In this article I will look at how Ari Aster’s 2019 folk-horror film Midsommar explores the effects repressed grief and trauma. I went to see the film in July and found it to be one of the most intriguing and deeply disturbing films that I have ever seen. First of all, I would strongly encourage anyone who has not yet seen the film to stop reading. Aster’s film has a running time of about two and a half hours, and as a first time viewer I found its tension and unpredictability to be one of the most enjoyable and captivating aspects of the film. In my opinion, Midsommar is a film that is most enjoyable when first time viewers know little about its plot.
In brief, Midsommer follows the story of a young American woman named Dani, played by British actress Florence Pugh. After suffering a family tragedy, Dani accompanies her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his college friends to the homeland of their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) for a summertime celebration. As the film progresses we realise that seemingly idyllic commune that Pelle grew up in is in fact a dangerous cult that participates in human sacrifice.
Midsommar is an intriguing and often ambiguous story that explores a myriad of different themes and issues. For the purpose of this article I will look at how the film portrays the effects of suppressing grief and trauma through the character of Dani. Although the film boasts an impressive cast Florence Pugh is undoubtedly the star. As the troubled, deeply traumatised Dani, Pugh is able to effectively convey the quiet grief and distress of a young woman who has suffered an unimaginable loss. At the opening of the film we see a frustrated and frightened Dani desperately trying to make contact with her mentally unstable sister. A few minutes later we learn that Dani’s sister committed a horrific murder-suicide, killing both herself and their parents in the family home. For the remainder of the film we see Dani struggling to come to terms with her confusion and trauma. While trying to cope with her own grief Dani is also confronted with the often cold indifference of her boyfriend and his friends.
Midsommar is a story filled with untrustworthy characters with often sinister intentions. While the members of the commune are clearly the most dangerous presence in the film, from the opening scenes we see that there is a preexisting undercurrent of maliciousness among the people who surround Dani. Christian and his friends appear particularly villainous in the apathy they show towards Dani’s suffering. For most of the film Christian, Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) seem to view Dani as a burden, an unwelcome distraction from their own pursuits and enjoyment. In an early scene we learn that Christian has already become tired of his relationship with Dani and views her family troubles as an unwanted strain and responsibility. His friends, particularly the obnoxious and self-centered Mark, view Dani as an encumbrance. In the opening scenes, after a distressed Dani calls Christian, conveying her fears about her sister’s safety, Mark reacts in a way that is cold and dismissive. He encourages Christian to break up with her, reminding him that he could be spending his time with other young women who are more preoccupied with fun and sexual exploits. Even before the death of her family, Christian and his friends perceive Dani as being prone to paranoia and hysteria. Dani seems to be aware of this and attempts to conceal her own anxieties and grief. She attempts to maintain an appearance of normality by attending parties and accompanying the boys to Sweden. She tries to avoid appearing like a burden or a killjoy, feeling pressured into taking psychedelics even though she is worried about the effects that they will have on her.
Although Christian initially seems to be a benevolent character, his actions betray a darker side to his character. He appears determined to play the part of the ‘good guy’. He wants to appear to be a good boyfriend and a loyal friend, but throughout the film we see him consistently undermine those around him. Although he tries to be good partner to Dani, he often treats her in a way that is cold and disinterested. He is also not above betraying his friends. He is unapologetic when he steals Josh’s thesis idea and in his attempts to appear magnanimous and fair, he betrays his often calculating and selfish nature.
The danger of suppressed grief is an underlying theme throughout Midsommar. Dani’s decision to sacrifice Christian at the end of the film can be read as her trying to free herself from a society that requires her to conceal her pain. In the company of Christian and his friends, Dani is forced to hide her trauma and pretend that she is a normal college girl. It is very telling that after her family is killed the narrative jumps forward several months, essentially skipping Dani’s period of mourning. Around Christian and his friends Dani feels unable to express her emotions and this leaves her incapable of talking about her family.
The need to run away from uncomfortable situations and feelings is a recurrent tread in Dani’s character. When Pelle tries to start a conversation with Dani about her family’s death, Dani is unable to cope with being reminded of what she has lost. She runs from the room so that Pelle does not see her break down. On route to Sweden she hides in the bathroom of the airplane as she allows herself a moment of weakness. When she feels the effects of the drugs her reaction is to run away from the group. It is clear that she has become so accustomed to hiding her feelings that she is unwilling to show her trauma in front of others.
A defining characteristic of Pelle’s community is the almost celebratory embrace of grief and distress. Throughout the film Pelle is shown to be the only one of Christian’s friends to try and engage with Dani’s grief, encouraging her to talk about her loss. The indifference Christian and his friends show towards Dani’s suffering appears completely alien to Pelle’s character. From Pelle’s point of view grief is something that should be shared. This idea is central to Pelle’s community. He tells Dani that he was only able to cope with his parent’s death because he had the support of his community. Although it is hinted that his parents were killed in a sacrificial ritual similar to the one seen at the film’s conclusion, Pelle still finds solace and a sense of belonging in his community.
Throughout several points in the film we see the strange, communal wailing that the commune engages in. Dani’s wailing on the phone after she receives the news of her sister’s actions is similar to the community’s crying and expression of horror and grief. When Dani witness’s Christian having sex with a young woman from the community, her first reaction is to run away. However, the women follow her and surround her, mimicking her distressed cries. This communal show of grief is most significantly shown as the end of the film, during the human sacrifice of the outsiders and several members of the community. In this scene we see Dani embracing the community’s ways and she seems to finally find a moment of release in this practice.
The ending of the film is deeply ambiguous. We can read the film’s conclusion as Dani’s acceptance of a life in the community. It would be difficult to imagine Dani leaving the commune after what she has experienced so we can assume that she decides to stay and make a new life there. In an earlier scene in the communal dormitory we see Dani and Pelle pictured with images of crowns above their heads, seeming to signify that they will become leaders in this community. The fact that Dani becomes May Queen may also represent her indoctrination into the community and signify that she will go on to play a leadership role. It is in the killing of Christian and his friends that Dani is truly freed from her past. While the commune may at times be a brutal and dangerous society, it is also a community that is accepting and compassionate towards Dani, allowing her a chance to fully engage with her trauma and grief.
Credit for cover photo to npr.org.
Other photos to bustle.com, esquire.com, joe.ie, mauinews.com, prospectmagazine.co.uk, refinery29.com, variety.com, vox.com, vulture.com.