Midsommar is a 2019 folk horror film written and directed by Ari Aster. It stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, and Will Poulter. It is considered one of the best horror films of 2019, with its unconventional way of disturbing and unsettling the audience.
Normally, a horror film thrives on the use of darkness to evoke the creepy mood. With this film, most of the horrors occur in broad daylight, as the film’s title suggests. Much of the film actually has a sad tone–unusual again for a film full of sunny skies–since the story is essentially about the slow but sure breakup of a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.
The disturbing aspect of this breakup, though, is how it’s actually being manipulated and aggravated by a pagan cult. It’s equally obvious that Pelle (Blomgren) is drawing Dani Ardor (Pugh) away from Christian Hughes (Reynor) as it is that Maja (played by Isabelle Grill) is drawing Christian away from Dani; but I suspect the cult has been orchestrating this breakup to a far greater extent than is assumed by the average viewer of the film.
Here are some quotes:
[in Swedish] “This high my fire. No higher. No hotter!” –Siv
“He’s my good friend and I like him, but…Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?” –Pelle, talking to Dani about Christian
“He draws, and we, the Elders, interpret. You see Yosh, Ruben is unclouded by normal cognition. It makes him open, for the source.” –Arne
“Ruben was – a product of inbreeding. All of our oracles are deliberate products of inbreeding.” –Arne
“I think I ate one of her pubic hairs.” –Christian, of Maja
[in Swedish] “I can feel it! I feel the baby!” –Maja, right after having sex with Christian
“Christian?” [snaps fingers twice] “Christian… Hi. Hello! There you are! Listen: You can’t speak. You can’t move.” [smiles] “All right?” [smiles] “Good.” –Ulla
Siv: On this, the day of our deity of reciprocity, we gather to give special thanks to our treasured Sun. As an offering for our Father, we will today surrender nine *human* lives. As Hårga takes, so Hårga also gives. Thus, for every newblood sacrificed, we will dedicate one of our own. That is: four newbloods, four from Hårga, and one to be chosen by the Queen. Nine in all, to die, and be reborn, in the great Cycle.
Stev: The four newbloods, have already been supplied. As for our end, we have two already dedicated…And two who have volunteered. Ingemar and Ulf. [they step forward] You have brought outside offerings, thus volunteering your own bodies. You will today be joined in harmony with Everything. And to Pelle, who has brought new blood, and our new May Queen, you will today be honored for your unclouded intuition. And so, for our ninth offering. It is traditional that our fair Queen shall choose, between a preselected newblood, and a specially ordained Hårgan.
The shifting of the seasons, from the dead of winter to the sunny skies of midsummer is important in terms of symbolism. It represents the dialectical relationship between opposites, one of unity in duality, as seen in the gradual transition from one opposite extreme to the other. We shift from the death and cold of winter to the renewed life and warmth of summer. As observed in my analysis of A Christmas Carol, we see here a case of ‘out with the old, in with the new’…only here, the seasons are reversed.
What should be noted here is that, just as there’s a shift from the winter’s death and cold to summer’s life and warmth, so is there a shift from the life and warmth…well, relatively speaking, of course…of Dani’s and Christian’s relationship, to the death and absolute cold of the relationship’s official end in summer–to say nothing of Christian’s winter life and midsummer death. Here again we see the unity of opposites.
Furthermore, as I mentioned above, most of the killing (and discovery of it) happens under sunny skies (except for the murder of Josh [Harper]); while the dark moments deal mostly with Dani’s fears or realizations of abandonment (her sister’s suicide/murder of their parents, more a tragic than horrific moment; Dani’s drug trip experience in the dark bathroom, with her hallucinating the sight of her dead sister in the mirror; her dream of her ‘friends’ driving out of the commune at night and leaving her there).
Her sister Terri suffers from bipolar disorder, the cycles of excitement and depression being symbolically paralleled here with the bright highs of summer and the black lows of winter; so it’s fitting to start with both the extreme cold and dark night of winter, along with the extreme depths of Terri’s worst depressive episode ever. In Terri’s scary email to Dani, she types, “everything’s black.”
