Ari Aster’s second feature film is a gruesome occult movie, where below the surface lies a heart-breaking drama about coping with grief. In this article, I take a deep dive into the film’s structure, the symbolism and the meaning of it.
Ari Aster proved himself to be a keen, auteur voice after the groundbreaking directorial debut Hereditary (2018). An unpleasantly hypnotizing is what I’d call it, and its ominous atmosphere owed a lot to the climatic score and set designs. The American director skillfully blended a moving family drama with elements of pure horror, and far was this concoction from derivative. On the contrary, Hereditary (2018) appealed to many more viewers than suckers for ghosts and gore only.
One year later, Aster premiered his second feature film, Midsommar (2019). As if building on top of Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019) too explores the theme of grief.
Although it is not as meticulous about hidden symbols as Aster’s debut, nonetheless some parts and concepts used in the film were clearly subliminal and cerebral. Below, I lay out some of my thoughts and interpretations – make sure to comment and share your thoughts at the end of the article.
What is Midsommar (2019) about?
Let’s recap the plot first.
In Midsommar (2019) Ari Aster delves further into an abyss filled with pain that he found curious in Hereditary (2018) a year back.
On one of her regular days, Dani (Florence Pugh) sits in her room, waiting for her troublesome sister to get in touch. Stressed out, she calls Christian (Jack Reynor), the boyfriend who’d rather sneakily scurry home than end the relationship properly. Soon the day turns grim when Dani learns about her entire family’s horrifying demise. With no close person other than Christian, she leaves behind her own dignity just to stick with him.
Christian, on the other hand, has already planned a trip with his uni buddies. One of them – a Swedish student named Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) – suggests his home village Hårga as their destination. All of the buddies study anthropology and the old traditions of the Midsommar festival seem perfect to explore and document. Although he’s unwilling to bring Dani around, Christian eventually convinces his friends to accept her and go together.
Just when they arrive in the ever-sunny village, things go awry.
Dani, the tormented protagonist of Midsommar (2019)
Dani’s is the tragic protagonist of Midsommar (2019). Her nerves and stress fuel the willful subjection, and a desperate call for help. She is lost, she is hurt and makes your heart break.
Why does she never try to leave the village or break up with Christian?
What motivates Dani and how is the character designed?
The pivotal part of her character is the fear of being alone. Dani is in so much agony that the notion of being without a shoulder to cry on is just paralyzing for her. So paralyzing that staying with Christian, in spite of all the gut punches he delivers, seems a better investment. It’s hinted early on, when Christian manipulates Dani by telling her the trip to Sweden was supposed to be a surprise (when actually she’s a fifth wheel).
The perspective from which Aster tells the story is therefore of someone completely lost and solemn. Although that perspective shifts often, depicting the events from multiple angles as seen by various characters, Dani’s unnerving, defines the disturbing vibe of Midsommar (2019). The palpable unease lets us wear the shoes of Dani – feel the wreckage that she became.
Roots of her drama are found in the devastating, long take, where Aster hints at the horrifying death of Dani’s parents and sister, peeking at three bodies with gas pipes glued to their mouths. A scene later, Dani’s grueling weeping meets with Christian’s cold “it’s going to be alright” -type pat on her shoulders.
The combination of the two moments describes the break-up drama that Midsommar (2019) orbits around. Even when Ari Aster introduces Dani, the girl is already immersed in a state of worry, as if suspecting something happened to her sister.
From that point onwards, the protagonist can never recover from her wounds. She tilts at windmills in order to prevail at Christian’s side. Dani’s trapped in a detrimental relationship, but bad publicity is better than none, which in her case translates to Christian the douchebag being better than no douchebag at all.
That desperate call for support rings a bell, because Aster used a similar design for Toni Collette’s character in Hereditary (2018) too. But the novelty, and therefore the difference between the two, stem from the endgame for each one.
Collette is possessed, a victim of her mother’s curse, hence her fate’s been sealed and she has no real grasp of what’s going on. Meanwhile Dani succumbs to the last resort choice – the cult – in order to find any kind of helping hand before she makes the final jump. And theoretically, she did have a way to act differently.
Moreover, Aster partially builds the horror in Midsommar (2019) around the fragility of the Pugh’s character, but also the inability to react and fight back. One could view it as a sadistic whim of the director, to subject the poor girl to humiliation, misery and dread on such a scale, without a way to stand up for herself. Dani perseveres without exhibiting any negativity or anger. She acts like sheep for the slaughter, at some point becoming too numb to even care.
