SPOILERS, CW: suicide
Something that sundry white supremacists and sweet Silverlake witches perhaps have in common is an affinity for elaborate braids and flower crowns, folkish motifs that imply tradition, a vision of wholesome white womanhood connected to nature and fundamentally fertile. The hashtags #smashculturalmarxism and #coachellaoutfit yield similar results.
Like his 2018 debut Hereditary, Ari Aster’s Midsommar is driven by grief — specifically, white women’s grief. The film’s horrific opening paints a scene of American nightmare; in bland loungewear, the young figure of co-ed Dani Ardor — her surname a ready-made double entendre — pops Ativan as she anxiously waits to hear from her bipolar sister after receiving an ominous suicidal message. Her offscreen boyfriend Christian (Jesus Christ, anyone?) issues perfunctory, if frustrated, reassurance through the phone; he is elsewhere, high on resin, and eating pizza with his bros beneath a photograph of Jayne Mansfield’s magnanimous breasts, fantasizing about “impregnating” the waitress — anyone but his girlfriend, really.
Dani’s fears, it turns out, are founded. Her sister kills not only herself, but both parents; all three are found dead in their suburban home. The tragedy that sets up the film is a uniquely American one, based on a pathology of white middle class terror: the family unit goes horribly awry amidst cultural disaffection and pharmaceuticals while the decent-enough home and mid-range car are weaponized against their owners as the site of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The immeasurable grief of supporting someone who has abruptly and violently become an orphan is not something Dani’s boyfriend is equipped to deal with, to say the least. Too cowardly to end the relationship prior to tragedy, he is now too guilty to leave Dani behind as he embarks on a boys’ trip to a nine-day ritualistic festival in the Swedish small community of Hårga. The trip is supposedly educational: the young men are flimsily presented as anthropology students. With the exception of Swedish host Pelle, whose intensity is horror movie code for ulterior motives, “the boys” are shown as nearly inhuman in their lack of compassion for Dani and her loss. And so the group trundles off to Sweden.
Things unfold and the group enters deeper into the isolated commune. As Christian, Jack Reynor comes off as the baby of Chris Pratt and Seth Rogen and truly rocks his brand as big, dumb Bad Boyfriend whose lips are always too slack. He forgets her birthday and how long they’ve been together. Dani ends up apologizing to him when she’s upset by his behavior. She coddles and adjusts.
On site, the budding American ethnographers settle in and begin to observe the mysteries of the Hårga. Anthropology is a central plot device of Midsommar — and also an essential one of colonialism. The director’s decision for the film’s “respectable” anthropologist, Josh, to be a black man is painfully conspicuous. To be generous, it may be the film’s attempt to indicate that the tables can indeed be turned, and that insular Scandinavian communities (read: white, Western) can also be “exotic,” Other, and therefore fair game as the subject of observation and fetishization. Certainly, Josh is the assured, competent researcher to Christian’s bumbling white doofus. But the choice also feels like an annoying act of tokenism bordering on an offensive gesture of 21st-century white absolution.
Either way, neither young anthropologist lives to defend their thesis — Josh is killed in the act of photographing the Hårga’s holy text, behavior out-of-keeping with his presentation as responsible ethnographer. As his phone captures the spirit-driven art of the Hårga’s incest-spawned prophet, Josh is bludgeoned by a native Hårga donning the body of his dispatched fellow fuckbro Mark. He is an African-American man fatally punished for cultural theft by an “indigenous” Scandinavian literally wearing the skin of a white American. It’s a lot to take in.
Christian, by contrast, is far more ceremoniously sacrificed, chosen for death by Dani-cum-May-Queen-herself in dramatic finale.
Anthropology is a double-edged sword, shaped to an extreme degree by the individual nuances of its practitioners; it oscillates between the desire for true connection and the desire for ownership. Midsommar mirrors this split — Josh and Christian want to understand in service of their academic careers, but Dani needs connection. Failing spectacularly to find it with the dumb Christian, she is that much more ready to accept the deeply communal, seasonally-dictated life of the Hårga.
Lame in every way, Christian can be read as the embodiment of cultural exhaustion with a certain type of manhood. As in Midsommar’s, uh, climax, white America is caught with its proverbial dick hanging out, spent, frightened, and with nowhere to run. It feels right to see Christian scamper around this way, and Dani — the bereaved, prodigiously pouting white woman — understands that his time is over. Seeds for new growth are planted, in earth and womb, and they are distinctly not under male purview. The film is less frightening than it is indicative of a burning need for this particular catharsis. (And anyone who’s ever seen Will Poulter in any movie ever, including this one, will understand the perverse desire to see him wearing a jester hat, dead or alive.)
Above all, Midsommar feels like a film for liberal, young, middle-to-upper-class white women, the population perhaps most publicly caught between “old” and “new” ways of doing things. Privilege ties women of this category to things like college, benzo prescriptions, and potential trips to Sweden, but it is also incumbent on them to recognize the need to build beyond the imperialist social structures that have granted them that privilege. The tension between “old” and “new,” privilege and wokeness, looks, at least in part, like the resurgence of witchcraft as aesthetic, practice, and… hashtag. If the severed soul of the white American male looks like American Psycho, then perhaps Midsommar sheds some light on the white American woman’s potent sense of abandonment, hunger, and fury.
While Aster pokes at the persistent problem of relativism in anthropology, tempting characters and audience alike with the Hårga’s scenic life of unity, he ultimately presents both Hårga and modern American life as horrific. As Pelle tries to explain to his bewildered foreign friends, jumping to one’s death at the mandated age of 72 is an honor, not a horror. How many of us have thought we’d rather go willingly and with celebration than waste away our final days in a nursing home, resented by our embittered children? Aster reiterates his propensity for head-squishing: if we could just not flinch at the smashed-in faces of senicide, would we be enlightened? Are we actually ready for a life where pain and joy are shared and we are truly not alone?
While Aster seems to reinforce a mainstream suspicion of nature-based communal living, he successfully taps into the explosively violent potential of both social preservationism and American orphanhood. All in all, Midsommar isn’t that deep — but then, today’s collective white cultural disorientation sits right on the surface, begging for the sun.