Welcome to the Hårga, a commune in Northern Sweden that is at the center of Ari Aster’s sophomore film Midsommar, following his amazing debut film Hereditary (see our thoughts on that movie here). How did the strange and unsettling world of this commune stack up to Aster’s first film? We invited one of our favorite guests (and horror enthusiast/host of the podcast Everything Trying to Kill You) Mary Kay McBrayer to help us work out our feelings about this movie.
So come along, have some hallucinogenic tea, and let’s figure out Midsommar together.
Spoilers to follow.
Mary Kay: My first question is… what is the point of this movie? Did you think it was scary? Which character did you identify with the most? I guess it was more of a line of questioning…
Mary: It’s not scary, per se, like Hereditary was, but it does have a similar building dread that I think Aster will become known for. The entire film has this sense of unease; you know something bad is going to happen, but you’re not quite sure what. By the end of the film, I couldn’t take it anymore. Something big had to happen to release all that anxiety. And it did.
Kelli: I would agree that it wasn’t particularly scary. A lot of it is dread, yes, but I also think this film has a lot of body horror specifically - so, as with most horror, whether or not it scares you is going to depend on what your triggers are.
Emily: Yeah, I think in comparison to a lot of horror movies, we know what’s going to happen the entire time. I mean, we don’t know what exactly is going to happen, but we know this is a weird cult situation and that weird cult shit is going to go down. So probably human sacrifice and weird sex rituals and drugs and nudity. And we get all that. Much like the anthropologists in this movie, I find all of that more fascinating than I find it scary, but yes, I would agree -- this is a movie about dread rather than about fear. As for your big question, Mary Kay, I think I need to talk through this movie a little more before I get into what I think the point of it all was, so maybe we can circle back to this at the end of this?
Mary Kay: Yeah, totally! Sometimes I have to start there, but sometimes I have to process more.
Emily: Thank you. I need to process this movie, even now, days after watching it.
Mary: I think that this movie was very different from Hereditary in that it’s not directly a horror movie. There are no demons, no supernatural thrills. It’s just a messed up cult (which maybe isn’t even all that messed up! Everyone in the group seems totally chill with it!) that exposes all the dissatisfaction in Dani’s life. At home, Dani constantly has to make herself small, make her grief small, in order to make her boyfriend Christian feel better about himself. At Midsommar, Dani gets to be the May Queen, be celebrated, be important. Her grief is shared with the other women, and they mourn with her. They all scream together. And Christian, who was already wanting to break up with Dani, who willingly (with a little drug help) cheated on her, gets to be sentenced to death--a painful, drawn out death that Dani gets to watch. It’s weirdly cathartic, and I think it’s supposed to be.
Emily: I don’t know… I don’t know if I’m ready to say that he had sex with this girl with only a “little drug help.” What would we say if this had happened to a woman? Was this not rape? He was continuously drugged throughout the trip, and he seemed very confused. I’m not saying he’s a good dude. He’s clearly not. But that doesn’t mean this wasn’t rape.
Mary: I probably shouldn’t have said “a little” help, or that he easily cheated, but I also don’t think his entire personality can be blamed on a drug. In the past, we see Christian talking with his friends about all the women he’s going to meet (and have sex with) in Sweden. While Christian isn’t doing a lot of the bragging himself, he’s also not disagreeing.
There are a lot of what ifs in this scenario for me. As viewers, we don’t really know what the drug did, or how much it initially altered his perception. We also don’t know what he was thinking. There’s just not much to go on. I’m not sure it’s possible to imagine what it would be like if gender roles were reversed, and that’s another what if for me. I can’t ignore the patriarchal setup of the Horga, how the women and men are separated and have roles that align with traditional gender stereotypes (like the women cooking). Fertility and homebuilding--those are women’s issues, and it would change the dynamic to have a woman there instead of Christian, both in terms of the folklore and the setting of the movie. I agree that the issue is stickier than I initially thought (I’m still processing, too, even now!), but I’m not sure I think Christian is completely innocent.
Kelli: Yeah, whether or not he wanted to cheat on her, I’m not sure he would have done it like this — and I wouldn’t call it willing. I think it was pretty clear that he was out of his mind by the time he entered that barn, and I think there was also a part of him that understood that these people were going to make him have sex with this girl. At this point in the film, the cult is an obviously threatening presence. If he didn’t do what they wanted him to, they were going to hurt him.