Here Aster arrives at a conclusion that we all have our borders. Even the most good-willed person can withstand only as much, before reaching a point where nothing matters anymore. As the last sentences taken from Ari aster’s script of Midsommar (2019) say,
“She has surrendered to a joy known only by the insane. She has lost herself completely and she is finally free. It is horrible and it is beautiful.”
Indeed, that last smile Florence Pugh indicates that Dani has rid of doubts and gave in to the cult completely. That’s the completion of the tragic transformation of the protagonist of Midsommar (2019).
Because all she ever wanted was warmth, and attention from Christian. What she gets is evidence that the bridge’s been burned and there is no way to cross that river. In that sense, Midsommar (2019) is, indeed, a break-up drama. A drama about two people unable to let go, for varying reasons, which eventually leads to more pain and further contortion of their bond.
According to director Ari Aster, the background story for Midsommar (2019) is rooted in his own break-up.
“I needed to write a break-up movie, because I have just gone through a break-up. And I saw a way of passing it through this sub-genre, the folk horror genre, and marrying those two things.”
I could argue though that the portrayal of Dani’s transformation is the only flaw in Midsommar’s (2019) narrative. Pugh’s character remains inadvertently stubborn and naive, a combination which loses its strong credibility over time. An obvious thing to do would be to leave the whole occult village, leave the asshole boyfriend and run for herr life.
However, she wades on into the grueling abyss of pain.
And so here I arrive at the next point of my analysis of Midsommar (2019)…
Why do the characters in Midsommar (2019) never leave the village?
After watching Midsommar (2019) for the first time, the above question nagged me. Ari Aster expects us to believe that this academic group is dumber than a box of hair. Why do they all stay?
Upon a second viewing, my focus was directed at that precise issue – whether Aster hints at the reasons or not. And the answer is, well, pretty obvious.
When Pelle introduces the pack to his brother, they all kick off the trip with… a trip. Dani’s hours-long blackout, during which something had to happen, could hide the fact that the cult already found and chose her for the ritual. Notwithstanding, the moment they all get high constitutes the “unplugged” mode switched on, meaning that much of what we see later on is heavily enhanced or even created entirely as a drug-fueled hallucination.
Aster leaves bread crumbs everywhere to make that statement true. He even admits that in interviews – the mushroom trip is quite crucial to Midsommar (2019), and why the movie abounds in images of faces in the trees, and tiny weird rituals happening in the background. Drugs explain the overly bright sunlight everywhere, almost garish in its design. The intensity of colors and emotions can also be owed to the mushroom trip.
And if you wonder how come it is so accurate, ask actor Jack Reynor, who shared that he did his fair share of psychedelic drugs in his life, so he knows the drill.
Moreover, let’s remember about the perspective. None of the characters is sober, and we watch the events from their eyes.
That’s why Aster intentionally points at the unbearable stupidity of Christian and his pals. None of those guys really pays attention anymore, and they’re drawn to the luminous, strangely hypnotizing foreign culture. Some of them just want to get laid (like Mark), some fulfilling their nerd hunger (Josh) or are too hammered to rationally connect the dots and see what’s inevitably going to happen to them.
Foreshadowing in Midsommar (2019)
The director also uses foreshadowing to point out the roles played in the ritual.
For instance, children playing “skin the fool” predict Mark (the foolish jokester character) being turned into a horrific jester puppet. No better scene uses foreshadowing than the slow camera slide over a large folk canvas which reveals a vast part of the plot.
Other paintings and frescos serve similar purpose. Look closely in the bedroom house, and you’ll see two people having sex in front of spectators, a painting clearly referring to Christian’s mating ritual. And as Ari Aster, along with Jack Reynor and Florence Pugh said in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, “look at the walls and see what’s your interpretation“.
The Swedish folk art and culture in Midsommar (2019)
Make no mistake – Swedish people aren’t zany cannibals or ritualists. Nonetheless, much of the appealing visuals, art pieces and even particular motifs are very much embedded in the history of Swedish folk.
Let’s start with the meticulous design of the Swedish village Hårga, where most of the story takes place. The historical accuracy deserves an applause. Hälsingland, where Midsommar (2019) is set, has been known for its towering, wooden farmhouses, which are now part of UNESCO’s heritage.
As found on Wikipedia’s page on Hälsingland’s architecture,
“The Hälsingland farms reflect the rural construction techniques, using only wood, and are an expression of the popular architecture; the farmer’s way of building as it evolved according to the available means. To depict a general idea of the Hälsingland farm is difficult as they vary between parishes and periods of time. The uniqueness of these farms lie in the farmer’s ambition to build big. The farms have large and elaborately decorated dwelling houses, often two or three, sometimes housing several generations, whereas some houses were used only for festivities and others for sleeping, so called ”bed-cottages”.
