“Do You Feel Held?”: How Midsommar (2019) Carves its Grief

People in the fictional Hårga commune carve runes and tuck them under their pillows so they can dream and manifest what they have written. Words have power, but more importantly, the act of writing or carving gives that word power. The choice to represent something is thus as potent as the representation itself. The word ‘death’ is an excellent example of this, particularly for Midsommar, which argues that death is not a single event because it stretches outward and manifests in different non-verbal ways. Some look at the word ‘death’ like an invitation, as though talking about it makes it real. The Ancient Greeks, for example, were allegedly afraid to name Hades in case they summoned him by mistake. Fear of death becomes fear of the word, and the grief that word carries. This begs the question, what comes first, the word or the thing? The representation or what it represents?

Midsommar focuses on the relationship between image and person, with particular emphasis on grief. It suggests that rather than being afraid of death, people are afraid of facing what death leaves behind. Talking about death summons more than that terrible event, it manifests a personal reckoning with those already gone. In the film’s most visceral sequence, for instance, Dani watches an elderly couple jump off a cliff, smashing their bodies onto the jagged rocks below. She clutches her mouth with one hand, and dives for her boyfriend’s hand with the other. Her boyfriend is too shocked to comfort her, and so Dani stands and watches, wide eyed, with the rest of the commune. It’s noteworthy that Dani later collapses this event with the death of her family in a dream sequence, as Dani was only present for one of these events. She wasn’t home when her family died, she wasn’t there to witness anything. Her detachment from this tragic event is one of the reasons Dani struggles with her grief throughout the film. All she has is the word, the representation, not the actual thing. No one, not even herself, is willing to talk about this event directly, she just hears about the death and receives her sister’s foreboding email. That is until Dani reaches the Hårga commune, as they have a different perspective on death. Dani begins dry heaving any time she tries to talk about her family, because her words and what they represent has begun to overlap, which means that if she were to discuss death, she would evoke it somehow. The commune, meanwhile, witnesses and appreciates death because it’s never used in vain.

The film goes on to argue that death must be witnessed and spoken before it can be felt completely. These things make it real, otherwise, grief buries itself, existing in this strange half state inside a person, like Dani. The deceased is left unspoken but always there, dead but not released. These issues around representation, silence, and grief all blend into Midsommar’s ongoing comparison between death and rebirth, but more importantly, its attention to due grief. To define, due grief is what every grieving person must contend with, and the longer you push it back or neglect it, the more difficult it is to reconcile.

“I am sure it was just miscommunication.”

Dani is unable to talk about her grief, so the film uses images to fill in the audience. The characters’ environments and icons thus reflect their emotional state, as other characters are also unwilling to be truthful around Dani. Background images are the most obvious example of this communication, and the film introduces this emphasis in it’s very first shot. The film opens with a mural which summarizes everything in the film. It organizes the characters, who we have not met yet, into specific iconographic orders and symbols which go on to influence the plot. Pelle is depicted as a Pied Piper, leading the ignorant rats/characters to their deaths. Mark is the fool, Josh holds a book, and these symbols repeat themselves throughout the film. Reading the image, left to right, it begins in winter with the death of Dani’s family. Dani is center in the first panel, surrounded by her family, who feed off her with long tubes. These tubes all circle down towards a skeleton in the lower corner. This panel illustrates that Dani is caught in a putrid cycle, twisted with the dead. Their poisonous gas – from the car engine which killed them – spills into her as they leech her voice. The second panel depicts her in a field, sobbing, while her boyfriend stands behind with a hand on her shoulder. It’s as though her tears are watering the plants, foreshadowing her role as the May Queen in the film’s final act. The third panel dissolves into the fourth as she and her ‘friends’ arrive at Hårga and are picked away for the rituals.

The mural eventually parts to reveal a snowy forest, illustrating that we have begun in winter, just as the mural depicted. This begs the question, which came first? Mark, as an example, is already a fool before he arrives in Sweden, according to this mural, and is associated with that title before we even understand what that means or is destined for. The film gives us this summary before it introduces anything, and so it seems to imply that the icon came first. The representation before what it represents. Like a rune manifesting something after being carved and hidden under a pillow. That approach is deeply troubling, as it would mean that the characters are already on specific paths which they cannot escape from, or even perceive. But the audience can, and that is why we get these images and symbols around the characters. They cannot discuss what is happening around them, or what they are experiencing, but the icons can. The runes and images evoke it and make it true.

