An Examination of Themes in Ari Aster’s Midsommar
By Jordan Gerdes
MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING. DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM AND WANT TO REMAIN IN THE DARK ABOUT INTEGRAL PLOT DETAILS.
Okay…. Here we go.
It is finally upon us. Midsommar, the sophomore outing by director Ari Aster, has graced screens across the country starting last Tuesday night. I was in attendance and walked out of the theatre completely floored. It was horrifying, upsetting, disturbing, and beautiful. Much like Hereditary, Midsommar is vastly different than your average horror film. And much like Hereditary, Midsommar is primed to become the sole focus of the yearly “is it or is it not horror” argument. Both films are built on a foundational examination of intense grief and loss. In Hereditary, her losses play directly into her strained relationships, and determine her rash and often incautious approaches to addressing that grief. Midsommar is built upon the same foundations, though the majority of the cast starts the story incautious. It has been described by critics as the best breakup movie of the generation, as well as “The Wizard of Oz for perverts” by Ari Aster himself. Being written by Aster following a breakup of his own, we spend the majority of the film following Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) as they slowly come to realize that they not only don’t want to be with one another, but they don’t particularly know how to make that desire known. The phrase “it takes a village” comes to mind by the end of the film, or in this case, “it takes a cult.” There is no demon in this film, there is no monsters, there are just a lot of really awful human beings.
One of the main things I have noticed in Ari Aster’s work is an attention to detail. In every single frame, every shot, every scene, everything you see is there on purpose, and everything you see is guiding you, either consciously or subconsciously, to Aster’s conclusion. There are shades of great filmmakers that have come before, not just masters of horror, such as Kubrick and Hitchcock. In Hereditary, all the clues were there from the get go, usually mentioned in casual conversation, or seen in the background. Hereditary used the dollhouse to illustrate much of the film’s narrative before it happened. In Midsommar, nothing has changed, as the bunkhouse at the commune is wallpapered with the entire plot of the film in pictures. The film ends with Dani choosing the final sacrifice for the Midsommar festival, either a village member, or Christian, who has been paralyzed and can only watch helplessly at what unfolds. Dani selects Christian, who they enclose in a bear carcass, before placing him amongst the other sacrifices and setting them on fire. However, in the opening moments of the film, in Dani’s own room, is a painting of a little girl in a crown kissing the nose of a large brown bear. Painted by John Bauer, it is titled “Stackars lilla basse” or, when translated, “poor little bear.”
The suicide at the beginning of the film permeates the rest of the story, and not just by informing Dani’s and Christian’s character arcs. Dani’s little sister sends a cryptic suicide note and doesn’t respond. Christian tells her it’s probably fine, as her sister is always doing this, and just seeks attention. Dani calls back shortly after, wailing inconsolably (reminiscent of Toni Collette finding Charlie in Hereditary). Her sister had started the cars in the garage, running hoses to her parents’ room, and one to her own room, where she had duct taped the hose into her own mouth. It’s a grisly, nightmarish scene that eats at the viewer. Likewise, the cult mentions that Midsommar is part of their cyclical living, and part of that celebration is sending elders onward in life. The two members who have reached the “Winter” of their lives are celebrated, and then led to the top of a cliff, looking down upon the rest of their commune. They leap, one by one, to their death, as the crowd watches. And when one doesn’t die upon impacted, he is quickly and brutally helped along his way using a hammer. The younger members of each “family” take it upon themselves to decide when the older generations time has come to go. Each facilitate a suicide of sorts, in a twisted view of compassion.
These moments are not few and far between, instead they permeate every inch of Aster’s sun-soaked story. Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) mentions his parents died in a fire when he was young, and the commune became his family. The end of the film features Dani’s only remaining version of family burning in a fire, the commune taking care and ownership of her. When first experiencing the commune, Mark (Will Poulter) is kicked by a girl as they run past playing. After asking Pelle, he mentions they are playing “Skin the Fool.” In the final act, Mark is shown, skinned and stuffed with hay, a sort of stuffed animal. He is dressed in a jester’s hat and clothes, coupled with the fact that Mark is the comedic relief and often the most foolish member of the group. The friends jokingly ask Pelle what happens when you reach the fourth stage of life and he draws his hand across his throat in a slitting motion, and they all laugh. In reality, he is telling the truth. Pelle tells Christian at one point not to forget about all the “Swedish women you will impregnate in June.” Christian’s arc culminates in him impregnating a commune member, as other female members writhe around him in an orgy of orgasmic breathing. I can literally do this all day long.
