The following analysis contains spoilers for the film Midsommar, though I suspect many readers will be welcome to them. Ari Aster’s latest summer horror is not a film I would readily recommend, especially to a Christian audience. Nonetheless, I do believe the film recommends something significant to us, especially living in the ashes of a post-Christian civilization. In the past year, I have developed a growing interest in the horror genre, particularly its capacity to address seriously the possibilities of supernatural good and evil, oddly reflecting Christian sensibilities about reality in contrast with other genres. Midsommar breaks this mold. While steeped in pagan ritual and drug (ab)use, the film avoids the supernatural. And it is all the more horrifying for this reason.
Midsommar revolves around a prolonged romantic break-up between its protagonists, Dani and Christian. Both are typified college students conjoined in a codependent relationship. Dani loses her family early on in a tragic suicide-murder and struggles to find respite in the aftermath. On the other hand, Christian doesn’t speak much about his family; he is invested in his immediate group of friends, his academic interest in anthropology, and hallucinatory drugs. As Dani seeks escape and solace in her trauma, Christian responds with impersonal justifications, obligatory platitudes, and too-little, too-late emotional support. Their interactions are awkward and forced. Rather, Christian and his friends seem solely concerned with sexual gratification, which Dani in her state is unable to provide. As the relationship deteriorates, the couple chooses to join Christian’s Swedish friend Pelle and classmates Mark and Josh on a trip to Pelle’s rural home village of Hårga, Sweden to witness their summer solstice festival. However, tense relational obligation motivates their journey. From the beginning, pretense replaces authentic relationship.
Christian and Dani’s relationship sets the context of the story as one of gradual engagement between two highly different cultures: the critically-distant, isolated-individualism of contemporary America and the hyper-empathic, communally-oriented paganism of the remote Swedes. Upon first encounter, the pagan community of Hårga seems to offer an ideal mix of the libertine and traditional. The community boasts traditional white clothing which oft neutralizes gender distinction; they uphold millennia-old religious rituals filled with dancing, feasting, and respectful sacrament; and they encourage safe hallucinogenic drug use, sexual license, and communal child-rearing. The entire village considers itself a single family, and their ubiquitous and uncomfortably apparent intimacy contrasts sharply with the contentious relationships of the American tourists. To top it off, the film’s unusual aesthetic relies on the enduring brightness of northern Sweden’s summer sun. The thematic imagery bleeds light and whiteness, purity and simplicity, intimacy and authenticity. Aster’s artistic brilliance lies in rendering this setting as the perfect bait to lure our affections and conceal the less-than-honest darkness which makes the community possible.
Their first severe encounter with ethical conflict occurs during a ritual suicide, for which most of the visiting onlookers are frightfully unprepared. The viewers are not spared the brutality of the event, which I will not herein describe. Expectedly, Dani, Christian, and their group are disgusted and immediately wish to leave. But as good cultural anthropologists, several of them manage to justify the event in cultural relativist terms: To the villagers of Hårga, the greater evil is allowing the elderly to waste away in retirement homes (as occurs in America); their voluntary suicide is comparatively a dignified honor. Indeed, who can authoritatively say what respect for life and its dignity entails? Tragically, the Americans are compelled to look on, impotent to stop the ritual and uncertain how to respond against the mass social acceptance of the act.
In spite of their initial disgust, the group decides to stay, mostly to continue academic work as anthropologists – they are horrified but intrigued. Gradually the Americans are separated from one another, each in pursuit of his or her own self interests. Mark makes the mistake of unknowingly urinating on a sacred tree and offending a village elder. He is shortly thereafter enticed by an off-screen sexual encounter with a village girl and is not seen again. Christian ignores his disappearance, assuming he has left to enjoy his days in sexual rapture. Later, Josh comes into conflict with Christian over their overlapping dissertation topics focused on Hårga. When Josh sneaks into the temple at night to take prohibited pictures of Hårga’s scriptures, he is unceremoniously murdered. The bad blood between Christian and Josh cools Christian’s interest in searching for his friend after his suspect disappearance. Presumably, Josh stole something from the temple and fled, pursuing his academic passion. Christian’s attitude toward his close friends is highly individualistic, recalling the platitudes of “you do you,” or “to each his own.” In no case is he his brother’s keeper.
