There’s nothing more uncomfortable than spending time with a couple that shouldn’t be together anymore. As it turns out, even pagan sacrifices are preferable. That’s the terrific, twisted premise of “Midsommar,” the diabolically funny sophomore effort from “Hereditary” writer-director Ari Aster. Transplanting a cringe-inducing relationship comedy into “Wicker Man” territory, this brashly confident (and possibly demented) young filmmaker conjures some of the summer’s sickest laughs.
Florence Pugh stars as Dani Ardor, the neglected girlfriend of Jack Reynor’s blandly handsome grad student, Christian. He can’t even remember how long they’ve been together (she says four years, he thinks three-and-a-half) and he’s dodging her calls while his buddies roll their eyes. She’s clingy and a bundle of nerves, worried over a family situation he’s sick to death of hearing about. Anyone who’s ever hung around two people in a dead shark relationship will recognize the deep sighs, passive-aggressive digs and generally vampiric manner with which such couples can suck the energy out of a room.
Tragedy strikes just when he’s about to finally break it off — and in the fashion of Aster’s first feature, the misfortune is both cinematically stunning and perhaps a shade over elaborate. Nevertheless, Christian is determined to be a good guy and eventually ends up inviting the bereft Dani along on a trip to Sweden he’d planned with his friends, hoping she’ll say no. The dudes are all headed to Hälsingland, the idyllic ancestral village of their pal Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) for a midsummer celebration that happens only once every 90 years. Anthropology major Josh (William Jackson Harper) is planning to do research for a possible thesis project while the hilariously vile Mark (Will Poulter) just wants to score with Swedish chicks.
Willfully misreading Christian’s half-hearted invitation, Dani accepts and now the boys are stuck with a buzzkill broad tagging along on their adventure. Pugh is marvelously sympathetic as the odd girlfriend out, with her wide, open expressions yearning for an emotional connection that keeps misfiring. (Weirdly, the more Reynor retreats into an unsympathetic jerkface the more the actor came to remind me of Chris Pratt. I guess that’s just the preferred persona for callow bros in movies right now.)
It goes without saying that our dudes probably should have brushed up a bit on the history of the Hårga community before arriving at the solstice festival. Aster knows what movies we’ve all seen and wisely doesn’t assume we’re going to be taken by surprise. The wicked fun of “Midsommar” is in the foreboding, with all these gentle-seeming Swedes grinning beatifically and dragging out the dread. Clad in linen frocks with wreaths of flowers in their hair, everybody’s just so gosh-darn nice and friendly you sit there stewing, waiting for all hell to break loose around the maypole.
I wasn’t a fan of Aster’s “Hereditary,” which suffered from a dour self-consciousness emblematic of the sub-genre some critics and filmmakers have depressingly taken to calling “elevated horror.” (Because, God forbid, anybody allow themselves to enjoy a horror movie without being a pretentious knob about it.) Though the director’s formidable technical facility was never in doubt, the film had a silly streak I thought ill-served by an atmosphere of strained seriousness. (Any movie that ends with someone sawing off their own head should be way more fun to watch.) “Midsommar” is a far more balanced picture in both aim and execution. It’s got a sinister, snickering steadiness.
Celebrating the longest day of the year in the land of the midnight sun, Aster has given himself the formidable challenge of making a horror movie minus any darkness or shadow. Everything is in plain sight, evenly lit by the pale glow of Pawel Pogorzelski’s soft-focus cinematography. He never jostles the camera for jump-scare effects, but rather allows scenes to play out at tremendous, eerie length in intricately choreographed wide shots. With their matching white outfits and smiling, Scandinavian features, the Hårga are photographed more like a Hydra, circling and chanting in unison to spectacularly unsettling — and often side-splittingly funny — effect.
It’s telling that in interviews Aster has claimed his biggest influence on “Midsommar” was not “The Wicker Man” nor any of the other ‘70s folk horror films to which it bears a superficial resemblance, but rather Albert Brooks’ “Modern Romance.” That pitilessly funny 1981 autopsy of a failed relationship is so acutely observed I can only bear to watch it every few years or so, and a similarly sardonic sensibility is at play here. Amid all the entrails and ritual sacrifice, “Midsommar” is also a droll comedy of manners, an irresistible revenge fantasy and a warning to bad boyfriends everywhere. It’s the best breakup movie I’ve seen in ages.
“Midsommar” opens Wednesday, July 3.