Major spoilers below.
All hail the May Queen. In Ari Aster’s sophomore follow-up to last year’s brilliant Hereditary, the horror moves from the claustrophobic space of personal grief and madness to the brightly lit, never ending smiles of well-intentioned Swedish pagan cult members in Midsommar.
After a major personal tragedy, Dani (Florence Plugh) is invited on a trip with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his grad school friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a Swedish exchange student who’s family the group is going to visit for the midsummer festival, which only occurs every 90 years. Josh and Christian are treating the trip as part of their anthropology thesis, while Mark is mostly there for the Swedish girls. Pelle seems to be the only one welcoming Dani as part of the group (Dani and Christian’s relationship is clearly on the fence), telling her he’s glad she decided to come.
Aster is great at turning his settings into their own characters. The house in Hereditary took on the properties of a creepy doll house. The small Swedish village in Midsommar becomes something both welcoming and terrifying, a sense of comfort and a nightmare in broad daylight. It’s inescapable. At the same time, you don’t really want to leave.
This dichotomy resonates in how each character takes in the horror of what they witness in Hargar, and how Aster uses grief and humor once again to tell his tale. On a personal level, Dani is dealing with major trauma along with a boyfriend who is emotionally distant. She’s horrified at the events in Hargar, but as her relationship with Christian falls apart, she finds a community of women who take her in, even if it’s disarmingly co-dependent. Whenever someone is in pain, the villagers mimic the cries as a form of empathy, creating a chorus of hypnotizing grief and celebration.
The villager’s willingness to participate in ritual suicide and murder speaks to larger systemic problems, especially in the way everyone ignores what’s going on. In one particular instance, a woman screams off screen. Everyone hears it, but no one investigates. Josh, Christian, and Dani are horrified when they witness the ritual sacrifice, but in the case of Josh and Christian, it’s brushed off as a cultural difference and an event to take note of for their thesis. In other instances, this willingness to ignore the obvious is played for humor: a bear in a cage is only acknowledged by a simple throw away line — “so we’re just going to ignore the bear?”
Ultimately, Midsommar is an extreme break up movie. But the disturbing events in Hargar becomes the backdrop for how grief can take hold of you when left unexpressed. Dani never gets the proper support from Christian, so falls in with a group of people who believe taking on everyone’s pain and/or joy alleviates it. An argument can made that Hargar’s people are experiencing their own form of grief, but because of the hive mind-like behavior of the villagers, that grief goes largely unnoticed by the people. In this way, no one can really ever move on.
Dani might be crowned the May Queen, and she might get her revenge on Christian, but in reality, there’s no happy ending here, not when the larger parts of society take you in with a smile and lots of psychedelic drugs. That’s the ultimate horror of Midsommar — the willful ignorance of a society hellbent on pretending like everything’s okay.