AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY, DVD AND DIGITAL
RUNNING TIME: 170 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
College student Dani Ardor is traumatised after her sister Terri kills their parents and herself by filling their home with carbon monoxide. The following summer, a still grieving Dani invites herself to join her rather distant boyfriend Christian Hughes and three of his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village. However, what begins as a carefree summer holiday in a land of eternal sunlight takes a sinister turn when the villagers invite their guests to partake in festivities that render the pastoral paradise increasingly unnerving….
For a while I didn’t think that I was going to get to see the director’s cut of Midsommar for some time, because it was initially announced as an Apple TV streaming exclusive in North America, another step in the big studios being able to control what we watch and not wanting us to properly own anything. But soon after that it came out that it was being released on hard media in the UK, France, Italy, Germany and now Australia- but not North America. I can’t help feeling a bit smug at us Brits having one up on the Yanks for once in terms of releases, but it’s not really fair that some of the rest of the world is seeing this version and I’m sure that it’s caused a lot of importing. The other thing for me was whether to review it or not. I loved Midsommar at the cinema, you see, and was very excited to learn of this cut with 24 extra minutes. Out of all of us writers on this website, I’m probably the hardest to please in terms of new movies, and wanted to praise something for a change. However, our own David Smith reviewed the theatrical cut, and these days we at HCF only like to take on a film someone else has reviewed if we have a totally different opinion on it. David wasn’t as enamoured of the film as I was, but there was still much positivity there. So with his blessing I decided to review the director’s cut only if I thought that the changes were substantial and made the film different. Well – Let me just say for now that, while I’d agree with David’s point about writer/director Ari Aster’s mention of it being essentially a film about a relationship breakup but this not really coming through in the theatrical cut, this most certainly comes through in the director’s cut!
As in the cinema, the similarities with Aster’s previous Hereditary were apparent right from the beginning. Of course the two movies share many elements such family trauma and outsiders becoming head of cults, but Aster’s elegant filming style had made a glorious return also, with continual slow pans, long takes and clever staging without drawing attention to itself, like an early conversation between Dani and Christian shot in deep focus where he’s sitting in a chair in the distance on the left hand of the screen while she’s standing in front of a door in the foreground. The shot visually transmits to us the state of their relationship without “screaming” it loudly. Likewise the scene of Christian having a chat with his pals about Dani coming along or not, with his – and then her – separation from the others being shown by them being reflected in a mirror above the sofa where the others are sat. Throughout, Aster is able to convey so much in just one shot or two, be it about character, symbolism, you name it. These early scenes tend to be rather dark or drab, but once in Sweden everything’s gloriously lush and illuminated in an golden glow. So much of horror is set in nighttime, but it’s daytime where most of us spend much of our lives, and therefore surely it should be even more frightening? Midsommar exploits this idea with great subtlety but terrific effect as the viewer is trapped in this fascinating but increasingly frightening world, and gets so accustomed to it that when we see somebody drive off in a car it seems like a stupid anachronism. We’re hypnotised by the cult’s rituals [well, unless slow burning atmospheric movies aren’t your bag], seduced by the simplicity and freedom of much of their existence and the gorgeousness of their surroundings, and horrified by some of what they do. This film may be examining our attitudes to cults, but at its heart it’s basically carrying on that familiar premise of some people lost in a foreign, alien land where nothing makes sense and therefore becomes scary. Aren’t many of us like that when we’re somewhere we’re not used to? What is alien frightens. It’s human nature.
The plot is at its heart pretty simple, and despite the existence of this director’s cut I wouldn’t be surprised if some fan cuts shortening the film down to two hours or less start materialising, and I’d like to see them – even though I wouldn’t want a minute lost myself, and I’m including all those rituals which had me spellbound, and which seem to climax [though there’s even more to follow] in that incredible dance, shot of course in lots of long takes, which is down right exhilarating. It just needed a song over it and we’d be watching one of the most brilliant musical sequences ever. The weird atmosphere throughout, something to which Bobby Krlic‘s extraordinary music score contributes so much to, is so strong you can almost touch it, and, while Aster does give us that horrific and jolting early suicide sequence and some hallucinatory bits such as bushes slightly morphing and almost forming smiles, and straw feet, it’s mostly a slow but steady build up to an upsetting final act and some of the most unsettling and grotesque dead body imagery ever put on screen. One can interpret the ending as feminist, and I’m sure I’m not the only one tiring of this stuff, but it seems to me it’s more about the positivity of sharing pain, and letting go of bad experiences and things and finding new ones – in the twisted way that only a horror film can show of course. Dani may not seem totally “with it”, but her eventual smile right at the end seems genuine. I think. One of many things to muse about, which is surely the mark of a really fine movie?