Mary: What are we supposed to make of Christian and Dani’s relationship? To me, Christian seems awful--truly awful. Not only does he want to break up with Dani, and not only does he believe his friends when they say that Dani is emotionally abusive (side note: what crap is it that Dani telling her BOYFRIEND that she’s worried her sister has committed suicide is considered EMOTIONAL ABUSE?!), but he also isolates Dani once they go to Sweden. He doesn’t hang out with her, doesn’t consider her feelings or safety, and doesn’t inform her of big decisions he’s making (like choosing to do his thesis on the commune they’re visiting). He also cheats on Dani. It doesn’t take much to convince him that he should sleep with a young woman at the commune, and he’s not even super put off that all the older women of the group are there to watch and encourage (we could spend all day talking about that scene).
Mary Kay: Christian is sucky, but he’s more so enabled by his shitty friend, Mark. I don’t think he cheats on Dani VERY easily… it seems like he’s really actually trying to fight it, to me. It’s also not Christian who suggests sleeping with other women or that her needing him is emotional abuse, but Mark, for whom there are redeeming qualities. Christian is TRYING to be a good dude. But the love potion is real, he’s fucked up on shrooms, and all of his friends have just died. I feel like he can’t consent because he doesn’t have the mentality for it in the moment. You saw how grossed out he was by finding her pube in his pie, right?
Emily: Yeah, I guess for you to believe that he is a “willing” participant who “easily” cheated on Dani, then you have to assume that the love potion was completely fake? But all of his facial expressions and body language towards her throughout the movie do not suggest desire at all. I see confusion and disgust. Like, when the cult leader woman (I guess I should look up her name) says, “We’ve given her permission to fornicate” or whatever weird shit she says, Christian just responds by saying, “Cool, I guess?” Like he doesn’t seem interested in her AT ALL. But I guess if you ignore all that and assume that the love potion and the drugs didn’t coerce him at all, then sure, he very willingly and easily cheated on Dani.
Mary: I thought he looked more intrigued or curious about her. Again, I don’t want to say he was completely under the influence of the ritual/drugs. I don’t think this is a world that supposes magic exists, though. We don’t really see it anywhere else in the film, do we? There’s ritual, and there’s people believing in the way things (like the potion) work, but there’s not actual magic. I would argue that the love potion isn’t real; it’s a custom that signifies you’re interested in someone, and everyone in the Horga knows what it means. The potion is an unspoken agreement, not magic.
I say all this to build up to the fact that the men sitting behind us in the theater said, “What’s the big deal?!” when Dani got mad at Christian for keeping his trip a secret from her. Uh, it is a big deal, isn’t it?!
Emily: Yeah, it is a big deal. Those dudes sound shitty. I will say this: Christian is such a terrible guy that I almost felt he was TOO terrible. Like, yeah, there are terrible dudes in the world (see: the people sitting behind you in the theater). But did you guys think maybe he was, at a point, almost cartoonishly bad at being a boyfriend? To me, his level of awfulness was one of the weakest parts of the movie. This is not to say that the acting was bad. Jack Reynor did a great job. But the character was a little… flat. There was nothing redeemable about him. He was a terrible friend. A terrible scholar. A terrible boyfriend.
Kelli: Yeah, I think at the beginning he seems not so bad because he’s clearly trying to be decent but is encouraged to be awful by his friends. If he were an even more shitty boyfriend, he probably wouldn’t have picked up the phone the second time — but he did. He goes straight to her apartment and comforts her. Which, yeah, that’s an extremely low bar, but at least he clears that bar. There are a few other little things he does for her throughout the movie too, like inviting her on the trip with them (even though he did it in an extremely idiotic way) or when he decides to wait for her when they take shrooms (even though that doesn’t end up working out).
After those first few scenes, though, we start to see less of the kinder, gentler parts of him and more of the selfish monster. Because that’s ultimately the problem with him — he doesn’t think about other people. We see this in his interactions with everyone. I do agree that by the end of the film, it’s almost cartoonish, which is I guess to make us feel better about watching him die.
I would also add that one of the most disturbing interpersonal parts of this film is towards the beginning, when Dani gets mad at Christian for not telling her he’s going on this trip, and the “argument” that follows. The way their conversation plays out is like SO MANY conversations I’ve had with boyfriends who refuse to take responsibility for themselves, and that’s why I put argument in quotation marks — because after about five seconds, Christian manages to make Dani feel like she’s the one who’s being unreasonable, and she goes from being rightfully upset to apologizing, begging him to stay and just talk to her. She is going through something so, so difficult, and the thought of him leaving her alone in that apartment is not worth fighting with him even though he did something shitty.
