The Colours of Ari Aster’s Midsommar

It’s hard to bring something new to a previous, or even an ongoing conversation. Sometimes, it’s hard to say anything at all. 

I don’t remember when I saw the preview to Ari Aster’s 2019 folk horror film Midsommar. Certainly the first look at the Fangoria issue, and its cover featuring the film, made me wonder just what kind of horror I would inevitably be facing this time around. But, deep down, I knew what it was going to be. The truth is, I’d seen it before.

Or I thought I did. In a few interviews with Ari Aster, he says that he’d been going through a terrible breakup, and it influenced the script that would become Midsommar. I can believe that. It doesn’t take much to relate to the idea of a beautiful, ongoing, sunny world where your heart is shattered into a million pieces, and you are obliged to just keep smiling, or at least go through the motions of the dance. I think we’ve all been there, really. I know I have. 

Midsommar can feel like a fever dream in what seems to be an idyllic situation, except you feel that sense of loss pounding away in your chest, the music around you muted and distant as your mind tries to withdraw from the stimuli but also attempting to keep away from the pain. The scene where Dani Ardor, played by Florence Pugh, at a party with her boyfriend and his friends and the forced and detached look on her face comes to mind.

But as I’m writing this article, and I think more about my initial impressions of a movie I saw a year and a lifetime ago, I realize I relate to this film and the atmosphere in another way. You see, before I knew about Dani’s actual physical loss I read the premise to the film in which she is essentially at this outside communal event while essentially going through the process of a strained relationship, and the inevitable separation that is soon to follow. It’s those similar motions, almost being walking wounded in the heat and light of summer, being only being linked with someone in name, trailing awkwardly, not wanting to bump them, and end the mirage — even needing to have them remain to deal with a deeper pain, or fear — but knowing, deep down that it’s inevitable, and a part of you blaming yourself for this coming dissolution. 

Through the year or so, I’ve read and watched a lot of commentary on this film. I’ve seen people claim that Hårga commune is central, and that it’s ethnocentrism and isolationism — and its penchant for human sacrifice — symbolizes fascism, and racist ideologies: and the dangers that a cult has on the psychology of someone who suffers from depression and loneliness: how a sense of belonging and love-bombing can indoctrinate someone into abhorrent beliefs. Likewise, I’ve even heard that others believe Midsommar isn’t a horror film because it has a “happy ending” for the protagonist. Still more think it is about the end of a relationship, and how that ultimately plays out at the end of the story. 

I can see all these different aspects. It’s no coincidence that in a deleted scene in the film, on the road to the Hårga commune in Sweden, that the students pass an anti-immigration sign, and that Mark — the practical joker and general asshole of the group — tries to bait Pelle, their friend who belongs to the commune, by showing him a book called The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark: in reference to the Nordic runes that the Hårga utilize. However, while these scenes and others are in the Director’s Cut, they were taken out for a reason, because they were either too on the nose, or they took away from the rest of the film, or both. Ari Aster also acknowledges these influences, and it’s no coincidence that there are only Caucasian people in the Hårga, and it’s pretty clear that Josh — a Black student — along with Simon and Connie — who appear to be Indian — are pretty much going to die, though their deaths seem to be ritualized due to the Hårga knowing the former will try to break their rules and steal their secrets for his research, and the latter because they want to leave and potentially reveal to the world the secrets of their ninety year cycle Midsommar ritual: including the ättestupa– the elder suicide — in the movie (though social or hegemonically-supported suicides of the “unhealthy” or the “undesirable” do have some fascist overtones).. 

The connotations are all there. The Hårga are not innocent. They know exactly what they are doing, and they will lie, and massage events to make things go their way. The fact that they sent Pelle as an exchange student to America, and he purposefully brought these friends over to the commune shows a great deal of organization on his, and their, part. Pelle knows, for instance, that Mark has an inherent irreverence towards life, that Josh only cares for his research over everyone and everything else, that Christian — Dani’s distant boyfriend — is a sycophant, narcissist, and generally weak-willed, and if you go by the deleted scenes, has this penchant for gaslighting his girlfriend. And he knows about Dani’s loss, about the murder-suicide of her sister Terri and her parents. 