Dani is already extremely vulnerable emotionally, her anxiety being such that Christian finds it hard to cope. She takes Ativan to soothe her anxieties, and she’s afraid that all her emotional baggage is pushing Christian away; whereas if he were a decent boyfriend, he’d be much more compassionate than he is.
Of course, Christian’s friends are hardly inspiring of compassion for Dani. Mark (Poulter), a particularly insensitive ass, bluntly tells Christian that he should dump her. Then, there’s Pelle…
Right from the film’s beginning, we see Pelle–the Swede who’s inviting the group to his commune’s midsummer celebrations, and who is the only one who’s happy, even excited, to have Dani tag along–sitting with Christian, Josh, and Mark, when they’re telling Christian he should break up with Dani. Pelle doesn’t say much about the souring relationship at the time (except mentioning the beautiful Swedish women Christian will meet in Hälsingland–i.e., Maja), but given what we know of his motives by the end of the movie, we now can see that it’s obvious his mind is turning already.
Knowing the pagan commune’s use of spells, I speculate that Pelle, right from the beginning, may have been using magic (i.e., the pictures he draws, including the one of Dani) not only to accelerate the couple’s breakup, but also even to drive Terri to the murder/suicide, orphaning Dani so he can ’empathize’ with her, bring her into the cult…and finally have her.
The worst of Dani’s fears of abandonment are realized when she learns that Terri has wiped out their entire family by flooding the house with carbon monoxide while their parents are sleeping. The premeditative nature of this killing, how Terri must have planned it, is almost like a human sacrifice (!). Dani is all alone in the world…except for her doing-the-bare-minimum boyfriend.
But with the onset of winter comes the birth of the sun god; that is, the sun is farthest away from the northern hemisphere, and it will be coming back, slowly but surely, until midsummer, when it’s at its closest. This slow return symbolizes the slow return of hope for Dani, who, though still traumatized, is little by little learning to put her life back together, if in the dubious form of joining a cult.
Christian’s aloofness isn’t helping, though. When he originally intends to go to Sweden with Pelle, Josh, and Mark, he hopes to blow off Dani and have fun in bed with beautiful Swedish girls. It’s only after seeing Dani sob (in an extended scene from the director’s cut, deleted from the theatrical release) that he reluctantly invites her along, lying that he’s meant her ‘last second invitation’ as a “romantic” surprise.
His inviting of Dani has made things awkward for the two of them, as well as for Mark and Josh (though Pelle, of course, is thrilled she’s coming). She can feel the annoyance of the former three men, who–apart from Josh’s work on his thesis–have been hoping for a buddy trip, chasing skirt. This awkwardness is indicative of the alienation in modern society, which will be sharply contrasted with the communal closeness felt among the pagan cult in Hårga…a closeness that will feel too close.
Indeed, part of the cult’s manipulation of its visitors will be a dividing of the four of them through triangulation, and this divisiveness is already beginning because of Pelle’s influence. We often see him drawing: for her birthday, he gives her a drawing of her wearing a wreath; I’m convinced that these drawings are spells, Pelle’s visualizations of such things as her as the next May Queen…which, indeed, is what she’s fated to become.
There’s a dialectical relationship between this growing alienation among the four visitors and the all-too-close bond Dani is developing with the cult, which actually is enmeshment. Similarly, the coming together of her and Pelle, the coming together of Christian and Maja, and the slow breakup of him and Dani, are also dialectically related–more unions of opposites.
To develop this theme further, it’s interesting how the visitor who has been traumatized by a murder/suicide in her family is the only one to be able to adapt to the death cult ways of the commune. The one who has viewed death with the greatest horror is also the one who becomes most accepting of it at the end. What’s more, it’s interesting how, of the four visitors, it’s Josh–the only African-American among a cast of people of European descent–who is by far the most passionate about learning about Scandinavian pagan traditions.
