, filmmaker and film critic with a special interest in surrealism, counterculture and psychedelia.
Featured image: A scene from Midsommar where the character Dani is served an unspecified hallucinogenic potion by a Hårga commune member.
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