Ari Aster’s debut horror film “Hereditary” was nothing short of disturbing, heart-wrenching, and painful to be a part of. And yet similar to experiencing a train wreck, I couldn’t turn away. I wasn’t expecting a different feeling from the ending of his new film “Midsommar” – Hereditary left me shaken for days. The sounds of Annie’s (Toni Collette) screams as she mourned Charlie, the beheadings, the story based upon mental illness, family drama, family trauma, and tragedy being carried through the entire plot line (along with a cult controlling the family’s life) is enough to leave the viewer feeling multiple ways. Some were angry at Aster’s blatant terror he so willingly afflicted upon us – his audience. Others were traumatized and in pain because of emotions they could connect to.
So I went into the theatre ready to embrace the trauma and sadness Midsommar would leave me with. But that was not what I found or experienced. What you have to decide with watching Aster’s films is whether or not the emotions and underlying meanings are less important than the cult’s behaviors, or if those messages are more important than the gory cult stuff that masks the true themes of both “Hereditary” and “Midsommar”. For me, in “Midsommar”, the underlying themes and messages were more impactful than those in Hereditary.
From here on out, there will be major plot spoilers for “Midsommar”.
The movie starts with our main character, Dani who is sitting at her desk reading an email from her sister, it reads something along the lines of how she can no longer continue, everything has gone black, she’s taking their parents with her, and goodbye. It becomes clear that Dani has been receiving suicidal and ominous emails for quite some time now from her sister, and when Dani calls her boyfriend Christian (of four years, by the way) she immediately is shot down by him. He talks down to her, in the classic male accusing female of being too sensitive or “hysterical” fashion, and she ends up apologizing to him. Immediately, Aster throws the female viewers into the situation almost all of us have been in. Feeling like a male is invalidating our fears, our emotions, our concerns – all so that he can continue staring at a waitress while he drinks beer with his friends who complain about Dani. They even call her abusive for being codependent, as she struggles with not just her own mental health, but the condition her sister is in and how it could someday affect the rest of her family.
Which that night, it does. Dani’s sister took her own life and the life of their parents, sitting against the desk her laptop is on with the frantic emails Dani replied back to her. Similarly to Collette’s performance in “Hereditary”, Dani is thrown into a dark hole of grief as she screams and cries into Christian’s lap, who puts hardly any effort into consoling her (her sofa looked more comforting than his pitiful back pats). And this lack of effort or care for Dani is confirmed when they go to a mild house party, and Dani finds out from Christian’s douchebag incompetent friends (who I’ll get to later) that he’s booked a trip to Sweden for the summer – for a month and a half, mind you – and he’s still fully planning on going. When Dani and Christian return to the apartment, and she gives him an example of if she went with her girlfriends to China for the summer without telling him till a week or so before, he wouldn’t be too stoked either. To which he responded that it wasn’t the same thing because he wasn’t going all summer and he wasn’t going to China.
I’m sure upon arriving in the Swedish commune, he wished he was in China.
After talking down his friends who pretty much despise Dani for taking Christian away from guy time, or for (god forbid) – expecting him to be emotionally supportive and available, to their dismay Christian announces that he’s invited Dani to Sweden because he simply can’t leave her in the states alone. So she follows Christian and the three other boys: Mark (a misogynistic clown who while is funny to watch, would probably be hated by any woman he spoke to in real life), Josh (the one who’s too invested in his research to care about anybody else’s feelings, especially Dani’s despite all the guys knowing what she’s gone through), and Pelle (the classic “nice guy” who always alludes to why his lifestyle is better suited for yours, all the things you have in common, and obviously how you deserve so much better than your awful boyfriend, because you can only upgrade from a guy like Christian and his ridiculously immature, self-absorbed friends, right?)
Well, upon arriving in Sweden, the Americans immediately begin tripping out on shrooms. Dani, for the first time in the film seems relaxed as she sees the earth moving and winding, and her hand appearing to have grass growing through it. It’s not a frightening or unenjoyable visual to us or to Dani, she seems at peace until Mark (stupid, stupid Mark) starts talking about how his guy friends are his real family. He says family more times than I can count, and him bragging about this comradery he feels, it bothered me just as it bothered Dani. Not everyone wants to hear about how you feel like you’ve found this perfect place where everyone understands you. Especially people who’s families aren’t functional enough for them to achieve this sense of “belonging” or completeness. Especially for Dani, who’s family just died. And Mark going on sends Dani into a panic attack, where she walks away, too embarrassed to stick around Christian and his friends who pressured her into taking the drugs in the first place. She passes out in the woods for hours before they even notice that she was gone.