At the same time, the Hårga genuinely seem to believe in what they practice. They think that seventy-two — numerologically adding to nine altogether, perhaps like the Nine Worlds on the Nordic World Tree — is the full winter lifespan of a human being. They do not seem to have a central leader, though there are elders that have a variety of functions even though they do have regimented roles in their society. The Hårga don’t seem interested in exterminating other diverse people, or outsiders, or even having authority outside of their land, but they use them in their ritual when it occurs: either through sacrifice, or keeping genetic diversity — a lack of inbreeding — in their commune. They definitely practice eugenics, and while the mention of their oracle — the deformed boy Ruben — supposedly represents “racial or genetic purity,” it is also an ancient custom in many different cultures, and even among nobility and royalty. 

I think this film is all of those things. My issue is with those who believe it is only one thing, or another. Midsommar can be an allegory for fascism and extremism, or cult indoctrination, or racism, or even a breakup revenge story. You can even make a case of Midsommar being a critique of North American grief culture, and a lack of a sense of community, empathy, and a centralized sense of self and independence that just fills empty and hollow.

As for me, I think like Ari Aster’s other film Hereditary, this film is about grief. It is about dealing — or not dealing — with a profound sense of loss, and the failure of one social order or group in helping someone dealing with that, and what might fill that void instead. None of the above insights are mutually exclusive with this idea, but it’s pretty reductive to say that one or the other, or another, are all that film is about. 

I’ve had a bit more time to think about this. When I first saw Midsommar, I felt kinship with Dani. I know what it’s like to lose something, or someone, or feel it happening — and you don’t want to admit it. Or the logical part of your brain knows where this is going, but the emotional part still holds on … until it doesn’t anymore. The fact that Dani’s initial grief happens in winter makes no difference that she is still dealing with this in summer, and trying to keep up appearances. Dani suffers from anxiety and depression, and somewhere along the line she’s had to learn to “act normal” or “pass” with it. And this before her sister and parents die. 

Dani is living the North American dream. She’s gone away to college. She’s living on her own, for the most part. During this time, she has a steady boyfriend. Dani also has a therapist, a casual friend she talks with about her problems, and medication. She is even studying psychology or psychoanalysis at school: either to help herself, or her sister who has constantly, throughout their life, been suffering from her own mental illness. Clearly their parents didn’t know, or didn’t want to know — or were incapable of knowing — the extent of it. 

We see what happens. After texting her sister, and calling her parents multiple times, she gets the news of their deaths. It breaks her. And all she has is the comfort of a boyfriend who is pretty much done with their relationship, who isn’t comfortable enough to be there for her when she needs help or is not wired with the empathy or the mental tools to do so, and his friends who don’t feel much of anything to her beyond her being a nuisance. The times she’s nodding blankly at a party she doesn’t want to be at, lying in her bed for all hours, and then going into bathrooms and either crying, or trying not to have a panic attack — and making sure no one else can see her “moments of weakness” — really strikes me. 

And Florence Pugh plays this out well in her body language, and her facial expressions. She tenses up her forehead into a creased brow, and her mouth turns into a literal frown: face bordering constantly on an ugly cry. She looks like she is constantly on the edge of bawling. I know, from the other end of this, how painful that is: to see it happen to someone that you love. In the beginning, when Christian is holding her and she is screaming her agony, there is this numb, almost helpless look on his face. And I know that look. I’ve been there. It sucks. It was one of the few times I almost felt bad for Christian, but then I felt worse because of knowing his wavering feelings or his uncertainty, and seeing how Dani needed someone to actually be there for her: to actually hold her.

To be held. 

Pelle asks Dani, as they are at the commune and Christian has forgotten her birthday, if she feels held by him. And that question stayed with me. It still does.

The thing is, Dani was looking for something even before those deaths. There is a picture in her room depicting something very similar to the Hårga art we see at the beginning, and during the film’s events. Even after the ättestupa, for all of her horror, she starts unconsciously mimicking the gestures of the Hårga in her movements as she stumbles off. And the Maypole Dance, and the way she begins to start talking in Swedish with the other girls even after imbibing their medicinal drink, and winning that contest to become May Queen: I don’t believe it was rigged. I think she genuinely, and unequivocally, won that dance. Something Dani is attracted to all of this, something Pelle might have seen, but even the Hårga with their Oracle could plan for so much. 