These events leave Dani and Christian to their Swedish friend, Pelle. He plays a role by encouraging their trust in the community through his good-natured friendship and culturally reasoned explanations. Meanwhile, he actively distances Dani and Christian from one another by exploiting their unmet emotional needs. He is both emotionally and physically flirtatious with Dani, while encouraging Christian to infidelity. Distrust, pretense, and self-interest are the undoing of the group. Alternatively, the commune of Hårga is marvelously in sync. They trade in partial truths, discreetly killing their visitors one-by-one as they become isolated. Oddly, the villagers do not seem to hide their murderous intents maliciously. They operate on an alternative vision of the Good which the Americans cannot fully understand, and they understand the Americans all too well.
By the end of the film, Dani and Christian are effectively separated by the power of socially constructed ritual. Dani wins the title of “May Queen” in a drug-induced maypole dance and is removed from Christian temporarily to perform an agricultural rite with the other women. The women celebrate her and join in her joy in a way the men in her life could not. To her credit, she asks meekly if Christian could join her, but she is denied. Meanwhile, Christian is seduced into a communal sex rite, playing the puppet for strengthening the village’s genetic pool. Throughout the movie he resisted similar passes, but his eventual fall appears inescapable as it occurs. When cut off from Dani and his friends, Christian is entranced and loses the will to resist. The sexual rite itself is both communal and transcendent in a form. The men of the village disrobe him and lead him into the chamber. Though the act itself is performed with a single woman, other women from the village are present and intimately involved. Instead of using women as objects for sexual fulfillment, Christian finds himself ironically objectified and used for communal fulfillment for a pagan god. Despite acting on his own desires, he is never in control. The sexual rite is rife with meaning, but it is absent of love. Dani catches Christian in the act and emotionally breaks. However, just as she was surrounded by this new community of women in her joy, she is now surrounded by them in her sorrow. The other women wail alongside her, even outperforming her. The powerful empathic support proves to be the exact solace she needs in her grief; what is neglected is the complicity of the village in leading Christian to his betrayal.
It has been remarked that the most significant, or at least religiously affective, moments of human experience historically are Birth, Sex, and Death. The modern American experience effectively numbs and blinds us to the significance of these events; we are mostly devoid of any communal forms deeply linking these events to a transcendent reality. Birth and Sex are primarily viewed as individual life choices, and we attempt to ignore Death as long as possible, making even that a personal lifestyle choice in many cases. In Dani’s experience, the death of her family is a painfully isolating event for which she has no appropriate outlet. Christian and his friends offer little solace, seeing her more as a nuisance to avoid. They in turn idolize sex, but not for any deeper meaning connected with childbirth, continuity, or transcendence, but as an erotic, self-congratulatory end-in-itself. Sex is isolationist, cut off from deeply intimate communion, biological legacy, or spiritual substance. Drugs fill the vacuum of their spiritual emptiness. The connective tissue enveloping Birth, Sex, and Death is found in the socially construed rituals of family, and the Americans notably lack stable, involved family structures or communion even with one another. It is on these terms that Aster allows the educated Americans to slowly, painstakingly unravel.
The movie culminates shortly thereafter, when it is revealed that the festival demands a nine-person ritual sacrifice to conclude. Throughout the film the Americans (along with other visitors and voluntary villagers) are slowly fed into this sacrificial count. The ninth and last sacrificial person is chosen by Dani, and she must choose between Christian and a villager. Her decision by this point is unsurprising, the crowning moment of her conversion to her new community. All the sacrifices, alive or dead, are burned together in a sacred barn of sorts. The villagers console their two living volunteer sacrifices prior to their burning by reminding them of the honor of their death and offering them drugs to numb the pain. However, the viewer is shown that the drugs are impotent as they too writhe in the flames; the villagers lie even to themselves to maintain their harmony. The only effective drug in this scene is the one influencing Christian, paralyzing him against all movement and speech. He can only watch numbly as his world literally burns around him. Dani looks down upon the conflagration first in tears, then with a smile.