Midsommar opens with several shots of a snowy forest. There is a low chanting, and a dark ominous tone. It’s something out of fairy tale, something old and archaic whispering in the woods. Then suddenly, a loud cellphone ring. The film abruptly cuts to a sprawling suburb, the apparent opposite to this forest. Modernity invades the frame, leaving the audience with a discordant taste, like nothing is quite right. Things are invading and jarring, much like the news Dani is about the receive. We then float into a dark house, and pass Dani’s parents. Her father’s chest moves up and down so subtly; death has not arrived just yet. The film introduces Dani after these establishing shots, just as she rereads her sister’s troubling note, one which specifically mentions that “everything’s black” and that she is taking her parents with her. This introduction sets up an important issue which also plays into the film’s reception; how horror should look. Everything about this early sequence fits the traditional horror cannon, from the cellphone jump scare to the dark colouring. Dani’s sister feels overwhelmed by this darkness, as though it has no end other than death. But as the film goes on to illustrate, sunlight returns, and it’s as frightening as the dark.

Dani and her ‘friends’ make repeated comments about how alarming the midnight sun in Sweden can be, as it only sets for a few hours each day. This colourful style works itself into the film’s reception, as many audiences joke that it’s the most colourful and bright horror film out there. It also takes place during the day, the time when people are usually safe in horror cinema. Bad things generally happen in the dark because it’s easier to hide and conceal danger, and thus adds tension to a film. Midsommar shows otherwise, as information and emotions are still concealed, and light becomes antagonistic. It’s a force which wants to expose everything, no matter how traumatic. Light and dark are not oppositional in Midsommar, they are just different seasons of the same story, like on the mural. There is therefore a truly sinister overlap between them.

Style and narrative are so interwoven in Midsommar, that the film and its reception consistently work together to create a broader commentary on power and agency. For example, during the scene where the police arrive at Dani’s house, only to discover her deceased family, the sound of the car horn bleeds into the soundtrack, becoming another violin in the score. Just for context, the car’s engine causes the first deaths in Midsommar, and is notably the only time a mechanical device leads to a character’s death in the film. By blending the source of death into the score of this scene, the film signals that its subject is not simply contained in the narrative, it’s inside the very form of that narrative. The film essentially moves the ‘show don’t tell’ message beyond a literary device, creating this secondary narrative inside the first. The horn continues throughout the scene, up until we pass over Dani’s sister, who still has this toxic feeding tube taped over her mouth. This horrific image reoccurs throughout the film and becomes directly tied to Dani’s silence and grief, as though she is mirroring her family’s last moments.

“As Hårga takes, so Hårga also gives.”

It’s noteworthy that none of the characters in Midsommar are concerned about dying, simply because they don’t see the danger until it is too late. Compare that with a film like Halloween, where characters are constantly running for their lives. The figures in Midsommar are more concerned about life than death. Christian wants to break up with Dani so he can move on with his life, and then later in the film, he decides to betray Josh by writing a similar thesis. Both moments highlight Christian’s willingness to sacrifice everyone around him to attain some potential future success. Josh, in turn, wants to finish his groundbreaking thesis, and break the community rules to do so. Mark is similarly obsessed with enjoying life and the moment, and consistently disrespects anyone who stands in his way. He pisses on the ancestral tree because he isn’t paying attention to the ritual which had just finished. Even Connie and Simon are focusing on their upcoming wedding. Dani is the only person not ‘living in the moment’ or working towards some future, as she has several flashbacks and nightmares about a past event she was not present for. She is also deeply concerned about being perceived as a downer, so much so that she chooses to sacrifice her life to please others. The end of the film goes on to suggest that there is a price to life, a literal sacrifice. Dani is spared from this sacrifice, narratively speaking, because she has already sacrificed so much by the end of the film. Her transformation is less physical than theirs. The other characters are not necessarily bad people, they just don’t like to be inconvenienced. Dani, meanwhile, accepts whatever decision her ‘friends’ choose, even when that causes her pain. For instance, Dani is clearly not ready to take mushrooms when they first arrive in Sweden, but she feels obligated to because no one else is willing to wait. The film eventually reverses this, as Dani becomes the active figure and the only person to survive from her group. She is the final girl, but there something far more complicated happening with that status.