Critics have compared the Hårga to fascists or cultists, but I see them as an older culture. Those stones on their property, and runes have been there for a long time. Their Midsommar meals and all their rituals — even their deceptions, especially their fabrications — are choreographed to the nth degree like a Passover Seder writ large: commemorating various events, stories, and applying them to their followers in a seasonal and cyclical manner. Even the pictures of the May Queens seem to go back a great deal in time, and there is something about the fact that Midsommar happens every ninety years. This is not new. This isn’t the 1980s messianic cult of Jeremiah’s Children of the New Dawn in Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 film Mandy: with their masculinist overtones, and a pyramidic temple tribute to an egomaniac. That cult would not survive the death of their leader, having been made to essentially glorify him. And Red Miller, played by Nicolas Cage, made sure of that. That temple, that structure, burned in memory of his wife, Mandy Bloom whom the cult brutally immolated alive: leaving Miller a ravening, grieving, psychopath driving into a horizon of darkness.

Midsommar itself isn’t the only horror film, as some have said, created in broad daylight: Robin Hardy’s 1973 The Wicker Man definitely comes to mind on that front as a series of celebrations with at least Celtic folklore influences. But Midsommar’s central theme, I feel, is grief and the loss of not just family or loved ones: but a previous, and tenuous, sense of self. Dani’s journey, if anything, aside from the Hårga’s pyramidic wooden temple that is burned purposefully with its own sacrifices — the last decided by Dani herself — reminds me of Arthur Fleck’s from Todd Philips’ The Joker.

The Joker was made in the same year as Midsommar. Like Arthur, Dani loses her sense of family identity, perhaps already having been distant when it still existed. Her relationship with Christian, while had actually happened, was no longer present. She had been around people, and a society that ignored her and, low-key in her case, judged her for her mental illness and not being able to fit in, or “pass” as “normal.” Like Fleck, she keeps reaching out for a connection, and meets maybe one person who cares from her home, but mostly just disinterest, or disdain. She is gaslit by someone she trusts, and made and after-thought. You notice that throughout the film she barely even smiles. 

But just as Arthur Fleck lets go of the faulty and defunct illusion of what he thought he was, or wanted to be, to embrace the chaos that is his nature — a state without an origin — Dani finds order and meaning with the Hårga. They provide a sense of community. The women want her to bake with them. The girls dance with her. She is made May Queen on her birthday, or around then. For the first time, in her entire life, or at least in a long time she feels special. And when Christian runs off to be with Maya, another girl at a breeding ritual, she finally airs her grief: and the Hårga performatively channel it with her. It’s not a ruse, or an artifice. They feel her pain, and they work with it. Where Arthur Fleck finds solidarity with the furious, resentful mobs of Gotham and channels their rage into a dance of destruction and violent liberation, Dani makes a decisive choice to end a failing relationship that represents the lack of connection with the world from which she came. There is something cathartic, you can see, as she watches that pyramid with Christian in the bear suit inside burn. And that smile on her face, while twisted, is genuine. It might as well be painted in her own blood, but I suspect she doesn’t need that: as what we are seeing is what’s now in her heart.

I think that Dani, from the new paradigm she’s shifted into, is actually happy. She is in a culture that has strong matriarchal and gender-shifting elements, and a communal society. Death has a meaning in it, and it is not an arbitrary thing. It’s certainly not a lonely end, or a lingering one. She knows her fate now. Other critics say that Dani will be horrified once the love-bombing, or the honey-moon phase of the cult’s seduction ends but I don’t think that’s how it will play out. I think she has the structure and the support of people. The deaths and sacrifices happen rarely, and most of their life is pastoral. Dani is a part of the Hårga now. She is their May Queen. She is their flowering, smiling, goddess-figure. 

You see, I think the terrifying thing about Midsommar isn’t the machinations of the commune, or the fascist and cultic overtones of the Hårga. It’s the fact that Dani has embraced it. It’s that she’s happy. It’s this burning alive of her former boyfriend, and her peers, and human lives, and her accepting her own ritual death one day is — in fact — her happy ending: the happy ending of a now twisted mind in a world-view that is quite legitimate to her. And it leaves you unsettled, just as it makes you think.