But that’s enough about that – though frankly I could write about this film for ages. It’s got me buzzing like no other horror in ages. So then – what’s this director’s cut like then, you probably really want to know? Well, I’ll admit right now, it doesn’t make any major narrative or thematic alterations. A great many mysteries involving the cult and its members remain – which is probably just as it should be. But it does, I feel, flesh out enough to make a significant difference. Because I only saw the film once in cinemas [I almost went twice but there was too much else I wanted to see!], I’m not sure that I will be able to describe every single addition, but then there are probably internet sites that do that in minute detail. But I can mention the ones I noticed, and as a fan say if I think the additions are good or not. The longest new scene is a quite lengthy extra ceremony that takes place the night after the cliff sequence beside a lake. We see several strange doings, climaxing with a child about to be drowned. The watching Dani can’t take it and cries out for them to stop – and is joined by others, only those others seem to be doing some play-acting. The boy is let go, and Dani realises that he was never in real danger. For a few seconds I pondered upon the point of the scene, and said to myself that it was good that it was removed from the theatrical cut. However, I then looked at the boy’s costume. It’s the same as what Connie was wearing when her water-logged corpse, strewn in pine branches, is found. Connie’s off-screen drowning was the real sacrifice, and maybe took place after what was probably a dry run. An important scene maybe, but I wonder if it was cut because it was set beneath a night sky and was therefore visually jarring compared with nearly all the other scenes?
Elsewhere, the majority of new footage concerns the Dani/Christian relationship, thereby giving us a fuller picture. During the party near the beginning, Dani learns about the scheduled trip to Sweden, and then privately questions Christian about his intentions. He manipulates her by saying he’d planned a romantic invite moment, and that she’d ruined it, then suggesting she’s not quite thinking right, thereby making Christian less sympathetic from the offset. We’re also told that he has no idea what he’s studying for his thesis, though frankly I’d guessed that in the cinema much later when Christian decides to do what Mark’s doing. But later on, just after the deleted ceremony, we have a really painful scene between the two where he criticises her for being too nice, saying it upsets him. Now we really know how toxic this relationship is, and this makes the ending feel more justified. And it’s Florence Pugh’s best acted scene, you really feel her character’s vulnerability and need to be loved and a part of something. A scene soon after this makes it clear that he did totally forget her birthday. Elsewhere there’s a welcoming meal scene which I can understand was removed because there are several other scenes in the film of everyone sitting down to dinner. Then there’s Christian mocking the tears of the Harga man who’s devastated over Mark’s pissing on the ancestral tree, Christian showing earlier interest in Maya, and a longer car ride with little character beats for everyone [this should definitely have been included]. And this time, when Christian runs from the sex temple, you can make out blood on his penis, which was apparently originally digitally removed at the behest of those strange creatures the American censors the MPAA despite it being realistic if you think about it.
All this still probably doesn’t make up for the extra running time, so the rest of the new stuff must be extra lines here and there which I didn’t notice. I will say that, despite the length, the already languid pace didn’t feel any slower. On the whole the cuts seem to have mostly been made to make Christian look better. I wonder why that was? Maybe Aster felt it detracted from the main plot thread, but I found it to be very important. But then he obviously had to make cuts somewhere for theatrical exhibition, and I’m actually surprised that he didn’t make more. You’ve probably guessed by now that I loved this cut even more than the theatrical one, finding it to be richer in both characterisation and flavour. Saying that, some will prefer definitely prefer the shorter cut for having more ambiguity, and the fact that, in the theatrical release, some of our Ugly Americans are so horrified by the suicide that they immediately try to flee, but in this new version, it’s not until the following day – after the nighttime lake ritual – that they attempt to do so. Surely there’s no reason for them to linger there any longer? But then no film is perfect. The director’s cut certainly won’t convert anybody who disliked Midsommar into loving it, and the theatrical cut was pretty damn good in the first place, but it will definitely be the version I will return to in future. With just two films – a very good first and a very very good second – Aster has avoided the “second film” problem [I’m looking at you Us] and established himself as one of the top horror filmmakers of today. Even if his next few efforts are crap, his beautiful, horrifying trip of lovely flowers and expansive fields, blue skies and warming sunshine, bashed-in skulls, bloody entrails and purifying fire, will remain a work to be treasured. The ‘folk horror’ sub-genre, an area where The Wicker Man has reigned dominant for so long, towering over all and sundry, finally has some real competition.