Written collaboratively by Josh ‘HYD’ Ramos and Chris Smith
MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.
In 2013, Kanye famously rapped, “How you gon’ be mad on vacation?” on “Bound 2,” off his classic Yeezus. A rhetorical question, Kanye did not actually care why his significant other was upset with him. It was a “guilt trip,” Kanye was throwing around, a theme Ye returns to again and again on the album. Even just half a decade ago, not many cared to discuss toxicity in romantic relationships, unless the conversation focused on outright physical abuse. Emotional manipulation was only just becoming a part of everyday pop-cultural relationship jargon.
Ari Aster’s second full-length film, the folk-horror thriller Midsommar, does an understated job delivering an essential story about the ins and outs of relationships. Aster juxtaposes alluring and colorful cinematic shots with scenes of extreme discomfort, many that feature no horror or gore at all but are equally disturbing. Midsommar tells the story of the relationship between college sweethearts Dani and Christian as an all male (plus Dani), semi-academic, pseudo-vacation trip to Sweden. Dani gets the second hand invite from Christian after her sister, who suffered from bi-polar disorder, commits a murder-suicide with their parents. Unbeknownst to Dani, Christian is not happy in their relationship nor did he actually want her to come to Sweden, but a moral sense of obligation has sustained their relationship far past what should have been its expiration date.
Invited to join a midsummer celebration that only occurs once every 90 years at the couple’s college friend Pelle’s home of Hårga, the fivesome which including the Vape King Mark and research ready (aka nerd) Josh head to ancestral commune. It’s a shame the group does not make it to Stockholm, which I hear is not very fond of drugs. Imagine my surprise when the friends hopped off the jet and immediately greeted with some psychedelic mushshrooms ready to be served by Pelle’s brother. Brief hellos, uncomfortable couple interactions, and off we go down the rabbit hole of Midsommar.
Ari Aster does an incredible job ensuring that the film visually evokes the experience of taking psychedelic drugs (so my research says). The dedication to bright colors and slow moving nature visuals gives the audience a dizzy feeling that mimics the concept of tripping. On top of an incredible sense for aerial shots, including one that cuts from an apartment bathroom to one on a plane, and use of mirrors throughout the first acts, Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski provide some of the best shots you will see all year.
Aster is the true star here though, taking what was a standard slasher script and transforming it into a case study of a very stereotypical romantic relationship with a deadly climax at the break up. The focus of the story is Dani dealing with the trauma of being orphaned by the sudden death of her family. As far as the audience knows, she has no other family members around. It’s for this reason that Christian ultimately decides to both stick out the relationship and invite her on his boys’ trip to Sweden. It was a disaster waiting to happen, but the shockingly beautiful and grotesque way it unfolds on screen may remind you of your last break up.
Orphaned and alone, Dani is craving stability, a natural response in the face of trauma. Though her relationship does not fulfill this need, she uses Christian as an emotional crutch and cannot bring herself to give him up. As the film progresses, she finds her identity as part of the community, ultimately becoming the commune’s figurehead as the May Queen. On her way, she experiences the five traditional stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief as she recovers from the sudden death of her family, and comes to terms with her trauma when the village accepts her into its fold and she resigns Christian to death.
In the beginning of the film, the intensity of Dani’s emotional trauma prevents her from acknowledging her loss. An extended shot of Dani crying into Christian’s shoulder highlights her inability to address her feelings verbally. Though the film includes a lot of wailing and sobbing, this drawn-out moment sets a particularly numb, oppressive tone for the beginning of the film. Each time another character tries to discuss her family, it triggers a panic attack that renders Dani incapable of responding. Later, Pelle’s insistence on expressing his condolences and empathy leads to Dani excusing herself and a scene cut signifying the passage of time––this early antagonism from Pelle foreshadows his sinister intent and mirrors their later conversations in which Dani participates more readily. Despite all this, she continually insists that she feels perfectly fine––to the point of inviting herself to join Christian’s vacation––while struggling to process her tragedy.
