“‘Clingy.’ It’s an ugly word, isn’t it, that describes the honey of the heart as a sticky, pestersome substance that won’t brush off. And to whatever degree clinginess is not simply a mean appellation for the most precious thing on earth, it involves an unacceptably incessant demand for attention, approbation, ardor in return.” - Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin.
“She found herself stepping into ritual as if into a pair of stone shoes” - Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood.
Think of the worst thing that has ever happened to you. Recall how you emerged from that trauma; how you were able to eventually claw your way out of a seemingly endless pit of despair. You weren’t alone, not really; the sharpness of the void where something once was softened by the presence of loved ones. But what if there was no one? What if the very people who might comfort you – who might truly understand you, this fully-formed you and all the paths you took to get there – were gone? What if their absence was the cause of your trauma; a paradoxical tragedy: The loved ones you needed the most were taken from you, leaving you to grieve alone. This is where we find Florence Pugh’s Dani at the beginning of Midsommar, Ari Aster’s darkly comedic, yet poignant odyssey through grief; a meditation on codependency and relationships that have been pushed past the limits of their expiration date; a cathartic journey through darkness toward light; and then some.
Pugh and Aster convey so much about Dani in those first few moments before the entire world as she knows it is destroyed: Stressing over a foreboding email from her mentally ill sister; calling her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), whose blatant carelessness forces Dani to adopt an apologetic tone. She pops an Ativan to cope. Dani is not ill like her sister. Dani has it under control. What follows is the only scene explicitly evocative of Aster’s first feature, Hereditary: The camera tracks the hoses attached to a pair of cars in a garage, leading up through the house, where Dani’s sister has horrifically taken the lives of both of their parents along with her own – leaving Dani to grieve alone and effectively dismantling the precarious structure she’s built to support herself. What’s left is a pitiful boyfriend who’s wanted to break up with Dani for some time, but can’t work up the nerve to do so – and he certainly can’t now.
Instead, Christian makes allowances for Dani, bringing her along for what was meant to be a boys-only trip with his collegiate friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) – the latter of whom has invited the group to the small commune where he grew up in Hårga, Sweden for their midsummer festivities, which only occur once every 90 years. The four of them are a spectrum of shitty men, each representing a different toxic archetype: Josh, the “rational” man who dismisses emotion as weakness; Mark, the blatant, craven misogynist who thinks with his dick; Christian, the spineless procrastinator whose willful inconsideration and lack of empathy borders on sociopathic; and even Pelle, the “nice guy,” whose thoughtfulness and sensitivity seemingly mask his true motives – seemingly because only Pelle is redeemed by the end, his motives ultimately aiding Dani’s revelatory shift in perspective.
Midsommar is thematically rich, each theme an unconventional subversion of the stages of grief; it’s not the loss of family Dani must accept, but a curdled relationship she’s willed into a state of unnatural, continued existence. Co-dependence, perspective, revelation; a concept for every act, both cinematic and fictive. If there is one overarching idea in Midsommar it’s this: There is a thin line between intuition and dread, and that line is calibrated by perspective. Upon arriving at the sun-drenched commune in Sweden, Pelle’s brother invites the group to partake in psychedelic mushrooms. Dani is rightfully hesitant, given her recent trauma and unfamiliarity with their location, but she relents to please Christian’s friends; to be the “cool girl” who isn’t difficult, who goes with the flow, who doesn’t stand in the way of what men want. Though the experience escalates into something disorienting and unnerving, it initiates a crucial part of Dani’s journey: a shift in perspective.
The festivities begin the following day with Ättestupa, an ancient ritual in which two senior members of the commune participate in voluntary sacrifice, throwing themselves off a tall cliff. While her peers are horrified by the ritual, Dani’s eyes alight with awe: All she knows of suicide is what happened with her sister – an irredeemably selfish act that caused exceptional pain and destroyed an entire family. But here are two people willingly giving their lives for their families; a joyful contribution rather than a devastating subtraction. Dani’s subsequent repulsion is a knee-jerk reaction, the expected result of her upbringing in a culture that considers suicide – in any form – taboo. What was initiated by the mushrooms has begun to evolve with the Ättestupa. While her “friends” pass judgment or – in the case of Josh and Christian – look upon the Hårga with fetishistic opportunism (a nod to colonization), Dani’s curiosity grows. And the more she is awakened to this new and potentially superior way of life, the more she becomes cognizant of what she lacks in her own: Empathy.