[NOTE: please don’t misinterpret my meaning here. I’m not trying to say that it’s somehow ‘odd’ or ‘out of place’ for a black person to be interested in European culture. Far from it! We should all, regardless of ‘race’ or colour, be encouraged to learn about cultures outside of those of our ethnic background. For indeed, many blacks have been famous for not only loving, but also excelling, at presenting various aspects of ‘white’ culture. A few examples, off the top of my head, include Jessye Norman in opera, Wynton Marsalis when interpreting Haydn, and Paul Robeson playing Othello and singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.”]
My only point in speaking of Josh’s thesis in terms of the ethnic difference between him and Scandinavia is to give another example of this film’s theme of the unity of opposites: in terms of ethnic and cultural background, Josh, of the four visitors, is furthest away from Nordic tradition, yet he’s nearest to it in his emotional investment. It’s not about whether African-Americans ‘should or shouldn’t’ be interested in European culture (Why shouldn’t they be interested?); it’s that, technically speaking, he is passionate about it, making him, in this sense, more Nordic than Dani, Christian, and Mark could ever be; and in this we see a sameness in difference…as there should be a unity and harmony between all cultures, including those (actually or only seemingly) most dissimilar. I’m not prescribing what cultures one is ‘supposed’ to be interested in; I’m only exploring theme.
In contrast to Josh’s love of all things Scandinavian, white Christian, who also wants to do his thesis on the Hårga, is totally half-assed in his interest in the culture; worse, he is leeching off of Josh’s passion, justifiably angering him. In fact, Josh’s fascination goes so far as to have among his research books one involving the Nazi use of the Uthark (seen in an extended version of the scene of the car ride into Hälsingland)! Pelle claims that Josh carries the book around only to annoy him, but one would think that Josh himself would be annoyed to have it around. Once again, opposites attract.
Yet another example of the union of opposites is in Christian’s attitude towards Dani. He’s a bad boyfriend, to be sure, but not completely bad. He’s conflicted about her: part of him wants to end the relationship, but part of him wants to hang onto it. He expresses fears of regretting dumping her, and then not being able to get her back. He’s emotionally distant, yet tries…however clumsily…to be considerate. This ‘to be or not to be’ her boyfriend is thus another paradoxical unity of opposites.
Even when he is offered Maja for mating, he asks to watch the sex ritual instead of participate in it (in another deleted extension, that of his scene with Siv). And after he comes inside Maja, he runs out of the building naked, full of fear and remorse. He’d still be with Dani, yet not be with her.
When the visitors arrive in the Hårga community, pretty diegetic music is heard playing on flutes as they walk through a huge, yellow circular entrance designed like the sun. It’s a quaint, charming scene, and the people living here seem sweet. The charm is superficial, though, since we’ll see soon enough what will happen to Mark, Josh, and Christian, as well as to UK visitors, Simon and Connie.
One can debate whether or not ancient Norse pagans actually committed any or all of the shocking acts seen in the film (senicide, blood eagles, skinning of human flesh, and human sacrifices); but staying within the framework of the story of the film, we need to wonder about a community in the modern world doing things they know that no one outside would ever accept.
Such extreme acts, deemed understandable only in a pre-scientific world–where human sacrifice, rather than such things as modern agricultural practices, is believed to ward off bad luck and ensure good harvests–when combined with the pagan cult’s superficial charm, can only mean that the Hårga commune is collectively sociopathic and narcissistic. They fancy their ways to be superior to those of the modern scientific world; they arrogantly think they have the right and duty to manipulate and end human lives. Yet, on first meeting them, we find them so charming and sweet.
Again, we see here a meeting of opposites: so sweet, kind, and gentle, yet so cruel and merciless. This is a collectively narcissistic community. Membership (enmeshment, actually) has its privileges (e.g., being the May Queen, a kind of golden child), but being outside of the inner circle only brings death. Horrors happen under sunny skies.