When arriving in the commune, a man hugs all the American men saying “welcome”, but when hugging Dani he says “welcome home” and embraces her for a longer amount of time. Soon, the group finds out about a 9 day festival that happens every 90 days in which multiple traditions take place surrounding a “May Queen” and other inconspicuous names and sayings relating to these rituals. The first is when two 72 year olds are forced to throw themselves off of a cliff onto a rock down below, as the first two sacrifices out of 9. 4 outsider sacrifices, 4 inside sacrifices, and one selected by the May Queen, a ritual that is determined based on a dance where the last woman standing (for her proof of superior stamina) is crowned.
But something odd – more odd than the two elderly people falling to their deaths – happen when the older man survives the fall. As he cries out in pain, the rest of the community joins in, feeling his suffering with him. However, I couldn’t focus on this in the moment because I was too wrapped up in the fact that despite Pelle and Josh knowing what was about to take place at the ritual, they didn’t warn Christian or Dani despite the suicidal trigger it would hold for her. Josh didn’t warn anyone at all – the boys (including Christian) hold no empathy at all for her. Pity, yes. Empathy, sharing her pain, comforting her, no.
Following the deaths at the cliffs, Christian tells Dani that he’s just keeping an “open mind” as they experience a new culture. While that is a fair mindset to have, two people plummeted to their deaths and he again is gas-lighting and invalidating his long term girlfriend’s emotions in spite of being fully aware of everything she’s been through. Especially when all of the trauma she has faced has been because of mental health and murder and suicide.
While I’m on the subject of Christian gas-lighting Dani, there are multiple signs of abuse within their relationship caused by Christian. Dani feels isolated (because he seems to be her only form of support before her family dies since they’re away at school and of course he’s her only support after), she’s clearly susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse at the hands of both the cult and Christian and his friends, he complains to his friends about their sometimes dry sex life (and while it’s not on screen, he’s clearly talked enough trash about her to his friends that they’ve begun to do the same and he doesn’t stop it), he humiliates her with the things he says in front of other people in the commune and the things he says in front of his friends, he makes her feel unimportant in the relationship, invalidates her completely valid emotions, and he constantly makes her feel like she has to be apologetic for what she feels. Until arriving in Sweden, when slowly but surely, we see Dani pulling away from Christian (whether it’s her own free will or with the aid of the cult is up for the viewer’s interpretation) and she occasionally makes jabs at him for how he treats her.
When an “outsider” of the cult named Connie (who’s engaged to and very in love with her fiancee Simon) discovers that Simon has taken off without her, she immediately grows frantic but is told by a member of the cult that he took a car to the train station, and she’s going to be picked up next. She’s still (understandably so) infuriated with her fiancee for leaving her in this strange commune after two people died gory deaths. Later, at dinner when both Connie and Simon are gone, Christian makes Simon abandoning Connie seem like it wasn’t a big deal, Dani slyly replies with, “Sounds like something you’d do.”
The movie continues on – our one positive relationship in the whole film is gone either at the train station going home to the U.K. or somewhere else entirely. But then, as the ashes of the 72 year olds are shoveled into an old tree lying horizontally on the ground, Mark, being the idiot he is pees on the tree, receiving an utter panic from one man in particular within the cult. Mark makes excuses and, in the way these men all seem to do, invalidates the man and what he’s expressing. But Mark gets what’s coming for him. So does Josh in a scene soon after, when he’s caught photographing sacred scriptures for his anthropology thesis in a book that he wasn’t even supposed to touch.
Immediately when a member of the cult announces that the book is missing, Christian says that if Mark and Josh (his “family” and best friends) took the book that him and Dani are completely unassociated with both of them, and pretty much accept whatever the cult decides to do to punish them. But the man reassures them that it’ll be alright and they’ll find the book. Soon after, Christian is called in to talk to a woman who he assumes is going to question him about the book. Before he can even defend himself, she asks him about Maja, a girl who in my opinion looked much too young for Christian for the duration of the film.
Maja since the beginning has been putting Christian under a love spell of sorts. Leaving things under his bed, and most disturbingly – leaving certain “parts of her” so to speak in his food and drink. He’s informed by the woman that he and Maja align perfectly (astrologically speaking) and they have been approved to proceed with the mating rituals. Which earlier in the film, he asked somebody about (in depth) right in front of Dani.
He doesn’t decline, nor does he remind the woman of Dani’s existence and role in his life. Instead he tells her what he thinks he ate in his food, and she says he’s probably right. This doesn’t seem to concern him, or even make him consider leaving with Dani. Instead he stays put, despite knowing that he’s being relentlessly and aggressively pursued by another woman, who’s doing some weird things to ensure they go through the “mating ritual” together.
The May Queen dance takes place, and as they dance over and over for the duration of the day, Maja looks like she intentionally collapses to eliminate herself from the challenge. As soon as this happens, a different woman offers Christian a drink – which, despite him not knowing what’s in it, and receiving another unclear answer when he asks whats in it, he still drinks it. As more women fall, leaving a final three, Dani is the last woman standing and crowned May Queen. As she goes through with bringing “fertility” to their crops and celebrating with the commune, Christian is now drunk or high off of whatever substance was in his drink, and is in a robe taken into one of the buildings where Maja lays naked surrounded my multiple naked women who wait for him to . . . well, “mate” with her. Relatively quickly he joins in, and articles I’ve read elsewhere and conversations I’ve had with my friends who saw the film with me are making us question how consensual the whole thing was due to him being intoxicated. Although personally, I was wondering how unless you’re really out of it or just a sicko you join in on that.