Right before Dani discovers that her family is dead, we see her on the phone with her boyfriend Christian. She is rightfully terrified by her sister’s email, but Christian dismisses her worry and turns the situation back on her. He informs Dani that she lets her sister control her. According to him, Dani’s attention is a form of permission and the only reason her sister acts out. It’s such a damaging suggestion, especially as Dani’s sister is bipolar and still responsible for her own actions. But what’s worse, Christian plants this horrible concept in Dani, which she becomes more fixated with after her sister’s death. People are already blaming Dani for her sister’s actions before we even find out what those actions are. As a result of this comparison, Dani’s attention, permission, and guilt become so tethered that Dani worries that she can manifest bad things just by focusing on them for too long. Her worrying, from this perspective, is what caused her sister to murder everyone, so although Dani wasn’t present for these events, she is still involved with them. It makes sense that, after this tragedy, Dani is unwilling to fixate on these events or even the concept of death, as she already feels responsible just by thinking about them. Thinking about her family for even a second causes her to hyperventilate, as though she is trying to shove that idea where it can’t hurt anyone. This fear also causes Dani to stop using her voice just in case some dark thought emerges.

“Listen. You can’t speak. You can’t move. Alright? Good.”

Dani is not the only character who struggles to express themselves verbally, in fact, characters begin to lie and avoid talking whenever Dani is around. Background images and objects convey on behalf of these figures. The first time we see this is in Dani’s apartment, as she waits to hear back from her sister. There is a picture of a faceless woman staring at castle or tower on top of Dani’s door, just covering the peephole. It’s hard to make out details, but it seems to depict a woman with a long braid looking out towards this building and the bright blue sky. The faceless woman is present but already gone, as she is technically in the room but already looking away and is without any real features. This image embodies Dani’s sister, who has not been discovered yet, and is thus still ‘alive’ but not. It is also covering the peephole, so Dani cannot see what is on the other side of the door, or what kind of a person she is letting into her apartment. We could read this as a symbol for Dani’s lack of foresight in the later part of the film, as she is so disjointed by grief that she doesn’t notice how dangerous the commune or her relationship with Christian are. The second picture in this scene is behind Christian and his friends at the restaurant, and it’s the famous Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield photograph. Yet, there is something truly interesting about the specific shot that Midsommar features here. The more famous photo shows Mansfield leaning across a table towards the camera in a revealing dress, as Loren glares at her breasts, judging. Except that isn’t what happened at all. The photo became a global sensation, but also completely warped the women’s relationship and turned them against one another. Loren isn’t judging Mansfield in the photo; she was just looking over the table as Mansfield leaned over and was worried that her breasts might slip out. There is no animosity or judgement between the women, and there are several other photos from seconds before and after of the two smiling and laughing. Midsommar uses a less famous photo from that night, one where the women are smiling, and it does so knowing that most people only know the scowling shot.

This inclusion adds a whole layer of information to the scene, specifically to Christian’s conversation with Dani. It first seems like the photo just sexualizes the female body, as just below, Christian’s friends are trying to convince him to dump Dani and date someone who is less complicated. Having breasts right above this conversation illustrates that they are just interested in sex, the body not the person. However, knowing the context of this image, and this specific shot, complicates that reading. The image informs the audience that something else is happening to the female body, despite the men’s straight forward sexualization. The women aren’t turned against one another here, they are working together, much like Dani and the other women in the commune. It perfectly encapsulates the difference between male and female gaze in photography and cinema, as the image isn’t shaming anyone, but its mere presence acknowledges that there is a more sexist photo that it refuses to show. That refusal so early in the film sets up its later commentary on relationships and the female body, which is sexualized, but in a deliberate and conscious way. The film’s sexualization is incredibly warped and disturbing, especially when Christian sleeps with Maja in the commune. They are surrounded by a group of naked women of varying ages, who chant and push on Christian the whole time. The sexualization that lures Christian to Maja is there for a reason, it’s a performance, just as this photograph is sexualized and a conscious commentary.  