Normally, when we think of sexual predation, we think of lecherous men prowling after pretty, nubile young women. Indeed, Mark–who’s such a jackass, he can’t even refrain from engaging in locker-room talk in Dani’s presence…so inept around women, and probably a virgin–is all eager about chasing Swedish women. But when one of the Hårga women (Inga, played by Julia Ragnarsson) shows an interest in him as a mate, he gets scared, not just because he’s such a dork, but because he can sense the predation.
Maja, of course, is especially predatory, what with the spells she uses on Christian (the runic charm she puts under his bed, and her pubic hair in his food), and the unsettling way her eyes are always on him. This sex role reversal is another union of opposites: men chase women, but women hunt after men. The hunter becomes the hunted.
Simon and Connie cannot hide their shock at the senicide, so when they say they want to leave immediately, not only is their murder necessary to silence them and protect the cult from the police; it’s also revenge for the narcissistic injury the cult feels after Simon and Connie make them lose face by his calling the senicide “fucked!”
Mark’s pissing on the ancestral tree, another loss of face for the cult, is more narcissistic injury requiring his death, as is Josh’s forbidden taking of photos of the cult’s holy book. The visitors have no respect for the commune’s traditions, so they must die.
That tense scene of the four visitors sitting together at the dinner table exemplifies another union of opposites, that of social alienation vs. enmeshment. Resentment builds between Dani and Christian when she says she can imagine him leaving without telling her (as Simon has done to Connie) because of a “miscommunication.” Mutual resentment builds between Christian and Josh over the former leeching off the latter’s thesis. Mark fears being murdered because of his pissing on the tree. All four feel alone, divided from each other…and yet they’re surrounded by a commune of people so together, they all share one will.
…and Dani, quite soon, will be part of that one will.
As part of his slow seduction of her, Pelle comforts Dani, after her shock at the senicide (which reminds her far too much of Terri’s murder/suicide–the death of their aged parents), by mentioning his own parents…who died in a fire (!). We must remember this fiery death in light of the sacrifice at the end of the film, a ritual murder Pelle fully, willingly participates in. He would tell her of his parents’ death to have her believe he empathizes with her, that he would hold her in a way Christian never will…yet Pelle is using her pain to lure her in; and as I speculated above, he may have used a spell to kill her family.
Pelle is the central villain of the movie. He has used his slick charm to engineer all the major events of the story. His plan from the beginning has been to break up Dani and Christian so he can have her, and so his sister Maja can have Christian. Maja has liked him ever since Pelle sent her a cellphone picture of him back when Pelle and the four were still in the States. The human sacrifice, killing Pelle’s “American friends,” was planned from the start, too. Pelle has the charm and sweetness Christian lacks, but Christian is the central victim, and Pelle is the central victimizer. Opposites, here of good and bad, are united again.
Dani’s aloneness–no family, an emotionally uncommitted boyfriend, and Josh and Mark, who resent her tagging along–makes her a perfect choice to join the pagan cult. She has no one else, but the people of Hårga are happy to have her. She dialectically shifts from being the social reject to being all lovingly accepted as May Queen–note the love-bombing she gets when she wins the Maypole dance. Note especially the passionate kiss Pelle gives her; having been drugged, she calls out “Mom?” when seeing a hallucination of her mother among the love-bombers, the only one who isn’t happy for her…but they are all her family now. She can leave behind her painful old world.
On many occasions, I’ve used the ouroboros as a symbol for the dialectical relationship between opposites: the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail represent the meeting, extreme opposites on a circular continuum that in turn is represented by the snake’s coiled body, where every intermediate point between the extremes is. Dani is shifting from the bitten tail of loneliness to the biting head of inclusion in the cult. Christian, on the other hand, has been slipping from the head of acceptance among his buddies, along the length of the serpent’s coiled body towards the tail as his friends are killed, to the bitten tail of being the new outcast, where Dani was, now that she has been crowned May Queen, and is loved by the cult, while he just stands by alone and watches.