Dani continues to struggle as the trip progresses, but begins to express her feelings outwardly in the form of anxiety and anger. After the group arrives near the village and takes psychedelic mushrooms, Dani becomes paranoid that a group of laughing travelers are mocking her. When Pelle’s brother Ingemar reassures her that they mean her no harm, she lashes out and runs off alone into the unfamiliar woods. Frightened and alone there, she sees hallucinations of her sister, falls asleep, and dreams of her deceased family. She appears calm when she awakens, and remains so until Pelle gives her a birthday present, prompting her to admit that Christian forgot her birthday. When he tries to make amends with a piece of cake, she’s less than pleased with his attempt. Christian deepens his hole when he forgets how long they’ve been together and Dani corrects him in front of their friends. She never lashes out at Christian for his shortcomings, but the audience cannot ignore the tension as the two become increasingly distant.
At this point in the film, Dani begins to experience depression as she withdraws from her previous life and the village draws her in. It’s difficult to define what depression means in this context, but Dani experiences a characteristic numbness bordering on apathy in the face of many strange occurrences that happen throughout their stay. Despite the recent deaths in her life, she does not react overtly when the two elders commit ritual suicide. Simon and Connie provide a stark contrast; the couple’s anger explodes as they scream and criticize the village’s cultural brutality, incapable of comprehending their comfort with taboo. When she and Pelle talk later, Dani seems more concerned with her relationship than with the violence she witnessed. She also has a paranoia-fueled dream in which her friends take off without her and drive into the night, suggesting that her deepest anxiety is being left behind. And yet, when the other visitors do begin to disappear, Dani’s lack of concern allows her to continue assimilating to the village’s culture.
Dani does not experience the stages of grief linearly (few people do), but the film shifts as Dani’s primary goal becomes winning the attention of Christian and the villagers. She bargains at this point, but her bargaining is to restore her relationship rather than her family. After she drinks the tea given to her at the start of the May Queen competition, the dance physically and mentally consumes her, and the few glimpses out of the circles follow a distracted Christian. When Dani wins the title, she looks to Christian as she celebrates but he does not approach her. She continually looks for him after she’s crowned May Queen, which eventually leads to her discovering him and Maja (and a few other folks… sort of) having sex. This triggers her final breakdown of the film as she, in unison with the women of the village, weeps unrelentingly to expunge her grief.
Christian develops over the course of their trip as well, and his transformation mirrors Dani’s experience; however, rather than finding his identity as a member of the village, he is stripped of identity and becomes a tool for the community’s use. Early in the film, his loss of self begins as he tries to distance himself from Dani. He grows obsessed with his research on the Hårga, but he needs to piggyback off Josh’s research to inspire his own, suggesting that his passion has more to do with accolades than accomplishment or education. Finally, while Dani competes for the May Queen title, Christian is groomed, drugged, and lured into a sexual encounter with Maja. Already intrigued by Maja, the drugs he takes dehumanize him, and he appears more as a disoriented animal employing basic instincts than an observer conducting academic research. Throughout intercourse, he looks afraid and uncomfortable but cannot resist his innate desires. The village rebuilds Dani but breaks Christian down until they can manipulate him. As he impregnates Maja, he breaks his ties with Dani and brings her rebirth to completion. In these two acts, he satisfies his utility to the community and to Dani, and makes himself disposable.
Dani’s cathartic climax represents not only acceptance of her grief, but also acceptance of her new identity as a member of the village. Though she loses the last remnant of her former life, the empathy she receives from the women allows her to move beyond her grief. The community welcomes her into their family, erasing any lingering need she might feel towards Christian. To fulfill her duty as May Queen, she stoically chooses Christian as the final person to complete the ritual sacrifice, an apt end to the toxicity that characterized most of their interactions. As the village renews itself in the sacrificial fire, so too does Dani renew her identity as distinct from her past. The villagers match the moans of the dying and she joins them, crawling and sobbing in front of the pyre as Christian, paralyzed, slowly burns to death a few feet away. And in the film’s final moments, the smile that creeps over Dani’s face confirms that she’s overcome her grief and found a place for herself.
Midsommar is less of a straightforward horror film and more a cautionary tale about the dangers of toxicity in interpersonal, and especially romantic, relationships. Aster himself described the film as “a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film.” Repressed feelings and lack of communication turn a four year relationship into a ritual sacrifice in about three days in this commune. While some have complained about the overdrawn artwork and superficiality of the plot, the undeniable message of the danger unresolved trauma and baggage can bring to relationships cannot be overstated. Relying on others is not a bad thing, but losing sight of what’s best for yourself in the hope of pacifying others will almost always result in negative consequences. At the very least, Midsommar should give you pause to reflect on the emotional landscape of your current or past relationships. Maybe you will think twice before accepting, or offering, a begrudging second-hand vacation invite.