Midsommar. 2019. Directed & Written by Ari Aster.
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Henrik Norlén, Gunnel Fred, Isabelle Grill, Agnes Westerlund Rase, Julia Ragnarsson, & Mats Blomgren.
Proton Cinema / B-Reel Films / Square Peg / A24
Rated 18A (Canada) / 171 minutes (Director’s Cut)
Drama / Horror / Mystery / Thriller
People either love or hate Ari Aster’s work. Hereditary was divisive, even if it was lauded by many (including myself). Lots of people, like me, thought it was a masterpiece. Others feel their own way, good or bad. I never expected any different from his followup, Midsommar. This one may be more divisive with plenty “I don’t even know what this movie’s really supposed to be about” comments floating around the internet— occasionally, despite loving Midsommar, I kind of understand what they mean. Because it isn’t an easy film to watch, neither is it easy to figure out what, if anything, Aster was attempting to convey. That’s why interpretation is so fun, and more so when there’s a lot of interesting themes and symbols to digest, like one of those meat pies with the pubic hair waiting inside. If that’s your thing, anyway.
Aster’s screenplay centres on Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh). The story kicks off when Dani’s bipolar sister kills herself along with their mother and father, leaving Dani alone with only her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support. Problem is, Christian’s a dick. His friend Mark (Will Poulter) encourages him to break up with Dani, and another pal, Josh (William Jackson Harper), thinks he ought to concentrate less on a relationship, more on his academic work. When their Swedish buddy Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites them all back to his hometown— a remote Swedish village called Hårga— they find themselves on a terrifying trip rather than a relaxing vacation.
And the trip begins to reveal things to Dani by turning her world upside down, revealing a system of existence outside of the American patriarchy she’s accepted as gospel. She begins the film as an emotionally abused girlfriend more willing to be uncomfortable in the wake of her family tragedy just so her boyfriend can remain comfortable in his fragile little male world. By the time Dani reaches the end of midsummer festivities in Hårga, she transforms into a woman with a new sense of community, family, and even womanhood, while everything toxic in her life is purged.
“Does he feel like home to you?”
Something evident from the opening scenes of the Midsommar is that Aster’s not solely exploring Dani, he’s also paying a lot of attention to Christian. A large part of the story involves the toxic male. The first we see Christian and his friends talking shit about Dani they’re sitting in front of the infamous side-eye Sophia Loren-Jayne Mansfield photograph from 1957. Mark is the worst of them, though none, even Pelle, are exempt from being shitty men. Christian breaks Dani down with his toxicity, to the point she feels lucky to have him as a boyfriend even as he treats her like she’s crazy. She continually shifts her boundaries in order to make Christian, as well as his friends, feel better or to forego a few moments of awkwardness between them/the group. She does this constantly: during her surprise over the Sweden trip, taking mushrooms, and, most notably, when Christian forgets her birthday so she blames herself for not reminding him. Of course, it’s Christian’s toxicity that lands him where he eventually ends up while Dani winds up with an altogether different, empowering fate.
In contrast with the toxic male is the film’s focus on women and the potentials of a matriarchy as opposed to patriarchy. Dani’s journey is about the subversion of a patriarchal society into one instead centred around women. The shot turned upside down along the road as they head to Hårga signals Dani’s world being flipped. This is her symbolic entrance into a new life as the May Queen, transformed from the woman emotionally abused by her childish, manipulative boyfriend into one who doesn’t need a man and finds fulfilment in a loving, supportive community.
It goes further than that, too. Dani had her family taken from her suddenly, whereas in Hårga unexpected death is headed off by a sacrifice of life once people reach a certain old age. You can extrapolate here about the community’s practises and imagine, should someone get terminally ill, or even if they were suicidal, there’d be efforts made to ‘help’ them in the same way by alleviating suffering or avoiding it altogether. Dani’s nightmare of her friends driving off, leaving her choking on the black smoke from the car exhaust, symbolising the way her family died, is a representation of that sudden loss she’ll always be scared of now. However, her fears are slowly relieved in Hårga as she finds an accepting community that’s not only deeply matriarchal, it’s focused on the happiness and health of its residents. The community’s murderous, but nobody’s perfect!
