Midsommar is a wonderful horror film for people who don’t much like horror films. Its central character, played by Florence Pugh, is on medication for bipolar disorder and grieving following the death of her sister and parents in an apparent double-murder suicide. Her relationship with her boyfriend is strained. What to do? A friend of the couple’s is writing a thesis on a Swedish commune which is about to mark midsummer with a festival which comes round every eighty years. The couple decide to go along. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty, as it turns out.
The film was originally conceived as a straightforward horror film, but was re-worked by the director, Ari Aster, following a difficult breakup he went through himself. There’s plenty of gore, but the over-arching feeling is one of subtle menace, vulnerability and, ultimately, reawakening. Midsommar is beautifully filmed: the main character’s bathroom becomes the toilet of the plane taking her to Sweden; as the visitors drive to the commune through the Swedish countryside, earth and sky are gradually inverted. The twenty-four-hour sunlight adds a further disorientating quality to the trippy atmosphere.
The movie’s portrayal of altered states of consciousness has perhaps never been bettered: forests undulate; grass grows through skin; the viewer shares the dizziness of the maypole dancers. There are shades of The Wicker Man, and echoes of Pan’s Labyrinth. The depiction of pagan ritual is striking – and of a piece with what we know of how our ancestors in northern Europe may have lived.
The film’s two-hour-plus running time never drags. Like all the best works of art, it questions what you think you know, and sets you moving along new lines.
Where Florence Pugh’s character is dealing with the challenges of young adult life, the central character of Owen Dwyer’s new novel The Garfield Conspiracy, Richard Todd, a well-known author, is experiencing the existential angst of midlife. An inability to get going with his new book brings an attractive assistant into his life – and begins a new relationship which ultimately has far-reaching effects on both him and all those around him. When the characters he’s researching start talking to him – not to mention walking into his living room and accosting him in the street – you know he’s really in trouble.
Richard’s book deals with the assassination of President James Garfield by Charles Guiteau in 1881 – a little-known period of American history. (Everyone knows about JFK, and many people are aware that Lincoln was shot at the theatre, but few have heard of Garfield.) Guiteau was a member of a cult – the Oneida Community – and his experiences there shaped both his view of the world and his decision to kill Garfield. (The Oneida Community dissolved in the late nineteenth century, but it lives on in the form of Oneida Limited, which makes silverware.) His voice is one of those Richard starts hearing.
Most strikingly, The Garfield Conspiracy shares Midsommar’s psychedelic quality. Like Owen Dwyer’s previous novel, Number Games – which is based on the premise that, in a possible future world, gender roles are reversed, putting men at the bottom of the pile – reading the book is a hallucinatory experience. It also has much to say, in its own way, about human relationships, including those between women and men. Ernest Hemingway wrote about “Men without Women”; Richard Ford, about “Women with Men”; Owen Dwyer, perhaps, “Men with Women”. If Midsommar is, as director Ari Aster puts it, “a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film”, The Garfield Conspiracy is a portrait of mental disintegration which initially comes across as a combination of historical fiction and psychological thriller. Both are highly recommended.