And here’s a fragment about the frescos painted on the walls:
“Inside the farms houses of Hälsingland are magnificent and well-preserved interiors with art painted on the walls, stencilled wall decorations, and expensive wallpaper. Biblical motifs were transformed into Hälsingland milieu, funny stories and cautionary tales mixed in the artwork with the decorative style of the wandering painters from Dalarna, characterized by religious motifs, ribbons and large flowers.”
The impressive frescos are traditional not only to Sweden, but the entire Scandinavia. Rosemåling, as the whole style is called, is an art of on-wood painting technique, where floral patterns are used in geometrical shapes. Rosemåling pieces are often very colorful and quite stunning to look at. Aster and his crew were clearly inspired by Rosemåling, and incorporated its principles in interior designs, as well costumes.
Actually, Midsommar (2019) indicates that a lot of traditions, embedded in Scandinavian cultures, were researched for the film.
In one particularly blood-curdling scene, Christian finds one of the travelers Simon hanging half-alive in the chicken coop. What was actually done to the poor guy is a Viking ritualistic sacrifice to Odin called “the blood eagle“, where skin is ripped from the back in a way that the victim remains alive. It’s a ritual profoundly used in The Vikings (2013-) too.
If you ever watched The Vikings (2013-), then you probably recall the tattoos and symbolic inscriptions used by the Northmen. They are all parts of the Swedish folk culture too. According to Martin Karlqvist, cultural consultant of Aster, what we see in Midsommar (2019) is an amalgamation of historical analysis, their linguistic research made in the region and their own invention.
Other than that, Aster based Midsommar (2019) on an actual pagan celebration, which has its modernized form present today. The flower pole is built in numerous villages in Sweden, and the celebration includes getting pretty hammered and dancing around the pole.
However, no human sacrifices are performed, fortunately.
Occultism in Midsommar (2019) explained
We have already established that Ari Aster draws a lot from Swedish folklore, which is an obvious choice given the setting. And those elements, the folk art, the Rosemåling, and the Hälsingland setting, are all tools for the director to build credibility, but also support his beloved theme – occultism.
Occultism in horror movies is often reduced to vaguely sketched rites and masked cabals, and no deeper understanding of cults is provided in a vast majority of them. But Ari Aster has a thing for cults, and he perfected their portrayal in Midsommar (2019).
Occultism in Midsommar (2019) structures the plot. Most of the story converts into parts of a grand ritual of the circle of life. Dani, Christian and the others all play their part, though unwittingly, and their minute roles guide the audience through the complexity of ritualistic dances, and sacrifices. Impressive is Ari’s eye for detail, as he catches the candour of the cult, a hypnotizing type of manipulative bonding that instantly rings an alarm yet still makes you want to know them more.
The ritual of life and death
The Hårga ritual in Midsommar (2019) completes the circle of life, apparently renewed every 90 years according to Pelle. An elderly couple throws themselves off a cliff – the infamous Ättestupa – which marks the beginning of the actual ceremony. Over its course, the cult sacrifices nine lives in order to continue the circle. The seal is then made by Christian inseminating one of the cabal girls. Through the bloody ritual, the Hårga settlers connect with their Gods, and remain fertile.
When it comes to the cult itself, Aster avoids shortcuts or categorization of his own creation. The Swedish cult is far more advanced than the one in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), or even the classic The Wicker Man (1973). Despite the horror, the director takes a sociology-driven, almost anthropological approach. Midsommar (2019) works as a study of a closed-off community, as if Aster really visited those people trying to understand their violent (yet paradoxically peaceful) way of life.
While the cult’s devious rites are a bloody mess, Ari Aster can’t help but sympathize with that culture, at least partially. Their integrity is pivotal for the director, as is the cathartic ritual performed at the end. It is not the kind of sadistic cabal sacrifice made for a carnage-loving deity, but rather the final point of their life circle, a gloriously delirious fulfillment, as well as a guarantee to their’ tradition’s continuity.
Arguably, one could go as far as to say that the cultists embraced Dani as their own, healing her wounded soul and mind. And from the way Aster paints the rest of the characters, each of them asked for the eventual bane to come. As polarizing as it is, the Hälsingland cult didn’t draw satisfaction from the sacrifices.