The village’s gradual manipulation of the Americans strains their embedded character flaws and disconnectedness, exploiting them in their very liberty and autonomy. The choices made by the protagonists are ultimately “free,” but easily predictable and manipulated. Mark is led away by sexual entrapment. Josh is overcome with intellectual curiosity. Christian is finally broken in his need for sexual transcendence, and in his isolation he easily succumbs. Dani finally finds communion in the empathic oneness of the village women. She sacrifices Christian, her last connection to her past, in what will inevitably be interpreted as a feminist victory over the corrupt and unfulfilling male figure. Of course, the feminist turn is betrayed by the fact that the empathic women of Hårga were crucially complicit in Christian’s infidelity, and then complicit in channeling Dani’s felt injustice toward ritual murder. Dani has by no means achieved true agency any more than Christian. The Americans initially engage this community as curious tourists, but ultimately their ethical norms are subverted by the power of social expectation and subpar comprehension of their context. Their unabashed interest in pursuing their own desires is revealed as serving a purpose entirely other than their own. Their critical intellectual distance blinded them to the real, existential power of the very ideas they study. Aster is pessimistic that a society of autonomous pleasure-seekers can uphold a meaningful defense against something even as grossly disturbing as ritual pagan sacrifice. The horror here is not in a supernatural force, but the entirely real forces that labor beneath the surface of our collective conscience.
Midsommar is a slow, inevitable slog detailing not only the break-up of a relationship, but also revealing the utter failure of relationship in the modern Western society more generally. This mask of autonomy we wear hides a fault line that is open to manipulation against what we believe to be our better judgment. In fact, the film reveals that our ethical boundaries rely heavily on the nature of our relationships, the obligations they entail, and the social constructions that cement them. Aster reminds us that culture inevitably relies on cult. Modern American culture denies the possibility of a transcendent good realized in any prescribed cultural form, preferring the absolute good of individual preference in all things. Midsommar opines this state in unsustainable. Incidentally, perceived autonomy exposes the individual to subtler forms of manipulation that could be far more insidious. Thus the ancient pagan traditions of the village seduce and pervert the critically-minded college students not in spite of but because of their very autonomy and formlessness. Their presumed pursuit of personal fulfillment are all a façade for their unwitting sacrifice to the bloody gods of Hårga.
As Satan is described as an Angel of Light, yet also a deceiver, so is the village of Midsommarbathed in white light, yet hiding death. Significantly, any allusions to Christianity are absent from the movie. The Americans have no transcendent moral structure to rely upon in defense against the village’s partial truths and allure. The only mention of Christ is in the protagonist’s name – Christian – chosen I am sure quite meaningfully. Christian fails in his love for Dani and his friends. He lacks virtue, depth, and meaningful relation. He falls back on cold reasoning and near-heartless duty when pressed. He is reactive and largely passive. And He is fittingly rendered impotent when finally sacrificed to the pagan gods, sacrificed by the very one he should have loved. Christian portrays us, bearing a name which has forgotten the lived reality to which it points. His sacrifice is an ironic inversion of true Christian sacrifice, the consequences of choosing his own self over both God and the Other. He never sacrificed himself for Dani, and thus he is sacrificed by her. The poetic justice is palpable.
Therefore, I take Midsommar as a pessimistic but realistic warning concerning both our cultural and personal fallibility. From a Christian perspective, it demands an encounter with the significance of Church as formative community, the use of liturgically-informed worship, and the paradoxical reality of the transcendent uniting with the immanent. Indeed, historical Christian worship can (and did) provide answers to paganism point-for-point on the metaphysical, liturgical, and ethical structures surrounding Birth, Sex, and Death. Culturally, the film reveals the unwitting malleability inherent to the worship of autonomy in the modern West, and how the ego masks this weakness. Common sense is common until it is not. Aster concedes that we are tragically caught between the existential despair of immanence and the bloody tyranny of transcendence. I contend that Aster’s vision offers a cynical mirror for modern Christians to reconsider who they truly are and in Whom they find their ultimate relationship, purpose, and identity. Such biting artistic work concedes a skeptical search for the truth, goodness, and beauty missing in the world. May we be better than Christian in offering an answer.