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Midsommar: unravelling the many meanings of Ari Aster's new horror movie


Hereditary director Ari Aster has returned with another creepy horror offering in the form of Midsommar. Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor star in this acclaimed chiller, and it's leaving people with a lot of questions. With spoilers, we unpick just a few of the movie's riddles...

It's a story of liberation

To recap, Midsommar begins with Florence Pugh's character Dani traumatised after her parents are killed by her suicidal sister. As part of her recovery strategy, she decides to accompany disaffected boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) on a visit to Sweden, where he and his boorish friends plan to attend a mysterious Swedish folk festival. Their reasons are many-fold – loutish Mark (Will Poulter) wants to get laid while bookish Josh (William Jackson Harper) wants to undertake research for his thesis. After all, this is the first time in 90 years the spectre of this particular festival has reared its head.

Upon arriving at the festival, complete with creepy, smiling individuals cavorting around in frocks and flowery headdresses, the group undertake a bad acid trip. This, however, is a mere portent of things to come, as the activities of the festival attendees veer into grisly, violent and murderous territory, further amplifying the wedge between Dani and Christian.

The movie culminates in an astonishing sequence that starkly contrasts the fate of the two central characters. With Josh and Mark out of the picture – both gruesomely dispatched and dismembered off-screen – the movie locates its real tension in the Dani-Christian antagonism. Throughout the movie, the bereft Dani finds herself oddly drawn to the pagan cult's perverted family unit, to the extent that she is eventually crowned the new 'May Queen' and must choose a final victim as a human sacrifice.

Against the odds, the most reluctant attendee of the group has found renewed purpose in life and becomes the new emblem of the ghoulish cult festival. But in an example of the film's cutting irony, horror and dark humour, it comes at a terrible price: in order to achieve her liberation, Dani must sacrifice the person who has neglected her the most, Christian himself.

Aster works in collaboration with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and costume designer Andrea Flesch to reinforce the surreal horror and humour as the movie reaches its endgame. The increasingly liberated Dani is adorned in the film's now-infamous floral dress, barely visible beneath the flowers, whereas Christian is stripped of everything – literally and figuratively. After being compelled to have sex with cult member Maya, he emerges naked and horrified into the sunlight, before being drugged, paralysed, placed into a bearskin and burned alive, as Dani watches, smiling.

In Aster's world, one person's punishment is another's freedom, and Reynor astutely observes this to be an inversion of the usual horror movie tropes, whereby a woman is persecuted and terrorised in the final moments.

"You see a lot of really nasty exploitation of females in films and horrendous sexual violence," Reynor tells Entertainment Weekly. "And you don’t really see that happen to the males in films very often. Midsommar was an opportunity to do something where the film exposes my character in a way that you don’t see actors in films — male actors — being exposed in films."

Little wonder the actor says he got horribly drunk after completing the movie: "I basically went from [the set] to the airport and I got f—king smashed... I said, ‘Send me on two flights home, don’t send me direct, I want to transfer, because I’m going to get even more f—ing hammered."

It's a commentary on toxic masculinity and destructive relationships

The movie foreshadows the endgame right from the off. The chilling opening sequence shows us the fragmenting nature of Dani and Christian's relationship before we even get to the reveal of the titles, emphasising both his sense of guilt over her welfare, and his inability to see it through.

This becomes very apparent in a brilliant shot where the camera holds tight on Pugh's face while talking to Reynor on the phone – it's clear she's feeling a contained sense of anger, disappointment and despair over his neglectful attitude to her welfare. Pressured by his friends Mark and Josh, it's clear Christian sees the relationship as a burden, but doesn't have enough of a spine to approach the situation head-on. The movie is therefore a takedown of lairy lad culture whereby a man's decisions are informed more by his toxic cadre of friends than his own intuition.

The rest of the movie plays out as the culmination of these fundamental mistakes. It's for good reason that Aster himself describes the film as "an apocalyptic break-up movie" – indeed, anyone who has gone through a disastrous break-up of their own will likely find the movie an even more uncomfortable experience than someone who's single.