“We Describe it Like Emotional Sheet Music.”

When Christian tries to comfort Dani in her apartment, we get this incredible and heart wrenching shot. It might be one of the most difficult moments in the film, just because of how brutal and beyond words it is. Dani rocks back and forth with this guttural sob which is so rare in film. People scream in horror films, and go through all kinds of emotions, but crying often gets pacified. Actresses are repeatedly told to cry pretty in film, it’s why we so often see just a single tear or moment of anger in cinema. Midsommar refuses to cut away from grief, even as Dani herself tries to avoid and suppress it in the film. This shot, of Dani reacting to the news about her family, moves closer and pans across the living towards her and the window. There are no words in the scene other than “no”, which Dani cries out repeatedly between groans. But the shot composition speaks for itself, placing Dani and Christian between two sides of the room, caught in the middle.

There are two lights on either end of the sofa, one over some plants and the other over books. We see a poster above the books of a woman surrounded by fairies, reaching out towards the dark corner of the room. It’s a fairy tale or fantasy poster, and it almost looks like the fairies are feeding off the woman or dragging her down. Either way, she is being transformed in a rather chaotic and bizarre way. There is another picture above the plants, a lunar piece with two moons and the lunar rotation. One moon shadows the other, perhaps mirroring Dani and her sister, and the darkness which shadow’s Dani. The two moons are further amplified by the light bellow, which draws two spheres onto the wall beside the poster, one near the ceiling and the other by the floor. The number two appears throughout the film, as things and people become coupled and linked. Even the earth, winter and summer, appears as a couple. I think the two sides of the room in this shot also lends to this reading, as Dani is caught between two perspectives. The books and fairy tale poster represents knowledge and alternative thinking, even the light fixture is curved. The other side represents the earth and consistency, as the moon’s path has already been determined on the poster, the plants are just below, and the light fixture is straight and unbending (compared to the fantasy side).

Dani and Christian are in the middle of these perspectives, and each side plays into later events. Dani and the woman in the poster are similar, as both are held down screaming, but still reaching out, almost transforming. Dani does transform at the end of the film, but she is not there yet. And so, the film balances the undeniable with interpretation, and sort of operates between these modes. Exactly as this shot establishes, with one side certain, the other a fantasy. Certain things will happen, like the seasons, but how we read these events is up to us. The elders in the commune do something similar, as they read the chaotic drawings of their child prophet and decide what his images mean. The film asks us to read what we are watching, and although that reading doesn’t change what happens next in the plot, it adds to our experience of it. The fantasy and lunar sides eventually unite in Dani, as she becomes more conscious of her life (interpretation) while also going along with established rituals for the seasons (certainty).

Following this crying scene, we see Dani huddled on her bed, facing the wall. The poster above her depicts a little blonde girl with a crown kissing a bear on the nose. The elements in this image foreshadow the end of the film, as blonde Dani is the May Queen and Christian is the bear. It’s noteworthy that in the image, the bear seems quite confused by the kiss, like it doesn’t know what to do with the girl’s affection or is just confused by the whole situation. Christian is certainly confused later when his girlfriend sentences him to death in a bear skin. That aside, the image also relates to the events of this specific scene, as Christian wants to break up with Dani but now feels obligated to stay with her because she is grieving. He, like the bear, doesn’t understand what to do with her affection. But Christian isn’t the only thing the bear could represent. It could also relate to grief, or some task Dani must embrace, perhaps something monumental which would take the same strength as confronting a giant bear and kissing it. Maybe Dani is the bear, as she is currently hibernating in her apartment, and shutting out the world. Or perhaps the blonde girl is her future self, the person she will become, waking her up with a kiss and leading her towards her destiny now that summer has finally arrived. That does play into a strange point about Dani’s apartment. The poster is another fairy tale image, which Dani seems drawn to even before she leaves for Sweden. The film is a fairy tale too, which means that Dani is on a specific quest, like any fairy tale, and she has little control over that fact. Her ‘choice’ to display fairy tale artwork in her apartment is unconsciously tied to her destiny at the cult.