Consuming the Sublime: Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man

I almost didn’t watch The Wicker Man.

Unlike Cannibal Holocaust, which I thought would be too extreme even for me, I didn’t watch The Wicker Man for a long time because of not only my ambiguous place in horror media, but also because later I’d seen Ari Aster’s Midsommar — and I loved that film so much, that I was afraid that if I saw The Wicker Man I would end up seeing the former as something of a pretentious bastardization of the latter.

Luckily, my love for Midsommar remains intact as it that is a different story. And while Ari Aster’s movie revolves a remote choreographic Nordic communal culture in which the protagonist faces the demons of her grief and gains a twisted form of resolution, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is ultimately a folk horror musical film about a man who finally gets the chance to become a contemporary Christian saint in on an island ruled by a form of Celtic paganism.

I think about this film on the surface. Imagine: a movie that utilizes musical tropes to complement and institute the philosophical quandaries, a murder mystery, and the final psychological horror of the entire thing. I don’t think I will ever be able to get any of it out of my mind: not the folk songs the children sing when talking about the cycles of reproduction and nature and the harvest, not Sergeant Howie literally being made a fool of — and unlike Punch, the costume he takes, the Devil didn’t make him do it, just his own sad sense of self-righteousness, not the brilliant Lord Summerisle’s (played by the towering Christopher Lee) monologues and observations of human nature, nor just the way that the entire story reaches its peak. And I can say, with certainty, that if the innkeeper’s daughter Willow sang to me like that, I would definitely have not been the sacrifice that the inhabitants of the Hebridean island of Summerisle would have been looking for.

So much can be forgiven, really, when you look at the quality and the build of the film that so many other critics and scholars, far better than I — a dabbler student in horror — have already dissected and spread across the world like a glorious, beautiful, terrifying harvest. Certainly, you have to suspend your disbelief to consider that anyone on that island would have known that Sergeant Howie was a virgin at all, and gone through the machinations through the “kidnapping” or “death” of a child of theirs to bring him there. But when you look at all those cheerful, awe-inspiring songs almost pulling you back into English folklore, the elemental rituals of dance, and music, and copulation also reminiscent of the free love spirit of 1973 in some parts of the world, and just watching Howie’s own Puritanism — which in the Final Girl trope would have saved her — become his complete, and utter undoing, it is a perfect bloody film.

Someone once pointed out that Howie could have saved himself if he had just given into Willow, into fornication, into living, into feeling beyond a set of ancient, strict, patriarchal guidelines. This is no Golden Calf, but a flesh and blood woman who actually offered him genuine connection and tenderness beyond the bounds of socially and religiously accepted marriage. But Howie just couldn’t do it. And, in a way, there is almost this tragedy there: that he had one moment where he could have had this, had this link to the earthly joys and the here and now, and it’s lost to him forever because of his sense of duty. In a Christian paradigm of some kind, he passed a test and resisted temporal sin, but fittingly enough he also passes the standards of the Summerisle villagers and their pagan roots by proving himself worthy to be sacrificed in The Wicker Man.

The Wicker Man itself makes me so tempted to make a bad pun of the strawman argument, where something is argued against but not properly represented. It is a scarecrow, made to scare off things that would devour it or refute it but is ultimately just empty clothes and bails of straw. In this sense, Lord Summerisle believes his people can make a harvest happen again through animal and human sacrifice based on their Celtic belief-system, believing the faith of Christianity and science and mainland civilization to have failed them. But another way of looking at it is Howie considering the ways of the villagers immoral and wrong because they abandoned Christianity, and believing that the death of a girl is clearly their fault because they are “heathens.” The straw man is the Wicker Man for both whereby it is an object ritualistically destroyed in order to prove one side, or the other right: a sacrifice to the gods, and an eventual martyrdom for Christianity.

It’s too simple, though, and perhaps not a great analogy in its own. The fact is, Howie is a terrified man being burned alive cursing the villagers for tricking him — the fool and the trickster, the outsider and the stranger — to this fate for dying for their “sins” while Lord Summerisle believes that the harvest will happen despite all logic, and that he will not one day be called on by his people and “volunteered” should it fail again.