Though Mark is the most cartoonishly villainous of the American tourists, Christian is more crudely drawn. He is an acutely identifiable archetype and yet exceedingly basic in terms of maleness, the recognition of which is both painful and comedic. Christian is spineless (the cowardly lion of this triumvirate of shitty men), but also: A chronic procrastinator who speaks in agreeable approximations of what is required on an entirely superficial level (see also: his reactions to anything Dani asks of him); an unimaginative and creatively-bankrupt man who cannot be bothered to come up with his own college thesis in a subject he chose to study, let alone break up with a girlfriend he’s forced to begrudgingly care about; worst of all, he has no character. If Christian reads as hollow – his stare blank and emotionless, his actions primitive – that’s by design. He lacks more than just spine; he lacks any morally upstanding qualities, let alone positive ones, save for perhaps his appearance, and even that is wholly superficial.
Dani knows this. She knows all of this – on some level she senses it, which is why, during an early confrontation about his decision to go to Sweden without telling her, Dani apologizes to him. In a film with so many jarring scenes, this is the most upsetting – and recognizable – of all; this moment when Dani desperately apologizes for being disagreeable in an effort to hold onto the only thing she has left. The relationship has been warped by her mind into something that breeds joy (it doesn’t), her evident clinginess no more than an achingly human need to maintain control over a structure that has been largely demolished. As the saying goes, the writing is on the wall, and in Midsommar the meaning is literal. Unlike Hereditary, where Aster mischievously hid symbols in plain sight, enticing viewers to decipher their meaning, Midsommar is plastered with symbols from floor to ceiling. The room in which Dani and her compatriots sleep is literally covered in them. From a certain perspective, it forces the viewer to focus instead on the thematic content of the film; from a narrative perspective, it becomes this woefully obvious thing – these silly Americans, they should’ve seen it coming, as when Maja enacts the fabled ritual the men saw on a series of tapestries, in which a woman performs a love spell on the object of her desire, forcing him to unwittingly consume her pubic hair and menstrual blood. Christian’s woeful obliviousness becomes even more absurd and apparent by this point in the film, while Dani’s perspective continues its subtle but monumental shift.
All of which builds to an almost comically horrific climax, during which Dani participates in the dancing ritual to determine this year’s May queen. In a scene evocative of The Red Shoes, Dani dances tirelessly as if compelled by some unseen force; it’s dizzying and exhilarating, and yet there’s an undercurrent of dread. We’re reminded now of the importance of a perspective shift – of understanding the difference between intuition and dread. The Hårga live a life guided by intuition and maintained with ritual; attractive concepts to a woman whose life, up until now, has been guided by anxiety and maintained with a false sense of structure. For those plagued with anxiety – that irrational wrenching of the gut that tells us something is most certainly wrong, even if we don’t know what it is just yet – there is nothing worse than the discovery that our feelings are entirely founded. When Dani, newly-minted May queen, crowned with flowers and exalted by the Hårga, finds Christian ritualistically fucking Maja, it’s the final push she needs to re-calibrate her perspective. It is, in the terminology of grief, the hard-won moment of acceptance.
What follows is perhaps the most poignant moment in Midsommar, as Dani sobs uncontrollably – an image that serves as a mascot of sorts for the film – and the Hårga women surround her, mimicking the timbre of her cries and matching her convulsions. It is pure empathy, but also a revelatory moment for Dani, who understands what Pelle tried to convey to her after the Ättestupa: This is what it means to be held. Dani may have lost her biological family, but she’s gained the understanding that a family can be chosen – that Christian isn’t all she has, that there is a world beyond her grief, that there is life if she chooses it. Here in Hårga, Dani is surrounded by hallowed structure – literal manifestations of the intangible supports she’s been grasping for at home. She’s surrounded by ritual – that comforting familiarity of routine that her life, upended by trauma, so desperately craves. She’s surrounded by empathy – the emotional salve she cannot forcibly squeeze out of a man who is void of any concern for others, aside from that which serves to make his life as easy as possible.
It’s the final ritual – the sacrifice of four tourists, four Hårga volunteers, and an additional sacrifice to be chosen by Dani, the May queen – that calls to mind something that perhaps only those who have suffered exquisite heartbreak following a break-up can understand: A morbid thought that comes like a revelatory flash in the darkest depths of that heartache, when you wonder if things would just be easier if the person who broke your heart was dead; when you find it so impossible to extricate yourself from the person you have chosen to love, when that love feels like a compulsion. You wonder what it might be like if life made that impossible choice for you, blinking them out of existence and removing them from the equation. It would hurt, but you’ve already survived the death of loved ones; you know what that feels like, you’re intimately familiar with that particular form of grief. When people are taken from you, it’s hard but you forge ahead intuitively, driven by the will to live. When they choose to leave you, that grief takes on a monstrous form; relentless in its shape and effect. In that final moment, Dani recognizes a different option: She can choose to excise Christian from her life, and she does so spectacularly. Taken literally, it is perhaps horrific; thematically, it’s a cathartic moment of release in which Dani recognizes both her value and agency. Her perspective having achieved a complete shift, Dani not only sees the writing on the wall, she’s reached total comprehension – acceptance.