To Dani’s left in this bedroom shot, we see multiple dead plants, which relates to Dani’s current state, as she cannot care for herself let alone anything else. It also illustrates that Dani is surrounded by death and winter, even in June. All of that will change, as Dani becomes responsible for the earth as the May Queen and nourishes it with literal sacrifices. This single shot tells you everything about Dani’s current and eventual state, without a single word. It can mean several things simultaneously, and each could be true because ultimately, as the film later demonstrates, images show us what is true and unclouded.

“Unclouded by Normal Cognition.”

Pelle is drawing the first time we meet him. He draws in multiple scenes, little pencil drawings in his notebook which only Dani seems to take any interest in. Just before they leave for Sweden, Dani notices him drawing a little feast, but it’s actually the table in front of him, which is covered with discarded bottles and weed. He later draws a picture of Dani as the May Queen, complete with the two runes that appear on her dress during the Maypole scene. I mention this because Pelle draws from life, just what is in front of him. His drawing illustrates that he already knows that Dani will be the May Queen even before it happens, but that might not be as sinister as it suggests. During a conversation between the Josh and one of the elders, the elder emphasizes that their prophet is unclouded, seeing beyond everyone else. The elders make prophecies and decisions by decoding his images, so ultimately they decide what these images say, but cannot determine what the image looks like to begin with. This returns to that two model from Dani’s reaction scene, where one side has a determined and fixed gaze (the lunar map) while the other is up for discussion (fairy tale). But this again raises the question, which came first? The image or what we decide it represents?  We see images throughout the film, from Dani’s apartment to the murals and symbols around the commune. We receive little context about these images, and so it’s left to us to read them just as the elders read images. But it’s a difficult form of reading because you can never really tell how much of your reading reflects you versus what is actually there, and there is no way to distinguish.

The elder also explains that their prophet is a product of deliberate incest, which is not only horrifying but says something about the way the commune understands being unclouded. The prophet comes from something that is already there, a bloodline or connection that already exists. Nothing new is added to it, there is no diversity in it. It’s unholy and wrong, so what does that say about reading in the film? Keep in mind, you and the other elder characters are reading from what is already there too, and so the film’s environment represents this bizarre form of incestuous birth, constantly repeating itself and going from summer to winter and then back rather than introducing something radically different. I think this even relates to adaptation, as Midsommar draws from quite a few films about cults and demons, like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973). We see elements of these earlier films repeated in Midsommar, which uses that familiar stock to help audiences understand what is happening in the film. Take Rosemary’s Baby, for example, where everyone works against Rosemary, deceives her, and then she ultimately joins them. Something similar happens in Midsommar, except Dani is given an entire family, not just a baby, and this cult wants to hold her, rather than isolate her. Midsommar takes from what is already there and produces a new reading from it, borrowing from Rosemary’s Baby while also approaching its themes from a new perspective.

What happens to Dani’s family is beyond words, as though speaking it out loud would repeat that trauma. At no point in the film does any character directly mention the murders, it is always spoken indirectly or not at all. Even in the opening scenes, when Dani calls her boyfriend to tell him what has happened, we just get sobs. The camera cuts away before the police tell her about what they have found, and before Dani speaks to Christian. It is unspoken but everywhere, just like grief. Dani spends most of the film assuring people that she is fine, when she is clearly dealing with some serious trauma. The best way I can describe it is with a strange fact I found on the film’s IMDb trivia page. Apparently, there are no shots of the sun in the film, except for one in the director’s cut. The film takes places mainly in daylight, but we never see the sun directly. It’s everywhere, yet not specifically present. We see a few paintings of it, but never the literal sun. Dani’s grief and trauma operate the same way, as they are clearly there, but she can’t talk about them directly. It operates like a form of transgression, which is when something inside (suppressed) externalizes suddenly, and that externalization is fundamentally horrifying. I have spoken about transgression a few times on this blog, as it often appears quite masterfully in horror films.