However, my personal interpretation was that Aster wanted to portray that Christian begins to enjoy the ritual. We just don’t know if this is due to his own douchebag actions before now, or the substances he’s on. Dani hears Maja and the women, who are all mimicking Maja’s moans (I know, it’s so strange) and despite a woman telling her she probably shouldn’t go in there, Dani still walks up to the door and peaks into the crack to see Christian on top of Maja, and she immediately throws up onto the ground, curls up into a ball and hysterically cries.
This cry after catching Christian is the face of the main poster for the film:
As the other women half carry her into the building she sleeps in, their cries become louder as they join her, empathizing with her pain and feeling it wither. Just as they did for the old man. Earlier in the film, Pelle asked if Dani felt “held” by Christian, and her lack of response was a clear answer that she didn’t. But with the women circling her, literally holding her as they sobbed and made Dani feel like her pain was being not just eased, but shared was arguably one of the more powerful points of the film.
Aster choosing to make the poster for the film of Dani’s breakdown upon witnessing Christian with another woman speaks volumes in itself. People died brutally, her family died in an awful tragedy caused by her sister’s mental illness – but the icing on top of the cake, the most unbearable part of her suffering is knowing that the one person is supposed to love, support, and constantly stand with her doesn’t hold her. And that is an awful realization to come to, especially after four years with a guy who doesn’t know your birthday or anniversary, when you’ve just lost everything else you care about.
The ending was (for me) the best part, the sacred temple that we haven’t been allowed to see for the duration of the movie and that no one was allowed to enter is finally shown. All it has inside is hay, until they start carrying in the bodies or models of the bodies of the people who have died. Models of the two elderly people who jumped off the cliff, Connie and Simon, and Josh and Mark are all brought into the temple, their bodies stacked up on the hay. That makes for a total of six sacrifices, with two more from the commune needed, and the last to be decided by none other than the May Queen Dani.
There are two men who volunteer to be sacrificed in the temple, and one is randomly drawn. The one who is randomly drawn stands next to Christian, who is in a doped up state and unable to speak or move. Dani gets the final call, she picks Christian with tears in her eyes. As he’s sewn into a bear suit and sat in the center of the temple, the temple is set on fire.
The movie ends with the people joining in on the cries of one of their own men who burns alive, and Dani, staring at the crumbling building with a smile that slowly grows wider.
Now I feel that there are three main ways to take this ending:
- Dani exchanged one dangerous, codependent relationship for another. She’ll have to die at 72, go through more potential rituals we don’t know of yet, and it’s possible she won’t last much longer.
- Dani was the star of Ari Aster’s twisted fairytale where the orphan girl becomes queen and (similarly to Brothers Grimm) gets to sentence a punishment to those who have wronged her – except instead of a step parent, it was an abusive ex boyfriend.
- Christian is drugged up to be silent as he died in a frozen state of paralysis. Multiple people who have been through a traumatic event (usually an assault) activate their “freeze” trigger instead of fight or flight, in an attempt to stifle memories of the trauma. This drug was a representation of that because after four years (and we don’t know how much of this was good or bad) Christian is no longer to speak to Dani the way he was before. She’s unable to hear him out, or take him back because now he’s the one whose trapped – quite literally opposed to figuratively like Dani was. This is why, to only Christian, the man who sets the temple on fire says to him that he will pay for the suffering and misery he has afflicted, and essentially burn in hell. Dani smiles because she now has this relationship with the cult/commune (as sick and demented as it is) that makes her feel loved, held, and empathized with. Every single healthy aspect of a relationship she didn’t have with Christian, she found with this commune/cult – for better or for worse. And she was finally able to put him through the silence, pain, and torture that she experienced emotionally throughout their relationship – especially the parts of their relationship we witnessed on screen.
Aster is all about using the extreme to mask the story’s central theme – “Hereditary” was an extreme case of family trauma, and “Midsommer” was an extreme case of the way that our partner’s can affect us and push us to a breaking point if we’re felt neglected, unloved, betrayed, scorned, you name it. It was after all a “break up” movie. And thinking of it through that lens, thinking of someone who has caused you pain in a relationship in your life, someone who has emotionally neglected you and hurt you deeply getting what’s coming to them for once is somewhat of a comforting feeling. No one would agree that the extent of Christian’s punishment was deserved, but putting him through the ringer for just a few brief ending scenes of the film somehow eased the pain that Dani seemed to have been going through for multiple years. And clearly, she felt the same as she was finally rid of him and the way he made her feel for good.