Hårga – the setting of the movie
Hårga, which actually is a real place in Sweden, isn‘t – quite obviously – inhabited by a bunch of lunatics. But the place has been downtrodden by a poem, which actually mentions the Queen of May and a demon that tricks people into dancing to his fiddling until they all fall dead. Ari Aster actually admitted in an interview that this folk poetry planted the idea of setting the story in Hårga.
The magic of cinematography in Midsommar (2019) explained
Moving on to the technical side of the movie.
Cinematography by Paweł Pogorzelski plays an immensely important role in Aster’s design. The stuffy, dark rooms-centered beginning of Midsommar (2019) sets the brooding atmosphere, and catches one by surprise. After the bright trailers established expectations of a horror in broad daylight, Ari begins with gloomy, suburban setting.
This beginning is pivotal for Paweł Pogorzelski though. It captures the gloominess of Dani, the bleak lack of energy, all-grey-everyday routine that further poisons her mind. Pogorzelski establishes a convincing contrast by making the pre-Sweden part of Midsommar (2019) so unappealing, and then lighting the film on fire with brightness and richly diverse colors.
The natural lighting is of particular meaning, as it corresponds to the film’s title – Midsommar (2019) means the middle of the summer – and the celebration of the cult. Horrors got audiences used to seeing darkness as the flagged danger, however Aster proves light can be just as menacing and terrifying.
The Polish cinematographer has also incorporated a few neat tricks to make his work even more characteristic. Some camera movements suggest a break from third-person narrative, and place it among the characters. For instance, when Christian discovers the mutilated body in the barn, the camera shuts just as his eyelids, creepily moving the lenses from inside Christian’s head.
But the true craft of Pawel Pogorzelski lies within the scene framing. There are multiple stills from Midsommar (2019) when Pogorzelski really captures the moment.
The soundtrack by Bobby Krlic in Midsommar (2019)
The work of Bobby Krlic, who composed the Midsommar (2019) soundtrack, completes the disturbing atmosphere that Pogorzelski creates visually.
Audiophiles shall be pleased with the range of horrific sounds, and climatic string poems played out in the blazing sun of Sweden. String instruments lead the pack, constructed by Krlic as to extract the blood-chilling potential.
The opening track called Prophesy brings The Beauty And The Beast (…) and its classic fabulous beginning. Krlic then sets the mood with a ritualistic Gassed, a perfect, string crescendo that builds the anticipation until Ari Aster’s ready to reveal the film’s title. There is an outstanding power to this composition, due to the way Krlic uses Florence Pugh’s crying and weaves into Gassed.
Lots of Bobby Krlic’s work in Midsommar (2019) reaches for soothing ambient, and dreamy compositions which beautifully correspond with the otherworldly setting. Two sonorous tracks entitled The Blessing and The House That Hårga Built reflect the cult’s harmony and tranquility, as well as the closeness to nature and circle of life. Nonetheless, Krlic always keeps the uplifting notes bizarrely unnerving.
The composer creates a contrast between those mellifluous parts and the ambients blended with raging strings. Using the actors’ lines works perfectly for the setup made for Aster’s most uncompromising and unsettling scene too – Christian speaking the Hårga’s language of sex with the young redhead girl. The eerie humming instantly brings Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Johann Johannsson’s work on Sicario (2015), particularly a track called Alejandro’s Song.
Bobby Krlic’s pinnacle comes about during the grand finale of Midsommar (2019). A 9-minutes long crescendo entitled Fire Temple captures the dichotomy with which Aster likes to end a film. On the one hand, the score is uplifting, with its array of strings and soothing theme. Krlic achieves a nearly celebratory shape in this last part, which corresponds with what Aster shows. As we watch the ultimate sacrifice, the completion of Dani’s changeling, the death and the catharsis, it is the music that amps up the emotions. And just when you forget the horror of it all, Krlic breaks the beauty, with one low note constructed of dissonant strings, which serve as a wake-up call.
At the end of the day, the soundtrack of Midsommar (2019) leaves the same impression as the film itself – it crawls under your skin and hypnotizes, in order to reach the terrifying realization of just how forlorn it is.
Is Midsommar (2019) available online?
Unfortunately, Midsommar (2019) isn’t currently available on any of the popular streaming platforms.
Summary – Midsommar (2019) explained
Thanks for reading the analysis of Midsommar (2019). Do you agree with my thoughts or wanna rant how little did I understand? Go on, share your views on Ari Aster’s movie!
If you’re looking for more “movies explained” articles, here’s a bunch:
- Oscar-winning Parasite (2019) and its class divisions, the hidden Olympic medalists, and horror elements,
- German revelation Luz (2018), where possession gets a total cinematic makeover,
- Netflix original Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) which speaks volumes about the posh and the artsy