There are a couple of different ways to do smart horror movies.
The first explores a specific topic, what the film is “about,” and the plot serves as scaffolding to unpack that theme. Ari Aster’s first feature, Hereditary, falls into this camp. It’s a movie about grief and how our parents’ worst traits can be passed down through the generations as if embedded in DNA. The Babadook also fits this style.
The second version packs the film full of allusions and symbols so that it can mean a whole lot of different things. Aster’s second feature, Midsommar, slots into this position. Midsommar focuses on a young woman named Dani (Florence Pugh) who, reeling from the death of her sister and parents, tags along with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his grad school friends to a nine-day solstice festival in rural Sweden. Pagan, culty, wackiness ensues.
Critics have talked about how Midsommar represents the ultimately revenge on disappointing, selfish boyfriends. But that may be the most superficial reading. In keeping with my argument about there being multiple ways to interpret the film, I have two for your consideration.
*Here there be spoilers*
Episode 1: The failure of the nuclear family
Commentators have noted how Dani puts up with Christian’s caddishness. She worries about being “too much” for him with her complicated emotions and, you know, basic human needs for love and connection. When she confronts him about concealing his planned trip to Sweden, she winds up apologizing to him for bringing it up. Around his friends, Dani makes herself as unobtrusive as possible. Many women will recognize themselves in this behavior, will know intimately this tendency to downplay their own emotional needs to avoid inconveniencing a boyfriend and his friends. This behavior is common to young women and not very subtly portrayed in the movie.
But there’s another layer to the barriers Dani puts around her own needs. The film begins with the murder-suicide of Dani’s parents by her mentally ill sister. We see encoded in the brief glimpses we get of Dani’s family life that she functions as the “normal one” in her family, subverting her own needs to care for her sister and also for her parents, or at least making sure she does not cause them any additional burden. Dani does not merely kowtow to her boyfriend, she has built up a lifetime of putting others’ emotional needs before her own.
This pattern continues on the trip. Dani, whose family died mere months before, rushes into bathrooms or other private spaces whenever she feels emotionally overcome. She tries to force her tears into hiding. She does not want to discomfort or inconvenience her companions or their hosts with her sadness.
When Dani, Christian, and Co. visit the group known as Hårga, she finds not only people disturbingly devoted to pagan rituals and perspectives but also a true community, a family, devoted to each other and to the group at all costs. Pelle (Vilhem Blomgren), the friend who brings them there, says as much. The Hårga supported him after the death of his own parents, and he hopes Dani will see similar potential for a broader perspective on “family.” Pelle’s initial conversations with Dani feel like he’s looking to steal her away from Christian. We of course learn that he’s hoping she’ll essentially be a fresh recruit for the community, perhaps even the May Queen herself. But when Pelle asks her, does she feel “held” by Christian, or by anyone, the fact that her implied answer is “no” reveals how unmoored Dani is.
Later, when Dani sees Christian having sex with a member of the commune, she again tries to run away to weep. But she’s surrounded by a fellow group of young women, the maids of Hårga, who follow her, cry with her, wail along with her, hold her and don’t let her run away and hide with her pain and sadness. At first it’s creepy, a bit weird, but as Dani accepts their sharing of her agony, it actually becomes quite powerful, albeit intense. Her new friends among the Hårga are holding her.
At the end, when Dani has used her powers as May Queen to choose Christian for ritual sacrifice (stuffed into the carcass of a bear, natch), she holds court contained within an enormous dress of flowers. As the fire reaches Christian and the other sacrifices, and they begin to scream, the Hårga begin to wail along with them, sharing their agony. Dani also cries, barely able to move within her bower. She is literally held now, by the Hårga and their rituals. We can read her final, enigmatic smile not as rejoicing in Christian’s death—a gesture both petty and creep—but as pleased in finally finding a true family and community. The horror, then, comes more from the failing of mainstream US culture to provide this support than from the pagan rituals celebrated by the Hårga.
Episode 2: The horrific logic of white supremacy
Initially, the Hårga seem a bit kooky but harmless, even idyllic. It’s not hard to see why Pelle, and his brother Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg ), bring their friends from the US and UK to experience the midsommar festival. It’s likewise not hard to see why anthropology students—particularly Christian’s friend Josh (William Jackson Harper) who’s writing his thesis on European solstice festivals—or modern bourgeois hippie types—like Ingemar’s friends Connie (Ellora Torchia) and Simon (Archie Madekwe) who he met working on an organic farm—would be drawn to the festival. Lefties often tout Scandinavian countries as the idealized nations on the planet, seemingly both traditional and progressive at the same time.
But something else connects Connie, Simon, and Josh. They’re all people of color. (Josh is African American, Connie and Simon British South Asians.) Setting aside Dani and Christian, the only other guest is the boorish, white Mark (Will Poulter), who has, to paraphrase NPR’s Stephen Thompson, a face made for punching. Nothing in the Hårga’s behavior suggests racism and yet even in this contemporary moment they are all white and fair.
Even as lefties idealize Scandinavian culture, white supremacy in the US often fantasizes either a past or a future free of non-white people, a culture that looks an awful lot like Scandinavia, at least in its citizenry. Whether the fantasy is ahistorical (e.g., back in the day racism wasn’t a problem) or genocidal (e.g., in the future, there will be no non-white people or, if there are, they will understand their subservient place in the scheme of things), it posits a world in which white people are able to live unencumbered by the legacies of racial inequality. Thus, the Hårga display two faces depending on your political bent, both of them constructed as white.
Accordingly, it seems resonant, and hardly accidental, that three of the four outsider sacrifices are people of color. It’s not personal, you know, they simply don’t go with the decor. And while Mark and Josh overtly violate the Hårga’s codes, Connie and Simon are simply unable to accept the violence of the Hårga’s form of age-based euthanasia (#FacesAreOverratedAnyway). Blonde, rosy-cheeked Dani, on the other hand, fits right in. (As does sandy-haired Christian, used for his genetic diversity alongside his sacrificial potential.) It’s easy to see Dani as the May Queen whereas Connie would look discordant. And the fact of that discordant “look” underscores the problem with cultures structured on a certain amount of melanin.
Thus, the Hårga community that begins and ends the film provides a portrait of a kind of white utopia. The fact that they engage in horrific, violent, weird pagan rituals showcases the ugliness embedded at the core of white supremacist fantasies. It’s all blonde braids and maypoles and psychedelic tea on top, but something is rotten in the state all-white places.
In the end, I don’t think either of these interpretations is the one. What delighted me about the film was all the possibilities packed into it. Generally speaking, I appreciated Midsommar the wee-est bit more than Hereditary (which still haunts me but failed to stick the landing). Most of the critical reaction seems to be the opposite but we can all agree that Aster remains a director worth watching and that he, along with Jordan Peele, represent an exciting new phase in filmic horror.