Christian is the lonely, vulnerable one now. The cult doesn’t even want him to marry Maja: they just want his sperm to impregnate her. The combination of this fact with the cult’s accepting of Dani, the only survivor of the visitors being female (Ingemar was hoping to mate with Connie, but her sticking with Simon has sealed her fate.), makes me believe this cult must be matrilineal. Males are more expendable here than females (just as we know that in the patriarchal family, the sexes are reversed in this regard). Hence, seven out of the nine sacrificial victims are male; in fact, strictly speaking, the only ones burned alive are male (Christian, Ingemar, and Ulf), for the other victims (including Connie and the elderly woman who jumped from the cliff) were already killed long before.
This is an upside-down world (recall that upside-down shot during the car ride to Hälsingland), where sex roles are often reversed, moments of emotional dark occur during sunny brightness, and extreme opposites are intermingled. The only solution to social alienation that the movie offers is total enmeshment in a cult. This enmeshment is perfectly symbolized by Reuben, the deformed ‘oracle’ who is a result of inbreeding. A healthy society is a balance of closeness with independence: not too close, yet not so apart as to result in alienation. Dani is going from one extreme to the other.
As for Christian’s ‘moment of truth’ with Maja, we cannot afford to be so naïve to think that, just because he gets to enjoy her, that this means he’s really enjoying her. He has always been reluctant about it; part of him, even if just a small part, still wants to be with Dani. The only reason he has sex with Maja is that he’s being manipulated into it. Men’s greatest weakness by far is lust.
Drugged with aphrodisiacs and psychedelics that, frankly admitted by Ulla, will break down his defences, Christian enters the room where the fertility ritual is to take place. Maja is lying naked and beautiful in a bed of flowers, surrounded by naked older women who sing a hypnotic tune in B major, with two sets of three harmonies (which, if I’m hearing them correctly, are based on triads of I vi[a first inversion 6th chord] I, I II[major] I); an eerie instrumental variation of the tune is heard earlier in the film whenever Maja is working her love magic on Christian.
This scene perfectly exemplifies erotic horror, one of the best fusions of the sexy and the scary that I’ve ever encountered. Maja is so tempting, so exciting…and yet, so terrifying for those very reasons. (Now we can understand why Mark changes his mind about Inga, the Hårga girl he’s been so attracted to–the one intelligent thought he has anywhere in the film.) Maja is luring Christian into a trap. She takes the femme fatale to a whole new level. Omne animal triste post coitum. And this fusion of pleasure and terror is yet another union of opposites.
Such books as Frazer‘s Golden Bough, Graves‘s two-volume Greek Myths, and Hyam Maccoby‘s Sacred Executioner discuss ancient pagan rites of human sacrifice, later distorted into myths, which included orgiastic fertility rites. (I briefly discussed these in Part V of this post.) This is exactly what we’re seeing happening to Christian: he has a fuck, then he goes up in flames.
Now, we wouldn’t hesitate to describe as sexual assault a man giving a woman alcohol and drugs, then taking advantage of her while she’s wasted; but is that not exactly what’s being done to Christian? He has been thoroughly manipulated and drugged into having sex with Maja, and he has clearly demonstrated reluctance. During the sex, his agape eyes show no sign of pleasure: he’s all in a state of doped-up shock. Let’s dispense with the sexual double standards, look at what’s happened to him with an open mind, and take the following point seriously.
There should be no surprise that naked Christian runs out of the building disoriented and scared: what has happened to him can be seen as a kind of rape. It doesn’t matter that he orgasmed inside Maja; when women are raped, they sometimes orgasm–coming doesn’t make these women any less rape victims. The only reason we assume Christian ‘wanted it, so it isn’t rape’ (a particularly cruel thing to say to female rape victims just because they’re dressed provocatively) is because we stereotype men as lechers, and society assumes that sex is something only men do to other people, especially to women, instead of something done to them, especially when done by women to them.
When I say the above, I’m not trying to claim any kind of solidarity with woman-hating MRAs. I only bring this up, once again, to explore the theme of an upside-down world in which opposites are unified. Normally, we think of male sexual predation on women; here, the sexes are reversed.