Earlier, Mary Kay asked who we related to in this film, and I related to Dani a lot — which I think is probably Aster’s intention. Particularly in the sequences where she was experiencing anxiety, I was reminded of the times I’ve been with someone who didn’t understand that feeling and used it against me. That feeling like I was a “difficult person” to be with because of my mental illness. Christian and his friends make Dani feel like her anxiety makes her a terrible girlfriend and person to be around, which is not true. I wanted to walk into the film and tell her that.
Mary: I think that especially resonated with me, too, Kelli. A person isn’t broken because of anxiety or family issues, but Dani feels that way because Christian (and his friends, behind her back) treat her like her personal problems are unimportant and private. I feel like when you get into a relationship, you get all the parts of that person, and sometimes those are frustrating or sad parts.
Mary Kay: He was such a half-ass that I didn’t really pity him because he stole his best friend’s (the friend with good sense, Josh, CHIDIIIIII!) ideas. And he participated in that weird ritual that culminated in cheating. He did drink the koolaid, so to speak. And for all these reasons, he deserved to be burned alive inside a bear carcass. But raped? I don’t know. Also, I’m really appreciating this new equality among genders regarding nudity, just as an aside.
Emily: Yes, apparently Jack Reynor really insisted on providing a lot of male nudity for the film. For equality. LOL.
Mary: That’s fun! Sidebar: If someone stole my thesis or dissertation topic I would be so, so angry. That is a HUGE academic taboo.
Mary Kay: The ideas were adjacent, but it was clearly an opportunistic barely-tweak that he should have abandoned as soon as his friend was like, Fuck you. Christian did have a conscience, but he didn’t want to. It’s like, he couldn’t decide between being Mark, who has never had an original thought in his whole pointless and selfish life, or Josh, who is insufferably intellectual.
Emily: Oh, I think he was a lot more like Mark as far as not having any original thoughts. But yes, unlike Mark, Christian does have a conscience. But that doesn’t mean he does the right thing, like, ever. But I do get the sense that he knows he’s a bad dude doing bad things. Meanwhile Mark doesn’t care about or consider anyone else ever. So it’s also very cathartic when Mark dies.
Mary: Mark is the literal worst (Will Poulter who plays him excels at playing crappy dudes). He peed on the ancestral tree!
Kelli: To be fair, he didn’t know it was the ancestral tree.
Mary: I also didn’t pity Christian too much by the end of the film, and it makes sense that Dani would feel a huge wave of relief and sadness while watching him burn. She got rid of her biggest burden and gained a family who (presumably) loves her.
Emily: Yes, I think that’s the way we’re meant to react to the ending.
Mary: One thing that Hereditary got a lot of praise for was the repeated imagery that rewarded repeat viewings. That was a lot more obvious in Midsommar, I think. There was the bear painting in Dani’s apartment (John Bauer’s “Stackars Iilla Basse!” or “Poor Little Bear!”), then lots of bear stuff later in the movie. There’s also the “love story” of a girl cutting her pubic hair off and baking it into a meal to woo a man (so sexy) that happens later in the movie. Everything that shows up is good foreshadowing, but it doesn’t have the same hidden feel as Hereditary. Is that for better or worse?
Emily: I don’t know. I love the bear imagery, but I’m not sure what to make of it? So maybe there is a hidden meaning there that I would get more on repeat viewings, and I just don’t understand it yet. What did you guys think?
Mary: I agree--I think there’s definitely more there. It seemed obvious at first but I know there’s stuff I missed or can’t understand, like the runes. Apparently they’re actual runes! They mean things. Hahaha.
Kelli: Yeah, there was one on her dress that I’m sure had a special meaning of some kind. I’d also be interested to go back and look at that sort of epic painting that we see at the very beginning of the movie. I wonder how much of what plays out is pictured there.
Emily: Personally, I think Hereditary was a better movie, but I know a lot of people have been liking this one more. So it might just be that I felt more of an emotional connection to Hereditary and the subject matter. Both movies are about grief to an extent, but I think Hereditary is more directly about grief and losing a family whereas Midsommar is about finding a family where you might not have had one that was working for you before. So I guess that’s at least PART of what Midsommar was to me… this idea of finding oneself through finding your family or your tribe. And when you think of Midsommar in that way, then the ending is very happy. Dani finds her people, the people who are going to hold her and support her in ways that her biological family and her boyfriend never did.
Mary: I’d agree--they’re both strong movies for different reasons, but I personally enjoyed Hereditary more initially. I’ll be thinking about Midsommar for a while, though. The concept of found family is something I’ve always connected with and I empathize with Dani finding people who love and accept her, even if they seem bad. For Dani, they’re enacting a sort of wish fulfillment, which is interesting. I can’t emphasize enough how powerful it was for all the women to scream with her and share her grief at the loss of her relationship.