It's more a black comedy than a horror movie

If the primary register of Aster's feature film debut Hereditary was white-hot terror, Midsommar is a more complex and multi-faceted experience. It's true the movie creates a sense of unease right from the start, punctuated with moments of explosively gruesome horror, namely in the cliff jump suicide sequence. But the woozy nature of the camerawork, the long takes and the surreal nature of the sequences at the festival create, appropriately enough, the sense of an elaborately choreographed ritual, into which this group of hapless Americans have stumbled, and for which they will pay with their lives. Certainly, the deadpan Poulter's reactions lead to a lot of chuckles even as we anticipate his inevitably horrible fate.

Reynor backs up the reading of the movie as a perverse commentary, citing Aster's unlikely inspiration. "A lot of people talk about the humorous elements of the film, and Ari and I are really big fans of [British satirist and Brass Eye creator] Chris Morris," he tells EW. "I think some of that culture of gallows humor informs what’s going on in the project. And similarly to Chris Morris’ stuff, particularly with Jam, as an audience, you’re sitting there and it’s a challenge. It’s like, you’re being asked, ‘Is this funny?’ ‘Is this funny?’ ‘Is this funny?’ ‘Is this funny?’ ‘Is this funny?’ I sat down the other night to watch part of the film with the audience and it was interesting to watch half of the people burst out laughing and the other half go, ‘What the f— are these people laughing at?'"

Certainly, the tar-black moments of humour, like the discovery of the hair in the pie (processed from the deceased Josh's remains, one assumes, although it's never explicitly spelled out), help earmark this as a very different tonal experience from Hereditary.

It's a commentary on cultural ignorance

This one doesn't require close examination: as embodied by the loutish Mark, we have a group of Americans ambling their way into a country – and culture – they don't understand, and fatefully pay for their mistakes.

One of the film's more humorously unsettling moments comes when the foolish Mark urinates against the cult's sacred tree, hastening his eventual death. Just goes to show, a little research and respect goes a long way...

It's a twisted celebration of family

At the beginning of the movie, Dani is traumatised by the loss of her family, but by the end she has gained one. Throughout, the festival members emphasise their shared bond, and it's Dani's relative vulnerability and innocence compared to her travel companions that seems to be her salvation. Starting the movie as someone who has lost everything, at the end she presides over the festival as their new May Queen, blessed – or cursed – with the ability to play god, and decide who lives or dies.

There is therefore something oddly triumphant in Dani's story, as the various characters become the substitutes for her late parents and sister. The famous screaming scene witnessed in the trailer is revealed not to be a moment of terror, but a cathartic expression of grief shared between Dani and the rest of the women. They all understand one another, and she is saved.

Interestingly, however, Pugh sees the end of the movie as an example of Dani's breakdown. She tells USA Today: "I thought it would be so interesting to have the love of her life in the building and she’s a kid looking at a firework. That’s how I imagined it, saying, ‘This is someone that’s completely gone now. She doesn’t realize what’s going on, and she’s just really happy the fire is going up.’ So when we shot it, that’s what I was trying to get at."

Aster, however, disagrees: "I wouldn’t agree with there ever being an iteration of the movie where she didn’t know he was burning. But there were a lot of scenes that were cut, and probably a few that helped illustrate she was losing her grip on her sanity, which you hopefully still see... It’s also her fusing with this community. She’s found people who are willing to feel what she’s feeling, and she’s able to just purge."

It's an anthropological study

The cinematography throughout the movie is placed at a remove from the characters – the male ones, at least. Whereas Dani is the compassionate centre of the movie, treated to close-up shots that craft a sense of intimacy and warmth, her male companions are often fully framed within a given scene. 

Just look at the early sequence where Dani informs the group she's coming with them on the trip. They clearly don't want her to come, Christian included, and the looks on Josh's and Mark's faces strike a note of sublime comedy as they daren't say out loud this is a bad idea. Aster's camera remains stock still at a remove from the group as they process the news, giving the impression that we're observing particularly unpleasant and ignorant specimens of humanity through a microscope.

This sensibility carries over into the festival scenes themselves, the camerawork gliding and soaring in a way that suggests some dark fate about to befall the male characters in the story. The movie compels us to question what is 'normal' and 'abnormal' in terms of human society and interaction, lending surreal oddness and cracked humour to what is surely the worst on-screen vacation in recent memory.

Has this made you want to see the movie again? Then click here to book your tickets for Midsommar, and tweet us your thoughts on the movie @Cineworld.