A literal example of transgression would be a bone jutting out of a leg after someone hurts themselves in a film. Most people shrink back when they see this, because although they know we have a skeleton inside, being confronted with that reality is horrifying. Transgression is thus the act itself, the moving, not the object that is moved. It can also relate to symbolic things or thoughts, like some nasty idea hidden inside that suddenly verbalizes and frightens even the person who spoke. Constantly suppressing that horrifying material is the only way to combat transgression, which Dani does throughout the film. When Pelle is chatting to Dani just before they leave for Sweden, he mentions how sorry he is for her loss. Pelle is the first person to mention Dani’s loss in the film, and he frames his comment by saying that he can’t imagine what she is going through. The event is beyond words even to him, but he is still going to try. Dani’s posture completely changes, and she abruptly leaves the room before he can say anything more specific. She suppresses herself and her grief in this moment, leaving the room and pushing away that thought. We then get this excellent transition of her leaving the room and entering an airplane washroom, where she holds herself, trying to breathe again. It’s like the thought is catching her breath, holding it before she can suppress it again. Later in the film, Pelle asks Dani if she feels held by Christian, when in fact the only thing she is being held by is this painful grief. When she does let it out, screaming and breathing heavily, she finally releases some of that pain.

Dani’s grief always treads that transgressive border, just waiting for something to trigger it. When the group first arrives in Sweden, and decides to trip together, the earth swallows Dani’s hand. A few blades of grass stick out the back of her hand, rooting her to the ground. She isn’t alarmed by this, as Pelle informs the panicky group that everything in nature is “just mechanically doing it’s part”, and that includes them. The word “mechanically” is important here, as nature and machines are typically oppositional, especially as Dani’s family was killed by a machine. Air which should have been healthy and breathable was corrupted, turned into something toxic. And yet here, nature is a machine of sorts, a similar determined body. It also connects to Dani’s breathing, as her hyperventilating recreates her family’s final moments, so although she wasn’t physically present in those moments, the idea of this horrific event has bodily consequences on her. This sort of positions Dani as a machine herself, or a gear in something larger than herself. It’s almost like Dani has been removed from her system, or her family/support network, and no longer functions as she once did, hence her trouble breathing. By joining the commune, Dani is placed back into a functioning machine, multiple characters even comment that the commune is extremely organized and efficient, much like a machine. Nature operates in the same way, as a constant that Dani also joins with.

Dani’s trouble breathing extends into her conversations with people, as her ‘friends’ refuse to give her any time or space to breathe. During that mushroom scene, Dani asks if she can take the drug later, so she has a chance to acclimate and catch her breath. Her request disrupts everything, as no one is willing to wait, not even her boyfriend who makes some clumsy comment about how he can wait if she wants, putting the responsibly and blame on her. Dani eventually succumbs to peer pressure, again suggesting that Dani’s voice and breath are constantly mediated in the film. Dani is afraid of being too outspoken because she is terrified of abandonment and afraid that if she pushes too much, no one will support her, and she will have no structure or lung left. This means that there is a constant unspoken about Dani, whether it’s grief or her relationship problems with Christian. But the unspoken presents itself in a few different ways. Dani enjoys her mushroom trip until Mark says, “You guys are like my family”- that comment dislodges everything. She begins running away from the group, she can’t even face the term “family” without worrying that something transgressive will happen, that her inside might bubble up, that she might become too emotional around her ‘friends’. As she rushes to a dark cabin nearby, she begins whispering to herself, “No, no, no, don’t think that”, suggesting that her dangerous thoughts are almost at the surface. When Dani finally enters the room, and is alone, she sees her sister behind, still gagged with the long pipe, and then her own distorted face in the mirror. Both figures are gagged, as each cannot breathe nor recognize themselves in the dark, or as her sister phrased it in her email, “everything’s black”. Dani can’t even put a name to what she is experiencing without breathing difficulty, which explains why in a later conversation between Pelle and Dani, he notes, “I know what you are going through”, and she replies, “what am I going through?”. The answer: grief, and everything that word represents.