Kelli: Yeah, I also think Hereditary is a better movie because it has a bit more of a logical narrative structure. I think Midsommar starts strong, but there were a lot of long sequences in the middle that felt directionless, and by the end I felt like everything was a little too crazy for me to be able to relate to it anymore (whereas in Hereditary, there is still some semblance of reality and normalcy until the film’s very last moments).
I feel like there were things here that needed some further explanation. I think that saying Dani’s sister was bipolar does not even come close to explaining what she did to their parents, and I wanted to know more about Dani’s family and their relationships with each other. I kept thinking this was going to come up, what with how often Dani was picturing the family in her dreams, but we never really got to explore any of those dynamics, and instead her dead family’s main purpose was to provide the film with shocking imagery (and be the source of Dani’s grief, of course). Hereditary does such a great job of showing us how that family functioned as a unit and how the different members of the family related to each other, and here I didn’t feel like we got that at all. I think Midsommar would have been much more affecting if we had. This film deals with grief, but not with the same specificity that makes Hereditary so powerful.
Mary: I agree--Hereditary has such a specific grief that we see first hand. The mom in Hereditary is experiencing her grief fresh and loud. Dani is trying to suppress her grief and experience intense sadness and panic in private. That makes a big difference, I think. I wasn’t sure what the history of the family was, but it seems like Dani’s sister was prone to having episodes of intense struggle with her bipolar disorder, and that she impulsively decided to kill herself and her parents after a fight (Dani says at one point that it seems like they’ve been fighting). I don’t think we’re supposed to have all the details, but I agree that I wanted some details, too!
Mary Kay: The scariest part, to me… and y’all are gonna laugh at me for this, but getting to the festival where it’s only very very white people except for the folks I came with, and they’re all dressed in traditional clothing. I guess there’s just something hardwired in me to be like TRADITIONAL WHITE PEOPLE, CODE WHITE, GET THE FUCK OUT.
Emily: No, I get it, white people are scary.
Mary: That’s a completely valid fear. The people of color are visually and culturally separate in the movie, and they stick out because of their plainclothes especially. For me, the all-while clothes and the sheer Aryan-ness of everyone at the commune freaked me out. It screams weird cult. Weird racist cult, probably.
Kelli: Yeah, throughout the film my friends and I kept leaning over to each other like, ‘white people, amirite?’ I feel like Sweden is the whitest of the white places a person could go.
Mary Kay: That said, though, the film could have been really whitewashed, since it’s set in Sweden, but it wasn’t. There were no cultural stereotypes that I noticed, not even really any genre tropes. I also thought that casting the visitors who died with darker skin tones did a lot for the aesthetic of the movie. At the table, they stood out. In the gathering, they stood out. The neverending daytime was also a really cool choice for a horror movie. Everything was so bright. The only other horror film I can think of that did that was Jaws. It’s a dope choice.
Kelli: I also appreciate that the British couple they were with were the first ones to be like, FUCK THIS. They recognized the complete insanity of it, but unfortunately they didn’t make it out alive. In fact, none of the characters of color did. Which… shocker.
Mary: The film taking place almost completely in daylight was a great choice, in my opinion. It’s been in the marketing for the film, and it’s such a spin on most of the horror movies that have come out recently.
Mary Kay: I also was really freaked out by the bad trip scenes… and WHEN ARE WE GONNA TALK ABOUT PEOPLE JUMPING OFF A LITERAL CLIFF IN THE NAME OF TRADITION.
Emily: One of the things that really worked for me about the bad trip scenes was how it reflected Dani’s anxiety. Similar to when you’re having issues with anxiety, when you’re having a bad trip, there’s this sense that you need support and community to sort of help you through this feeling of vulnerability. But instead, you feel very cut off from everything. The world doesn’t make sense to you, and you don’t make sense to the world. I think the movie does an incredible job of creating that complicated sensation through the trippy visuals.
Kelli: The trip scenes were sooo powerful. I particularly loved the way they used nature to help us understand what the characters were feeling in those moments — it reminded me of Annihilation, with the flowers and grass growing out of her skin. I also absolutely loved the effect they used later in the film where one of the flowers on her crown was breathing with her. I think a lot of the visuals in this movie were tied to breathing, which again goes back to the panic and anxiety.
Emily: Yes, I know for me personally, when I’m having anxiety issues, the first thing that happens is I forget how to breathe. And conscious breathing is a huge thing in this cult and in this movie. Also, yes, speaking of visuals, the jumping off the cliff was SO VIOLENT. Like close ups of heads getting bashed in. I wasn’t surprised, because Hereditary included some intense decapitation scenes, but I also wondered what purpose this and the other graphic images in the movie served? What do you guys think?
