A Midsommar Night’s Dream: A Review in Conversation
By Erin McDaniel & Kaitlin Konecke
A Midsommar Night’s Dream
A Review in Conversation with Kaitlin Konecke and Erin McDaniel
In Midsommar, a new horror film from director Ari Aster, struggling American couple Dani and Christian travel with friends to a Scandinavian midsummer festival, where the strange customs of the locals turn from odd to terrifying.
Critical Darlings editors, Erin McDaniel and Kaitlin Konecke, sat down to talk symbolism, grief, drug use, and choice in this brightly saturated and unsettling pagan folk nightmare.
Literally nothing but spoilers from here on in!
ERIN: Many Midsommar moviegoers have been inspired to see Ari Aster’s sophomore effort after the critical acclaim of his first feature film, 2018’s Hereditary. What should a Hereditary fan know before going to see Aster’s next work?
KAITLIN: With two films under his belt now, we are beginning to see recurring elements and themes in Aster’s work. Particularly, the intersection of grief and horror, which features prominently in Hereditary and here again in Midsommar. As in Hereditary, Midsommar works as both a literal and symbolic film. Aster has given us another thoughtful, disturbing, beautifully shot (and wonderfully acted) film that will stick with you for quite some time.
ERIN: Stick with me they have, usually when I’m trying to fall asleep or when I’m considering whether or not a dress I want would make me look too cultish. While I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about both films, I feel better able to think critically about Midsommar than I could for Hereditary because-- as a horror film should-- I’ve wanted to turn away in fear from so much of it. My brain has tried to force a lot of images from Hereditary out of my mind because of how frightening they were-- Toni Collette’s Annie sawing off her own head, for example-- but I haven’t had the same experience when reflecting on Midsommar. In fact, there are a lot of moments that I want to go back and revisit instead of turn away from in revulsion. That might be my word of advice for Hereditary fans: Don’t expect this one to be “scary,” or perhaps, expect it to scare you in a different way.
ERIN: Much of the storytelling of Midsommar, both in terms of the plot and the visuals, is similarly untraditional. For example, we see a number of scenes shot through a mirror instead of directly facing the actors, others in which characters are moving backwards. Why do you think Aster chose to orient the viewer in this way?
KAITLIN: I have spent a LOT of time thinking about this. Clearly, it’s a purposeful design; everything in this film is thoughtful and filled with symbolism. Once we arrive at the festival, I think it serves to convey disorientation; the world kind of turning on its head. Prior to the festival, I think it may have been a way to demonstrate that these characters are not communicating with each other, or truly seeing each other eye to eye. And, of course, there’s just something unsettling about people walking backwards; we get into the uncanny valley.
ERIN: How much agency do you feel like the main characters in this story have? More specifically, how many of the events of the film do you think were carefully orchestrated by Pelle ahead of time?
KAITLIN: Oh, I definitely think it was 100% orchestrated by the Hårga, and Pelle brought them there knowing exactly what would happen to them. The moment we meet Pelle’s brother and see that he ALSO brought outside friends, it was like, “Oh, okay, they have very specific plans for these people.” I think it’s interesting that Pelle (and, really, all of the Hårga) were never scary, deranged, evil—any of the traits you would think to associate with cults and murderers. They were always friendly, and Pelle especially was almost benevolent, and was very sweet. This was not a horror movie in the traditional sense at all. I don’t think I was ever scared. Maybe just fascinated.
KAITLIN: One important aspect of the American characters’ indoctrination in Pelle’s community is the pressure to participate in ritual drug use. Do any of the characters really have free will after consuming psychedelics, and how do you feel that impacts the film’s ending?
ERIN: I don’t know-- I think this particular context was the only one in which either Christian or Dani were able to realize their motivations: for Christian, to be free of Dani without guilt, and for Dani, to find someone who mirrored her grief and could support her like a family member should. In America, and with each other, they were not able to have what they wanted. It was only in Halsingland that the people, and the environment, and certainly the drugs, allowed them to name and get those things.
