Warning: Spoilers for “Midsommar” contained in this article.
Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is many things. It’s a horror film, a break-up film and a film about a Swedish cult and their midsummer traditions. Most of all, it’s a film about family and grief. It follows Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) as they travel to Sweden, to Christian’s friend Pelle’s home community of Hårga. Hårgans are about to begin their nine-day midsummer celebrations, and the Americans are lucky enough to be involved. Their luck turns soon when sinister events start taking place.
If you haven’t seen the film, check out our spoiler-free review here.
Aster explored grief in his directorial debut feature “Hereditary,” which looked at one family’s descent into madness. “Midsommar” continues Aster’s exploration of grief and how we deal with it. He seems fascinated by how emotional pain seems to break us and then revive us, offering us a chance to be reborn as something more, perhaps something better. Both “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” showcase a certain element of fate, the inescapability of your predestined future, which is directly linked to one’s grief. Grief is the element that destroys us, but also guides us to our destiny, if you will.
At the beginning of “Midsommar,” Dani is faced with unspeakable tragedy. Her whole family dies in a horrific way, something that will haunt Dani throughout the film, and she almost drowns in her pain. It’s the kind of pain that is almost too much to bear and becomes physical, making Dani crumble into a sobbing mess, her screams and sobs only slightly alleviating the pain. Dani is often seen stifling her sobs around Christian, as if not to bother him, attempting to prolong their fragile relationship. The relationship is already hanging on by a thread; every day that they don’t call it quits is a small victory for Dani, but a further inconvenience for Christian.
While “Midsommar” is very much a horror film, filled with horrific acts and imagery, it can’t be neatly placed into any genre. Aster’s film is like an unstable, ever-changing and growing hybrid that defies being described by such simple measures as genre or style. Despite the gore and disturbing imagery, “Midsommar” boils down to the central relationship between Dani and Christian. It explores Dani’s already fragile and increasingly unstable mental state and eventually, her need for a new family.
Whether “Midsommar” is a feminist film remains to be seen; it’s a film that requires several watches and several attempts to understand the film in all its complexity. “Midsommar” is a film that doesn’t exist as a simple, one-dimensional film, but as a film that is consumed, shaped and understood differently by each viewer. To say “Midsommar” is a bad film, one would be incredibly correct, yet simultaneously wrong, as “Midsommar” can’t be measured or reviewed objectively. It’s a highly subjective film, almost alive and evolving as it’s being consumed by viewers.
Diving deep into its themes, the most obvious ones are the ones that revolve around grief and family, forever linked to each by the tragedy in the beginning. Dani’s sister murders her parents and ends her own life by taping a tube down her own throat, suffocating on lethal, poisonous fumes. It’s a nightmarish way to go and the image hangs over Dani, who has now lost everyone, her whole family. She clings to Christian in an attempt to form a new family with him, to feel a sense of kinship and to receive unconditional love from him. Christian is unable to provide this, instead of turning into the image of toxic masculinity and gaslighting.
In Aster’s film, pain, pleasure and grief are something communal, something to be experienced and shared together. Whether it’s physical pain or sexual pleasure, it is never experienced solely by the receiver but the whole community. When the elderly man jumps to his death, but ends up mangled and in horrible pain, the whole community screams in pain. When Christian penetrates Maja, it’s not only Maja who feels the pleasure; it’s also felt by the women standing behind the pair, touching themselves and linking themselves to the act. When Dani finds Christian cheating on her, she finally lets her pain out in screams with the other women of the community. Dani is now one of them, and Christian hasn’t only betrayed Dani, he has betrayed them all. And oh, how he will suffer for this transgression.
This sense of community hovers strongly over the film. Hårgans aren’t particularly mean-spirited, and one would struggle to call them evil or even the true antagonists in the film. Despite the gruesome acts and traditions they perform, it’s really Christian’s increasingly toxic masculinity that’s the real evil at play here. The film isn’t about the American versus the Hårgans; it’s about Dani’s search for a sense of belonging, home and family in the midst of horrendous waves of grief. Christian and his reluctance to truly connect to Dani is what’s standing between her and her eventual healing from her trauma. Dani’s femininity and Christian’s masculinity are at war in the film. Women have historically been portrayed and understood to be too emotional: It clouds our judgment, it makes us weak. Crying is a feminine act, even in men, and thus should be discouraged. However, as seen in Aster’s films, it is only the women who have a deeper understanding of what’s happening. Their instincts pick up on seemingly harmless clues as warning signs. And in the end of “Midsommar,” it’s Dani’s femininity that is celebrated while Christian’s masculinity burns in the background, literally.
In the film, Pelle asks Dani if she feels held by Christian — if he feels like home to her. She doesn’t respond, but her answer is clear. This is what Hårga can offer Dani: comforting arms that wrap around her and absorb her pain, passing it on and sharing it. Dani is the first to notice something sinister is going on but is talked out of such nonsense by her male companions. She begins to doubt herself, furthering her sense of insecurity and declining self-worth. She is much like the caged bear in the film: a beast that’s present, but ignored. The final third of the film finally allows Dani to flourish as her own person and as part of the community, but it comes with a terrifying price.
The ending of “Midsommar” is a difficult one to dissect. It’s a complex end product of the horrors that came before. After competing for and winning the crown of the May Queen, Dani is finally being celebrated for her stamina, strength and vitality. But after discovering Christian cheating on her with Maja, Dani is completely broken down; she has reverted to complete silence and is a mere shell of a human being. She is propped up on stage, wearing a giant flower dress which she has almost completely disappeared into, much like she did into her grief. Her rage bubbles inside her as she stares at the now-paralyzed Christian, signaling the Hårgans to sacrifice him. Her face twists into a grimace before the rage and personality fade away again and she becomes catatonic. Pugh turns in a magnificent performance here, showing the range of emotions and internal struggle within Dani without words.
As she observes the temple burning — her friends, her love and complete strangers burning — she breaks down, stumbling under the weight of her massive flower gown. She screams and cries, as do the Hårgans, because they too can feel the flames licking their legs and consuming them. Dani eventually rises up, looks at the collapsing temple and smiles through her anguish. She has become one with the Hårgans, she can begin to heal now, as she has found a home and a family, somewhere she belongs and somewhere she is wanted. She is finally being held the way she should have always been held.
It’s an ending that is sickeningly beautiful, holding much empowerment in its twisted resolution. Dani may have found inner peace and herself but at what price? I find it difficult to describe it as a feminist, because so much violence precedes the ending, although not really at the hands of Dani. But gender relations play a significant part here, without a doubt. Femininity is something Hårgans celebrate and lift up instead of trying to destroy and silence as the Americans try with Dani. It is only Pelle who can show true empathy towards the grief-stricken Dani.
The question is, who is the true beast here? Christian, for all the bad things he has done, how he has hurt Dani and betrayed her trust? Or Dani, who has lost her mind but found empowerment in further violence? Throughout the film, she is seen visually appalled by the acts of violence, but in the end, she has lost herself in the euphoria of seeing Christian burn. Is it a happy ending, or incredibly sad? I don’t know, but I’m willing to keep thinking about it, mulling it over and discovering the beauty and horror that “Midsommar” holds again and again for many years before I can answer that question.
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