Mary: It was a very visceral film and our boy Ari Aster loves head trauma. This time around, I found myself covering my face, though. It really freaked me out to watch the suicides, and I wondered if we really needed all of that. I guess we did, because it was intense and got some of the themes of the film across, but it was a lot for me to handle.
Kelli: It was for sure a gore-fest, and at times I felt like the film was leaning on this. I think one of the more horrifying images was Mark’s face being used as a mask. Like. Ew.
Mary: I don’t even know that I understood his face was a mask in that moment. It was horrifying.
Emily: I want to talk about my favorite part of the movie. Y’all know I love a good dance sequence. But for real. The scene where Dani is in the dance competition for the May Queen and she gets so swept up in it. It was so beautiful and to me was the true point that the movie was working towards. Everything else after, to me, was just wrapping up loose ends. This is the moment that Dani gives in and becomes one of them. She even understands their language. And in the meantime, Christian is just watching on, confused, not a part of it, still in dark clothing, not supporting her in this moment where she is feeling truly elated to finally belong. It was just such a beautiful moment. This was when I was truly wowed by the movie. What did you guys think of this scene? What other scenes stood out to you?
Mary Kay: Girl, as that scene was happening, I was like… this looks like what ALL of my college hippie phase looked like. Swirling and dancing and a little fucked up but SO SO fun and no men distracting me from the shit I’m trying a do. I was also getting a little competitive, which I know is not the goal of the scene, but I was like DROP A BOW, Dani! Get. That. Crown.
Kelli: I loved this sequence too. There’s a moment when she makes it to the top 8 girls or whatever, and she looks out to see if Christian noticed or cares, but he isn’t even looking at her — and you see her face fall briefly, but then she keeps going. You see her changing her mind in that moment. Thinking — I am doing this for me, not for him. That we can see this in just a subtle facial expression is all Florence Pugh, who I think was absolutely wonderful here, and I want to credit her for being the emotional center of this movie. She fucking kills it, and I can’t wait to see more from her.
Mary: It’s such a beautiful scene, and I think Aster’s eye for cinematography really shines here. It was also great to see Dani having so much fun and, as Kelli says, doing something for herself!
Emily: To wrap up, as far as what the movie means? I guess at this point, I’ve already touched on what I think a little. But I also want to add that Ari Aster has said that this movie was going in a different direction, and then he broke up with his girlfriend, which was a relationship he found very toxic. From there, he decided to make this movie about a break up. So I think we all kind of caught onto that, this feeling of catharsis you get from finally escaping a relationship you know wasn’t serving you. And more importantly, finding relationships that do serve you and allow you to be your true self. At the end of the movie, Dani doesn’t feel like she has to hide her emotions. She feels like she can lean on these people. So yeah… that’s all I have left to say about this movie. For now. Maybe we’ll get part 2 of this blog after I go see it again. Who knows?
Kelli: It’s interesting to learn that this movie started with a different direction, and that helps me make some sense of the parts that feel less cohesive to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about what this movie is trying to say. I think get what it’s saying about relationships, but I’m pretty interested in what it has to say about empathy, as well. At the beginning of the movie, Dani is struggling to be understood by her boyfriend, who seems to completely lack the kind of empathy required to help someone going through what she’s going through. At the commune, empathy is extremely important — like when the selected members die at the end, the rest of the cult screams and cries and tries to relate to the pain of being burned alive. It’s similar in the sex scene, where the women are all experiencing this ecstacy together — and following that, Dani’s breakdown, where the other women mimic her pattern of breathing and crying, like they’re trying to become one with her grief. At the same time, they are able to kill strangers without a second thought. It’s empathy in two extremes. I think this is a fascinating concept, but the problem is that I can’t quite figure out what I’m supposed to take away from it. I guess I’m gonna have to keep thinking about it. Probably forever.
Mary: I agree--It’s definitely about a breakup and bad relationships on its surface, but it also has a strong message of the importance of empathy. One of the most powerful scenes in the film for me were the women screaming along with Dani. In America, we have such a restrained view of grief and little empathy for each other. There are so many unspoken social rules we have to adhere to. It’s good to see this extreme range of emotion, because sometimes yelling and crying out help! I’m also going to be thinking about this movie forever, for sure. It’s completely abject for me--I loved it and want more, but I also kind of never want to see it again. I had a similar feeling with Hereditary because some scenes are just so hard to watch. Both films are incredible, but difficult viewing. Then again, isn’t that what makes them excellent? Aster is going places that most filmmakers dare not tread.
Midsommar is now playing in theaters everywhere. Go see it, and let us know what you think!