KAITLIN: In addition to the rampant use of psychedelics, the Hårga clearly love a good tapestry. Throughout the film, we are presented throughout with intricate tapestries and other works of art that use symbols to hint at forthcoming plot points. For instance, at one point we see a series of illustrations that seem to show some sort of love ritual, and then we see that ritual pan out between Maja and Christian. How did the inclusion of these tapestries affect the way you watched the film?
ERIN: I was obsessed with the tapestries and in-scene works of art in this film, because they awoke an impulse in me that I typically try to ignore. Normally, when I see a film, I want a spoiler-free experience: Besides watching the trailer and taking in some general comments from friends or critics, I don’t read much about a film’s plot before I watch it. Ari Aster turns that notion of narrative secrecy on its head in Midsommar by presenting the viewer with a tapestry of many of the story’s major plot points in the first few seconds of the film’s runtime. It is a testament to Aster’s methods of storytelling that very little of Midsommar’s plot surprised me, and yet I was gripped the entire time I watched the film. Those will be a major focus in my rewatch of this film as I try to unwrap the many meanings in these carefully constructed Harga artifacts.
KAITLIN: It was so interesting to see the layers of symbolism. A pagan festival is built around symbolism, with runes and rituals, and then we see Dani’s grief represented in those rituals as well. Something that Aster did here (that he also did in Hereditary), was use facial disfigurement/decapitation as a narrative turning point. Things were weird from the get-go, but when the elders jumped off the cliff in a sacrificial ceremony, and the woman’s face literally flew off, that was perhaps the most horrifying moment. And Dani relives that moment in her drug-induced nightmares, making the connection of that horror with the tragedy that happened to her entire family. I love that Aster does this sort of slow burn before hitting us with a disturbing and cataclysmic visual. I find that the most gripping—his gore isn’t gratuitous, it’s twisted and he builds up to it. And then he punctuates that with close up shots of the character’s reacting to things before the audience gets to see what the character is seeing. It really builds this scary suspense with an insane climax.
ERIN: What did you make of that climax: Dani’s decision to sacrifice Christian instead of one of the Hårga?
KAITLIN: Aster has said that he wrote this movie after going through a breakup, and the film is ultimately about the dissolution of a relationship. The burning of the temple in the end (with Christian inside) was symbolic of burning a box of your exes’ stuff. So, it was a very extreme way to break up with someone. From the very beginning, we are supposed to identify with Dani and sympathize with her. We learn that Christian has been trying to end this relationship for a year, and just won’t go through with it (specifically because he worries he might want her back, which is incredibly selfish). When Dani suffers her tragic loss, Christian feels too guilty to end it with her, and so he half-heartedly stays in this relationship, but he’s not really present.
Ultimately, he is a bad boyfriend. But bad enough to die? I think I struggled here with Dani’s choice, because I don’t think I hated Christian as much as I was maybe supposed to. He did cheat on her, but it felt almost...passive? He was tripping on drugs that he didn’t want to take initially. So it didn’t feel like cheating in the traditional sense.
What are your thoughts on Dani’s ultimate choice? Did you feel like Christian was a bad enough boyfriend that she wouldn’t choose to save him?
ERIN: When Dani revealed that she and Christian had recently celebrated their four-year anniversary, I actually whispered, “Oh my GOD,” into my popcorn. I hadn’t reacted with that much surprise or revulsion when I watched a man smash in another man’s face with a mallet. Yet, I experienced this story in a frame of mind unaffected by 1) all-consuming grief, 2) dissatisfaction with my partner, or 3) psychedelics, so I’m able to understand both that Christian is not a great boyfriend, and that not all bad boyfriends have to die. Would I have made the same decision as Dani in my regular life? No. But I can understand how she would make her choice given her perspective at the time.