One of the best images illustrating Dani’s growing connection to this matriarchal society is the way she gradually sees herself becoming part of Mother Nature. First, she sees herself as part of the grass while on mushrooms. Later she drinks the tea during the May Queen competition and watches her feet morphing into the grass beneath her. These moments sit in contrast well with the image of Josh, after getting killed, being buried in the garden and his foot— marked with a rune— sticking out of the soil. In this woman-centred community, women are celebrated and uplifted while men are used as literal seed, whether sexually for reproduction or for compost purposes.Hårga’s cult can be viewed as symbolic of a Scandinavian v. American clash of values. We see the juxtaposition of a little village where religious worship rules daily life with the U.S. where the majority of society becomes more secular with each passing election. Pelle at one point tells Christian, who’s looking to join one of Hårga’s dance rituals: “You‘re an American. Just jam yourself in there.” Mark later pisses on a sacred tree and then can’t understand why anybody cares. On top of that, Josh and Christian argue over a culture, not their own, that they want to milk for academic potential. Numerous times we see the ignorance of American males on display.
There’s also parallel in the American students going to this Swedish village where we see Western Christian values— still baked into the lives of Westerners who do not consider themselves Christian— come up against paganism, and where paganism kills a ‘Christian.’ Early Christian accounts attributed importance of the bear to pagans, often claiming the devil would take the form of bears to attack Christians. The Old Testament isn’t fond of bears, either. So if we look at Christian being put inside the skin of a bear for the ritual burning, it’s one final stick in the eye: the killing and shaming of a ‘Christian.’ More of the Christianity-paganism clash occurs when Simon (Archie Madekwe) receives a blood eagle punishment, itself a decidedly Scandinavian method of execution coming from late skaldic poetry in the Sagas. Simon’s mortified reaction to Hårga’s senior citizen suicide ritual casts him as an outsider, and a likely threat, to their pagan customs, so he may as well be Christian even if we can’t confirm that entirely.
In Hårga, Christian finds what he was seeking all along, albeit in a dark, twisted, non-enjoyable way for him. He wasn’t looking for the emotional effort it took to support a partner, he was seeking a girl who “actually likes sex” as Mark suggests in the opening moments when we’re introduced to Christian and his dirtbag friends. Christian’s used by the cult’s women as nothing more than a sexual tool to impregnate one of their girls, in order to ensure the survival of their community. He’s literally used as seed then murdered. He probably didn’t envision an NSA encounter with a woman to culminate in him soon being stuffed inside a bear carcass then lit on fire.
Such is the gamble of casual sex in rural Sweden, I suppose.
Dani’s able to regain a sense of family through the cult, as well as one of commitment— the cult, in spite of their horrors, values the woman in a different way than what she knows from living in the West and from her relationship with Christian. The most significant, and unsettling, symbol of community is the collective pain we witness when the community’s presented as one via experiencing the same emotions. This happens at two crucial moments: i) when the old man fails his suicidal jump, the community wails until his head’s smashed with the mallet and he no longer feels pain; ii) when Dani finds Christian fucking one of the Hårga girls, she cries, and the community joins her giving us one of the many horrifyingly iconic moments in Midsommar. Finally, Dani chooses Christian as a sacrifice to totally sever herself from American patriarchy. This allows her, as May Queen, to wholly start anew, disconnecting herself from that American, patriarchal world epitomised by Christian. Her ultimate transformation embodies the bright rejuvenation of spring and summer after winter’s depression. No coincidence that Aster focuses on a long shot of the stormy American snow directly after Dani’s family tragedy and then ends the film in the bright, beautiful Swedish summer.
“Today you will be joined in harmony with everything”
It honestly took me over a year to pull my thoughts about Midsommar together into a cohesive essay, simply because Aster’s been able to, in both his films so far, conjure up such rich, haunting imagery that there are always a variety of ways to interpret the sigs and symbols. For me, this is the essence of the greatest art: it leaves each viewer/reader/listener(etc) with their own capabilities for interpretation, and can even offer multiple interpretations to a single individual. Though I adore Hereditary more than Aster’s followup I still love Midsommar and think it’s a masterpiece work of art.
My own interpretation, pitting American patriarchy against pagan matriarchy, offers a way to glean a positive glimmer from such a brutally unflinching nightmare. Yes, people get killed in gruesome ways. And, no, I’m not condoning murder. By interpreting Midsommar through an allegorical lens we can look at Aster’s screenplay as an exploration via high-grade horror and terror of the differences between attitudes towards men and women in America versus those in pagan societies. It’s why we have to sit through the excruciating relationship of Dani and Christian, watching him be a total piece of shit right up until he’s slipped into that hollowed out bear. Because, by the final frames, we’ve seen all those patriarchal, misogynistic values bred into people like Christian subverted, and although Dani’s terrified into a near state of numbness she’s been broken free of a system of values that simply does not, and never has, valued her. The logistics of her becoming May Queen may be horrific. Yet through them she’s, for better or worse, liberated from the toxic male by a violent matriarchy.