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How Midsommar illustrates the catharsis of expressing emotion
Midsommar, Ari Aster's awaited follow-up to 2018's Hereditary and the second of his films with A24, is diametrically opposed to his first film most obviously in the aesthetic sense. Where Hereditary was a quiet, creepy, darker meditation on the complexities of grief and how they manifest in the hauntings experienced by a family distanced within the confines of their own home, Midsommar's horrors are unflinchingly depicted in the harsh light of day, with very few nighttime scenes to offer a predictably spookier setting for a story that Aster himself has referred to as "a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film."
But Midsommar offers just more than a narrative on the intricacies of relationships or the mysteries of a remote Swedish village. It also emphasizes the importance of acknowledging one's emotions, from grief to rage — most specifically, female rage, as depicted through the story arc of its main character Dani (Florence Pugh).
Spoilers within for Midsommar.
At the beginning of the film, Dani is basically trying not to freak out. She's just received a cryptic email from her sister, phrased ominously enough to make her worry about what's going on at the other end. Calls to her sister and to her parents go unanswered, and when Dani eventually reaches out to her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), he's quick to dismiss her anxieties, reminding her that her sister (who we learn from their exchange has bipolar disorder) has left similarly worded messages in the past. The scene tracks the evolution of her expressions without cutting away; we watch her fight to keep her emotions at bay, tears threatening to brim over until she quickly swipes them back with her hand. She struggles to keep the crying out of her voice while she's on the phone with Christian, waiting until she's sure she can speak without faltering before answering him.
But as it turns out, in this instance Dani's fears are absolutely founded, and after experiencing the devastating loss of not only her sister but both her parents in a murder-suicide, she descends into her grief, unleashing her anguish in a scream that's swallowed up in the intensity of the winter storm raging outside. By the time spring rolls around, a promise of new beginnings, Dani has withdrawn into herself, processing her untold number of emotions solely from within. In those moments when they swirl to the surface around others, she finds a way to escape before they can spill out, retreating to the privacy of an airplane bathroom or, later, an open field — but even then, she tries to stifle her own cries, clapping both hands over her mouth or grasping around her throat as if doing so will keep the sound bottled up inside.
Dani isn't just attempting to bury her sadness, though; she downplays the degree to which something upsets her or bothers her. This is something we witness in her early interactions with Christian before he decides to invite her along on his vacation with his friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter), to visit the rural Swedish village their other friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) grew up in. When Dani discovers Christian's been planning the trip for a while — and that the group is leaving in two weeks — she confronts her boyfriend about his choice to keep the information from her, but in the discussion that follows, he talks her into dismissing her own feelings, into backtracking on her initial discomfort. It's a small moment in the overarching story, but it quietly plays into the more widespread, real-life issue of women learning, whether indirectly or not, to withhold their feelings and opinions, to espouse politeness, to diminish themselves because they don't want to be perceived as "difficult" or "nagging." Dani doesn't want to be the annoying girlfriend, so she concedes to Christian's side of the argument even if it means putting a lid on how she really feels.When the group finally arrives in Sweden and literally ventures off the beaten path to Pelle's village, the movie makes no secret of the fact that things are about to get weird. An early scene in which the friends all partake of mushrooms becomes a mere harbinger of the trippy visuals in store, and Aster frequently calls back to an early reference made to breathing trees by depicting that unsettling effect in the background of nearly every subsequent outdoor scene. From an audience perspective, we're here on this trip with Dani, Christian, and the rest, subsequently forced to experience everything they do as a result of various psychedelics — first in the mushrooms and then later in a special tea concocted and doled out by the women of the village. It's no wonder that, in the days that follow — and they really are mostly days, the sun only setting for a few hours at a time each night — Dani finds herself, and her emotions, challenged at nearly every turn.
On the one hand, you could definitely view Midsommar as the folk horror film it rightfully is; the village eventually reveals itself to be home to some ancient and, at times, disturbing practices, ones that its visitors from the outside world struggle to accept as readily as those who have grown up within it. But if you also take into account Dani's journey throughout the narrative, it makes a powerful statement all on its own about the revelation that comes from openly embracing one's emotions, especially in communion with others. When Dani is eventually named the village's May Queen, the strange celebration that ensues is cut short after she witnesses Christian performing a ritualistic deflowering ceremony, and she prepares to retreat and cry in private as she always has — only to be surrounded, held up, bolstered by women who tacitly give her permission to feel everything she's feeling right in the moment. She screams, cries, wails, and they do the same, echoing her sounds, sharing in her grief, her anger, her rage and amplifying it even further. It's a scene that's indescribably cathartic to watch unfold on-screen in spite of the film's otherwise unsettling atmosphere.
Ultimately, Dani's fate is left open-ended, but it would be doing her arc a disservice to refer to it simply as an exaggerated, horror-riddled version of a breakup or a woman seeking revenge against a man who's wronged her. More than the very specific, very grisly fate she consigns Christian to, with his body sewn into a disemboweled bear and offered up in sacrifice alongside the long-deceased Josh and Mark, the film's final act is about the release Dani finds in not diminishing herself. Gone is the woman who has decided to conceal her emotions for the sake of sparing others. We may be left uncomfortable by one of the film's final shots of Dani watching it all burn down with a smile slowly forming on her lips, but it's evident that she can't bring herself to care in the slightest — and in the end, that may be Midsommar's most powerful visual of all.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.