Midsommar: Grief is a Lonely Woman

By LILY LEVY-EPSTEIN

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When I went to see Ari Aster’s latest horror feature, Midsommar, I knew I was in for a shocking few hours. His first film, Hereditary, is a truly traumatic exercise in witnessing familial grief that sent audiences running and screaming all around the world. Both in tone and color, Hereditary is a very, very dark film. Midsommar, on the other hand, is indeed also a film about grief, but unlike Hereditary (Aster has called Midsommar its “companion” piece), it is very, very bright. The majority of Midsommar takes place in Hälsingland, Sweden, where the sky only turns into night for just a couple of hours a day, and never completely. Aster and his cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski implement an enchantingly light, almost overexposed, technicolor color palette that floods the sadistically cultish world which our classically unfortunate American subjects have entered into. But there is one visitor who can handle the gruesome traditions that come with this new Wicker Man-esque territory: our relentlessly anguished protagonist, Dani (played by the wonderful Florence Pugh). 

College student Dani, after enduring a major (and I mean major) loss in her life, is searching for emotional support but can’t seem to find it. You would think it might come from her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), but no – he is a sincerely dumb jackass who is clueless as to how to treat her, though it becomes increasingly clear that his ability to empathize with anyone might be nonexistent. At the start of the film he is planning on breaking up with Dani after four years of dating (he feels she leans on him too much). But after this overwhelming tragedy she is invited by Christian on his trip to Hälsingland with buddies Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Swedish exchange-student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Hälsingland is Pelle’s home, where the Hårgan “commune” is located, and where the group is visiting for the Midsommar Festival. And although Dani was a last-minute invite, Pelle is very happy she has come for the rare and mysterious celebrations.

Aster’s work, whether it’s Toni Collette embracing the paranormal or Florence Pugh holding back sobs in an airplane bathroom, projects the sentiment that grief is so much of a woman’s world, but that a woman’s grief (at least in this country) is culturally repressed into experiential solitude. Feminine existence can be isolating – our brains are filled with rejection and our bodies are riddled with pain – and the act of experiencing great loss is no exception. Dani is reeling with agony over great personal sufferings and Christian, in classic asshole form, fails to mention that he’s leaving the country for multiple months. Early on in Hälsingland, Dani witnesses the same kind of morbidity that she’s been trying to escape back home and Christian subsequently veers off to intellectually challenge his friend instead of supporting her through a panic attack. Christian represents pervasive male ignorance – and that’s why it seems so monumental that the Hårgans reject the suppressive culture of feminine isolation and instead embody communal emotion, regardless of gender (their culture is even self-identified as “hermaphroditic” in many ways). And it is for this reason that Dani is the only one in her group who is able to keep up with the Hårgans: she feels the most.

The Hårgans, contrary to my Hollywood expectations of cinematic cult practices, do not view women as mere sexual objects or simple vessels for new life. Rather, the Hårgan women are powerful, intuitive, and one with each other in a way that even the Hårgan men are not. At one point in the film, Dani is dancing with a Hårgan woman who points out that they are speaking and understanding each other without even using a real language. But as things escalate, through various celebratory exercises, Dani lands herself a key role in the festival, enabling her total acceptance into a new world and making her the subject of the Hårgans’ affections. She bonds with them not through words, but through mutual mental sensitivity. When she cries, they cry, when she screams, they scream, and as emotional support they will always know just how to anticipate her.

From bear carcasses to psychedelic dance parties to human scarecrows to menstrual-blood-love-spells, this Midsommar Festival is an epic event. However, the brutality of Hårgan culture is attached to centuries of religious belief, physical seclusion, and most importantly, intentional communal existence. Yes, existence is a vast and scary word, but for the Hårgans existence is something that is part of an eloquently circular process: that of creating life, death, and the collectively supported history in between them. They live together, they eat together, they raise each other, they die together, and through deep historical practices they memorialize each other. To feel joy or sorrow as a Hårgan is for all Hårgans to feel it. They are a community based on acute empathy – the emotional understanding that Dani so desperately needs but hasn’t been subject to until now.