The most upsetting scenes in Midsommar have nothing to do with Swedish fertility cults or their gruesome rites, and everything to do with isolation — and what someone might be willing to do to avoid it. They're right at the top of the movie, the second from writer-director Ari Aster, when the protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh) casts around frantically for emotional reinforcement on what turns out to be the worst day of her life.
Dani's a college student living away from home, far enough that when she gets a frightening email hinting at self-harm from her sister, who has bipolar disorder, she can only make futile attempts to reach her and their parents by phone. They're unresponsive, leaving Dani in a helpless panic. She pictures the worst while also worrying that she might be overreacting, as though the support of the people around her is a limited resource she's wasting on what might be nothing. That’s why she hesitates before calling her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), the anthropology grad student who's been trying to slow-fade her, afraid that she's burdening him with family baggage. "What if I'm scaring him off?" she bleats to a friend, who rightly counters that being there for someone in their time of need is the basic stuff of a relationship.
It's a devastatingly lonely modern moment. The distance between Dani and her loved ones yawns, vast and unbridgeable by any of her various devices, and no one around her is someone she feels she can really lean on. Not Christian, who actually does think she asks too much of him, whose pals urge him to dump her, saying she needs a therapist and he needs someone who actually likes sex. Christian can barely be counted on to answer her phone call, much less help her shoulder real anguish.
Dani has to wait for the news about her family, but we know immediately — from the way the camera stalks through their snow-covered house like a predator — that something terrible has happened. Her howls of grief when she finds out are the sound of the tattered social fabric ripping around her, leaving her dangling by the reluctant thread that is Christian, who no longer feels he can break up with her. He also can't figure out how to refuse her when, months later, she essentially invites herself along on his boys’ trip to Sweden — where they'd planned to research or just sample the charms of the rural commune their colleague Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) grew up in — rather than face the prospect of being left alone.
Aster has talked repeatedly about how he wrote Midsommar when he was going through a breakup, and the movie’s arc is definitely that of a revenge story about gaining power over someone who's made you feel emotionally powerless for so long. As a fantasy about the end of a bad relationship, it's darkly funny and not especially refined — a sustained "shoutout to my ex" shriek in which the offending party, Christian, is more a collection of grudges than a person. (His friends aren't any more filled out — when Christian fights with one of them over dissertation territory, in one of the few scenes not from Dani's point of view, it sounds a lot like when the hosts in Westworld talk among themselves.)
The film is more interesting when you read it as a horror movie about a hunger for belonging, a desire that stretches beyond the scope of its central toxic romance to include the idea of a more authentic, close-knit way of life. That prospect is so alluring that most of the characters are willing to overlook countless red flags, blindly accepting everything from a random caged bear (odd!) to ritual suicide (shockingly awful!) as tradition, long after they should have run screaming.
When the residents of the off-the-radar Swedish community of Hårga are introduced, they seem to be just the right kind of exotic to disarm their visitors. They are free of modern trappings in ways that speak to certain aspirational ideals about simpler, better living — annual festivities, farm-to-table food, children roaming free. They exist in a throwback communal, agrarian bliss while still being connected to the world enough to be relatable, free to leave for years to work and travel and bring back a DVD copy of Austin Powers to screen for the kids they raise together. In the perfect intersection of horror-narrative necessity and digital hygiene, they don't have cell service. They're foreign in the style of an Ancestry.com ad, all incredibly Instagram-ready and cheerily hospitable with their white smocks and white faces and their outdoor feasts in the endless midsummer sunlight. (Kinfolk magazine could never dream of their airy shared living space with quaintly disturbing folk art on the walls.)
Midsommar mostly takes place in Sweden, but at its core is a particularly American sense of rootlessness. The characters long for a sense of community and continuity, which leads to selectively romanticizing the customs of others and the connection to the past they represent. Christian and his friends channel that fascination into poses of academic detachment, not that that stops them from fucking the people they're studying, or sneaking around at night to take photos of things they were forbidden to photograph. And their commitment to observational remove, combined with a dazzled, jet-lagged inertia, keeps them sticking around even after they've watched two older villagers ceremonially throw themselves off a cliff to their deaths, their skulls smashing like overripe fruit against a large rock.
That's the kind of sight that should send reasonable people fleeing — which is, in fact, what the two visitors from London attempt to do. But Christian and his friends stay, lulled by talk of heritage and how the way of the Hårga is to "give our lives before they can spoil." "I'm trying to keep an open mind," Christian says to Dani when she wants to go. Plus, you know, it's such good material for the thesis, or to tell at a bar someday.
But to really belong means to owe something, and to be owed things in return. It's only Dani who understands this, Dani the tagalong, who in a warped way ends up acclimating best to the increasingly outrageous customs of Hårga because she appreciates the greater attachments they represent. Pelle, who sees Dani in a way that Christian and his friend don't, tells her that everyone deserves to have a real family — as he puts it, people they feel held by. It's Dani, who has abandonment nightmares about everyone driving away laughing in the middle of the night and leaving her behind, who actually needs those connections, who desperately wants to be part of a group in a more meaningful and lasting way.
As the other visitors get pared away without their companions seemingly noticing or making a fuss, Dani gets drawn deeper into the commune, enlisted into helping prepare the food and competing at dancing around the maypole with the other women. While Christian is the tourist who drifts (with no apparent thought to the consequences) into being the central prop in a hilariously awkward sex ritual, Dani gets crowned the May Queen, the whole village embracing her and lifting her up and wailing in empathy with her pain — held at last. Acceptance isn't granted to everyone, but it's granted to her, and who is she to turn down that kind of unconditional love, even when others around her are killed for the alleged good of the community?
Because aren't we all convinced there must be a better way of living out there, a place that's perfect and still unspoiled, waiting for us but no one else? A truer sense of togetherness that we’re missing out on in our contemporary lives, in which we move to where the jobs are and form only temporary connections and prioritize the wrong things? And maybe that sanctuary is built on the bodies of the unwilling and unwanted, and maybe the gates are shut to almost everyone but the lucky few, but it looks so nice in pictures — like a place where someone could belong.
Midsommar slyly toys with the idea of authenticity in travel, of getting off the beaten path and dipping into an experience that's meaningful and real and ready to be learned from, even when that means nodding along earnestly while someone explains that strategic acts of incest are key to their religious institution. The movie’s joke is on the visitors, who are so blinkered by their assumption that they’ll be welcome wherever they go that they don't actually realize they're the offerings in the ceremony, not the observers there to document it. The people of Hårga keep their own history and aren't about to let strangers in on it — though maybe they're ready to take in Dani, who actually understands the power of sharing suffering. The quavering smile on her face in the film's final shot is the expression of someone realizing, with equal parts horror and triumph, that she's found her tribe. ●