Filmmaker Ari Aster has a particular penchant for portrayals of unhinging grief. In his directorial debut, 2018’s “Hereditary,” a mother played by Toni Collette gives voice to the shattering anguish of losing a loved one with shrieks that shake the viewer to the core with their intensity. In “Midsommar,” his follow-up feature, the character played by Florence Pugh suffers an epic meltdown early on, wailing inconsolably over the deaths of three loved ones in a murder-suicide.
A pattern is thus seemingly established.
Aster’s preoccupation in both pictures is with fragile people whose inner pain leaves them damaged and vulnerable. It’s so deep-seated that words are inadequate to express it. It only finds voice in soul-wrenching howls.
Pugh’s character in “Midsommar,” a young woman named Dani, is fragile even before her shocking loss. She’s in a long-term relationship with a grad student named Christian (Jack Reynor) that is unraveling because he feels she’s too needy. He’s on the verge of breaking it off, but then her family tragedy leaves her so devastated that he resolves, reluctantly, to stay with her to comfort her and keep her from falling completely to pieces.
When a group of his fellow grad students, all men, accept an invitation to go to Sweden to attend a nine-day summer-solstice pageant, he invites her along. Things turn dark from there. Only, paradoxically, the darkness manifests itself in broad daylight.
The Americans are off to the land of the midnight sun where body-clock rhythms are thrown out of whack. They’re strangers in a strange land. (The magic mushrooms they consume on arriving at the remote woodland pageant site enhance the strangeness.)
Aster sets about skillfully creating an atmosphere of slowly rising dread. The pageant is an ancient ritual performed by cultists all garbed in white. They seem welcoming. They smile beatifically. People dance in the background. They wear flowers in their hair. Elaborate outdoor banquets are held.
But something is not quite right. Dani, always teetering emotionally, is wary. Jack is intrigued. Ceremonies begin. One involves the use of a great big mallet. The purpose of same: Bop!
The couple’s companions start to disappear, one by one. No explanations are offered. Too late, the remaining Americans learn that as the great 20th-century philosopher Bob Dylan once so memorably declared, “one should never be where one does not belong.”
The picture is beautifully mounted. The sylvan loveliness of the pageant site seems glorious until distressing events — Bop! — sabotage the sense of serenity.
Eventually Dani and Christian are enveloped in sacrificial rituals.
As was the case with “Hereditary,” Aster amps up the rituals depicted — a chanting sexual initiation scene and a frenzied mass dance around a maypole — until his painstakingly crafted aura of growing unease suddenly dissolves into absurdity.
Horror is a fragile thing. Suspension of disbelief is key to its effectiveness. A sudden inappropriate guffaw from someone in the audience can be enough to break the spell. In “Midsommar,” the spell breaks at the end and the picture collapses.
★★½ “Midsommar,” with Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren. Written and directed by Ari Aster. 140 minutes. Rated R for sex and nudity, language, violence, gore, smoking and drug content. Opens Wednesday, July 3, at multiple theaters.