Perhaps, again, the Wicker Man isn’t so much a strawman as it is the scarecrow I mentioned: created to placate the villagers’ fears of the harvest not happening, of starvation occurring, while allowing for the nominal civil and spiritual independence of the island. At least, this is what Lord Summerisle seems to believe.

When I look back on the film now, one issue I actually have with it has to do with Lord Summerisle. I just don’t see him as being afraid of the sacrifice. If the man had been raised through two or three generations on the culture, even with his education, he would see it as his own duty: as his own sense of noblesse oblige, to give his life to protect and better that of his people. To me, this faith — or fanaticism — should be bones deep and unshakable. Of course, there is the fact that by the paradigm of his people the man is also not a virgin — whatever that ultimately means — but that is almost irrelevant. I just don’t see someone as composed as Lord Summerisle being rattled by one setback, or the threat of his own life in the balance. He would understand the cycles of the world. He would know it was his time when the gods decreed it. It’s just that simple me, as real to me as Christopher Lee’s other character in Star Wars — Count Dooku — not begging for his life which ultimately doesn’t do in that film.

Lord Summerisle should be an ideologue with absolute conviction, and that should make him more horrifying than any blood-starved monster, that behind all the colourful pomp and circumstance is a man who is willing to serve the gods and the natural order at all costs: including murder. But, let’s play the Devil that doesn’t kill our Punch-wearing protagonist Howie, and say that perhaps it’s not an effrontery of his beliefs being insulted, but actual arrogance or pride masking a fear of failure and death motivating our friend Lord Summerisle. Aside from the fact that it makes him, and his belief as hollow as a straw man, consider what he tells Howie at the beginning of the film: that his Victorian grandfather revived the local pagan practices and rituals of the people of Summerisle to convince the people that his new strains of fruit trees would prosper in the climate.

But what if it was Lord Summerisle’s grandfather who was fooled, or ultimately fooled himself? What if, deep down, he did believe or it was the people he “led” that convinced him to reinstitute pagan elements that already existed in Summerisle, and just brought them to the surface again? What if these Lords of Summerisle really don’t lead using the name and acts of gods, but they are just figureheads for the people who are truly in charge? Lord Summerisle still operates from the monotheistic mainland order of rule, for appearances sakes, but what if the people just let him believe so long as he is useful? You know, until his role has to change? We see in Midsommar that there are a variety of different sacrificial rituals, so why couldn’t that be the case in The Wicker Man’s community of Summerisle? Lord Summerisle himself has, to an extent, realized that what began as a tool in his grandfather’s arsenal has become real, but what if it had always been real, and the Lords only deluded themselves into thinking that they could control it: this act of human sacrifice and growth and sex and primal renewal?

Howie believes this impulse needs to be denied, while Lord Summerisle thinks he can embrace it, but perhaps both want to control it: one through rejecting it entirely, and the other through indulging, and directing it. .But I don’t know if either particularly understands what it is they fight for or against: certainly not Howie who realizes he had been playing a whole other kind of game, and maybe not even Lord Summerisle or the villagers to think they will get what they want by following this belief and instinct to kill and burn to have their conception of Nature give them what they want.

In the end, the fire that burns through Howie consumes the hearts of the villagers and Summerisle, and there is something beautiful in that destruction and the all-too bright joys depicted in that place and site. What is it that Lao Tzu is supposed to have said: “The flame that burns Twice as bright burns half as long.”

Right now, as of this writing, Spring has just begun — however it will look — but when you look past the literal and go into the metaphor, at the nature of what happens when you release something from the constraints and strictures of security and fear, of a structure that fails its people, what do you have left to do with that passion? Does it go into a resurgence of spirituality, of land-based beliefs, into a renaissance of sensuality and sexuality? Does it challenge the status quo and grow into something else? Or does it run rampant, become chaotic, and self-destructive beyond the sight of those who first the light the fire, or carry the spark? It’s almost romantic: in the old eighteenth century terrifying and sublime sense of the word, but somehow still beautiful for it.

These are some of my thoughts as The Wicker Man continues to smoulder in my thoughts. Forever.