KAITLIN: I think the Hårga filled a void for Dani. She ultimately found peace and belonging among them. Particularly, I think the way they CHOSE to mirror her grief and pain (screaming and flailing and crying in reaction to others’ pain) was in stark contrast to Christian’s passive, half-hearted support after her family died. Dani was truly alone, surrounded only by Christian, who didn’t even really want to be with her, and his friends who clearly didn’t like her. Everyone in her life was just being polite and “putting up” with her. The Hårga actively mirrored her pain. I think that was absolutely what she needed to heal, so I understand how she became sort of indoctrinated at that point.
KAITLIN: Dani's grief from the tragedy of losing her family in the beginning is an undercurrent throughout the entire film, though she is often unwilling to address it head-on. There is a moment, after Dani is crowned May Queen, that she sees her mother in the crowd of Hårga congratulating her, but then loses sight of her. Why do you think Aster chose to add in that element?
ERIN: I think Aster wanted to show how, even in Dani’s happiest moment, the memory of her family and the grief of losing them so tragically is still close enough to make them real. Because he shows us this earlier on the trip to Sweden, as well-- like when Dani’s sister appears behind her in the mirror in the wash house, when Dani imagines her parents and sister dead on the rocks after the ättestupa, and when the mere mention of “family” rocks Dani out of a psychedelic trance and into a panic attack-- it’s easier to understand the appearance of her mother in the crowd after the dance around the maypole.
KAITLIN: I found myself really wanting more of that—her sister in the mirror, her mom in the crowd—because Aster does that so well. The film had two main narratives—Dani’s grief over the loss of her family and her bad relationship with Christian— and I’m not entirely sure they wove together seamlessly.
ERIN: To me, the storylines have a kind of cause-and-effect relationship: Because Christian is unable to provide Dani with the kind of support she needs after her family’s murder-suicide, their relationship fails. Perhaps we don’t see enough of the couple outside the context of the film’s events to know whether or not that’s the sole reason they weren’t going to work out, but that was the strongest link I identified between the storylines.
KAITLIN: Were you surprised by how much humor was in this movie? It was SUPPOSED to be funny, in many parts!
ERIN: Yes! But when I reflect on the moments when I laughed, I’m not sure if I was laughing because I felt so uncomfortable, or because I actually thought the scene was humorous.
KAITLIN: I agree. People in the theatre were genuinely cracking up at parts. But I didn’t find myself really laughing; the humor just didn’t connect with me, for the most part. My theater was really cracking up during the Christian and Maja sex scene. The general consensus among moviegoers, it seems, is that that scene was twisted and funny. But Gregory Marie over at Lithium Magazine wrote an excellent and insightful article about that scene that I encourage everyone to read! (You can find it here.)
KAITLIN: What was your favorite part of the film? I know it’s kind of twisted but, for me, I think the sacrifice ceremony where the elders throw themselves off the cliff was my favorite scene. It was just, like, “Okay, so this is the kind of movie this is.” Of everything, that scene has stuck with me the most. Could have been the face flying off. It’s just such a visceral and bizarre and deeply disturbing image. It’s powerful. What has stuck with you the most?
ERIN: Listening to Bobby Krlic’s score for Midsommar has reminded me of the staying power of the final scene at the fire temple. While it is not without a few screeching violins and horror film-esque changes in pitch near its end, the gorgeous, sweeping orchestral music that plays is in such contrast to the brutal events on-screen that I had to continuously remind myself that I was smiling like an idiot as I watched people being burned alive. That kind of juxtaposition lingers with me, forcing me to consider the idea that there can be beauty even within the terrible-- something that, again, my brain wants me to turn away from completely.
KAITLIN: What do you think is the ultimate message of the movie?
ERIN: I think this film is about the search for one’s family. At its end, Midsommar insists that family need not only exist within one’s bloodline, country, culture, or boundaries of what is “normal.” Instead, what allows us to call another person “family” is our ability, as Pelle might say, to hold them in the way they need to be held.
What do you think?
KAITLIN: Perfectly said! I love that analysis and I can’t top it, as I was going to say the message was, “Some men ain’t shit.” Your takeaway is much better!