Christian’s running outside, frontally nude and totally exposed to anyone looking, underscores his vulnerability. Ascendant Dani was emotionally vulnerable; falling Christian is now physically vulnerable (especially when he is drugged into mute paralysis). He has given up his usefulness to the cult in impregnating Maja. In the language of narcissism, he has gone from idealized to devalued…and he’ll soon be discarded.
At the end of Dani’s initiation as May Queen, the women accompanying her take her to a place within earshot of the sex rite. The empathic chanting of the women surrounding Maja and Christian make the rite especially audible to Dani. This must be deliberate. One of the women supposedly tries to dissuade Dani from going over and seeing what’s going on, but this ‘dissuasion’ is clearly reverse psychology: the women want her to see Christian ‘cheating’ on her; they let her walk over there.
Throughout the film, Maja’s moves on Christian have been public and therefore easily made known to Dani. Her suspicions have been growing the whole time; before she looks through the keyhole and sees her boyfriend fucking Maja, she’s already 99% certain that her suspicions have been correct. You can see it on her frowning face as she approaches the building.
After seeing the betrayal, she runs into the sleeping area, bawling in a jealous rage and feeling the triggering of her trauma of abandonment. The other women follow her. As Dani is bawling, the other women face her, and in the collective form of a symbolic mirror, they empathically reflect her bawling and pain back to her. This ritualistic empathizing, however, shouldn’t be mistaken with real empathy, or with Bion‘s psychotherapeutic notion of containment; the women aren’t properly soothing her. They are manipulating Dani, channeling her jealousy and pain, validating it so she’ll have a motive strong enough to betray Christian as a sacrificial victim, which of course she does.
Midsummer is the highest point at which the sun god rises, before his descent and death in fall and winter. Such gods as Balder were killed in midsummer, as Christian, Ingemar, and Ulf will be. Capital punishment has been deemed by many to be the secular equivalent of human sacrifice, and such ceremonial murder is also correlated with social hierarchy, a ladder that narcissists like to ascend. Christian is being executed for the crime of unfaithfulness (as Dani sees it). Being discarded by the cult, he is also the scapegoat, dressed in a bearskin, just as May Queen Dani is the golden child, adorned in a dress of flowers.
Dani has relived the trauma of Terri’s murder/suicide in viewing the ättestupa, and now she’ll have to relive it again by watching the burning building, with a front row seat, so to speak. (Ingemar’s and Ulf’s volunteering as sacrificial victims makes this into a kind of murder/suicide, too.) Her surname, Ardor, means ‘burning passion,’ which is appropriate, for watching the burning yellow building, shaped like the capital A of her surname, is like her looking in a mirror. It’s an agonizing passion for her to watch at first, but it’s ultimately cathartic–hence, her smile at the end.
The ’empathic’ wailing of Pelle, Maja, and all the others in the cult should now be seen for what it really is: not only is it fake, but also psychopathic. This commune is a case of group insanity. Narcissists are deficient in empathy, but they can fake it; what’s more, they kid themselves into thinking their empathy is real–hence, the cult’s wailing, meant to assuage their guilt.
So, what will become of Dani? Has she finally found the love and belonging she has so craved her whole life? It may seem so for now, but our feelings change with the seasons. Given time, that smile of hers will change into a frown, just as the sun, at its height, will wane as fall and winter come. It’s only a matter of time before she grows disillusioned with this death cult.
She has been idealized; she may, in time, be devalued and discarded, just as Christian has been. She, too, may slide from the ouroboros’ biting head (idealization), along the length of its coiled body (devaluing), down to its bitten tail (discarding). Four years ago, she and Christian were in love; that love faded away. She will mate with Pelle…the summer of their love may fade away into another winter of emotional distance.
After Pelle has fathered a few children by her, and she in her anxieties wants to get out of the cult, she won’t be able to…not alive, anyway. She is in a trap. She has exchanged alienation and loneliness with enmeshment. Pelle’s parents died in a fire…Christian has died in a fire…will Dani, too, die in a fire, one midsummer’s day…or midwinter’s night?