The point is that Aster paints the entire picture for you in the first act. The foreshadowing has the subtlety of a god damned bulldozer. We just got distracted by the pastel colors and folk horror aspects that we overlook every sign that clearly says “REMEMBER THIS. THIS IS IMPORTANT” until it is over.
Let’s dive back to the film’s climax. It’s a gutting moment, as we realize that neither Dani nor Christian HAD to be where they ended up. Dani is the May Queen, fully encased in a body sized bouquet of flowers. Christian is paralyzed and unable to speak, sewed into the skin of a bear. Just days ago, they were in their own shitty apartments, mulling whether or not they really even loved one another. They could have ended it earlier. They could have chosen not to come. But alas, here they are. Dani has reached a point of cathartic freedom, though her arc, much like the arcs in Hereditary, were entirely manipulated by other forces.
At the start of the film, she is in a bad relationship. She is emotionally dependent on Christian. She defaults to his opinion on all things. They fight about Christian going on the trip, and she almost stands up for herself, and he threatens to leave the apartment. Dani immediately pivots, saying she isn’t upset, and that she just wishes they could have talked more about the trip, taking the blame for the entire thing. Make no mistake. This is a film about gaslighting. Dani is told time and again that she is the one acting crazy, that she is the one that is pushing Christian away, that she is expecting too much. She is manipulated into thinking that she is actually happy in a relationship with Christian, the guy that doesn’t even remember her fucking birthday. Her first birthday without her family and he has to be reminded by Pelle. She thinks she is happy with him. She believes that all their problems are caused by something she has done.
Like I mentioned previously, we see Dani at the end of this effulgent nightmare as liberated. She is free of her awful relationship, she has found a new family among the commune, and she is celebrated for once, as the May Queen. And like I mentioned previously; this is a film about gaslighting. The fact that you and I even see Dani’s emotionally manipulated, captive character as happy, free and empowered at the end is the result of us being gaslit. This film is predicated on the manipulation of Dani by outside forces (Christian, Pelle, the commune, her sister’s death). She is dying for acceptance, for family, for love. She craves stability and recognition and validation. And whoever is pulling the strings during the Midsommar festival knows exactly how to reach her and set her upon this path.
In many ways, this folk horror commune cult mirrors things we have seen in the past. Most importantly, it has shades of actual cults, such as The Manson Family, The Peoples Temple, The Branch Davidians, and The International Church of Christ, that all lusted after people who needed a place that loved them and accepted them for who they were. Even in Dani’s grief, she has found community. After witnessing Christian in the middle of his tryst with Pelle’s sister, Dani breaks down screaming and crying. It devolves into a guttural wailing, in which she is surrounded by commune members who begin to make the same noises. They aren’t mocking her or being cruel. They are legitimately empathizing with her, wailing in a communal pain as one. This is the community that Dani has needed the entire time, the validation she deserves, and the support and scaffolding that she absolutely craves, but the context is all wrong. Once again, it is a concerted and deliberate manipulation of her character arc that plays at something that sort of resembles a loving family. In the same way your friends may convince you that your ex was a piece of shit and you don’t need him, the commune is there to guide Dani step by step in her omittance of Christian and her past from her own life. Sometimes you burn a shoebox full of pictures of your ex, other times you burn a building that contains your ex and connections to your past.
This in no way is a full analysis of the film, as I have only seen it one time. Nor is this even the only reading of the film, as a simple google search will bring up hundreds of articles and theories about what is actually happening in this film. That alone speaks testament to what I was attempting to illustrate here. Ari Aster created two vastly different films that are built on a foundation of manipulation of others for a perceived greater good. Both have families being torn apart for the sake of a different “family”, be it cult or commune, in order to secure blessings for their ways of life. I can only hope this turns into a “Three Mothers”/ Dario Argento style trilogy of horrible and visceral examinations of grief, in various styles of over and underexposure. Either way, we will always have Midsommar.