When Dani and Christian are chatting with Connie and Simon, another couple visiting the commune, Connie asks how long they have been together, and Christian replies, “three and a half years”. After an awkward beat, Dani corrects him, noting, “four years, in two weeks”. This might seem like a toss away demonstration that Dani and Christian are no longer communicating properly, and that Christian is not committed to the relationship, but it also suggests that Christian has not included the last six months of their relationship. I think that is the amount of time that has past since Dani lost her family, as that happened in the winter, and it is now June. Christian doesn’t account for her grief and has not been her partner since things got difficult. He can’t even light the candle on her birthday cake, let alone remember it’s her birthday. Although, I will say, when the candle is eventually lit, Dani takes a deep breath and blows it out, just as the film cuts to the next scene. Dani’s breath is returning the more she distances herself from this toxic relationship.

While Dani continues to struggle with her voice until the end of the film, by the latter half, Dani begins to understand how alone she really is, simply by comparing her relationship with Christian to the other people in the commune. When Pelle asks if she feels held by Christian, the film asks us to reflect on that brutal crying scene near the beginning of the film, noting that it’s the only time we see Christian holding Dani or showing any contact with her. Even here, the shot we get just before this crying scene is of Christian as he walks towards Dani’s house, afraid and reluctant to be there, which just plays into his later behaviour. He wants to leave the entire time he is there, holding her like it’s some burden that he is obliged to have. Knowing this, Dani’s nightmare where Christian abandons her is directly tied to her voice. As she stumbles out of the cabin, and watches him drive away, she opens her mouth and black smoke begins billowing out, as she screams “why”. That black smoke is the transgressive thought, and even here, Dani cannot say anything more than a question. She knows the answer, but she cannot say it out loud.

When Dani discovers Christian and Maja sleeping together, she collapses to the ground, vomiting almost immediately. Whatever is inside her is starting to emerge, her grief is getting too close. She tries to fight against it, but the other women hold and join her. They begin screaming with her, never as intense but still trying. It’s this beautiful display of shared grief, but it is also so frightening and human. Like the earlier crying scene, the film refuses to cut away, instead lingering on this grief. Except this time, Dani is not alone. The women don’t sooth her, they take her rhythm and feel it with her. There is something beautiful in that, as although no words are spoken, the grief is so beyond speaking but still being expressed.

“It’s Like Theater.”

Just as Midsommar positions objects and images, so too does it position people. I have already mentioned the scene where the women share Dani’s grief, but that is just one example of emotion mimicry which appears in the film. Dani’s trouble breathing is another example, mimicking her family and extending their pain. There are several scenes where the commune joins with other people by following their lead and their emotions. When the two ättestupa sacrifices arrive for a final dinner, everyone waits for them to sit, eat, and leave before they do. They are not actually sharing the pain, just performing it back at the person, sort of circulating the burden. It’s like the scene where the older women join in with Maja’s cries as she has sex with Christian. This positioning raises a further issue: agency. If these emotions are amplified in this way, who is in control of them? Does it still belong to one individual, or is this performance just warping that individual’s experience? In other words, who has the power in these sequences? The film informs us that Dani is in control very early on, although she doesn’t feel secure. During the party scene, Dani stands beside a man whose head is cut off by the frame. We assume this is Christian, as the person is standing quite close, and we can hear Christian talking off camera. But when the camera moves back, we see that Christian is standing apart from her, and that Mark is standing beside her, but is also so unimportant that his head isn’t in the shot. They are speaking over Dani, while Christian is not even in the picture.

This power characterization continues in the following scene, when Dani and Christian discuss Sweden at her apartment. When they first arrive, Christian sits at her desk and is shown in the mirror, while Dani stands by the door. Both face one another, but from different perspectives, thus conveying their distance. Dani also stands and takes up more of the frame as the dominate figure, while Christian is smaller in the mirror and surrounded by light, while she is in the dark. When Dani does move to the desk, she is still standing above him, and that positional commentary continues in the images on the wall. Dani has a whole collage beside her desk, and she and Christian stand between a photo of a man with his head in his hands, and another nearby. These photos are about shame, the figures can’t even look at the conversation between Dani and Christian because of how awkward it is. Above, we see a poster of a monster or dinosaur being attacked by a hoard of some kind, much like the fantasy poster in the earlier crying scene. Below that, a group of family and friend photos. These icons summarize Dani’s relationship with Christian, as at the top we have this monstrous fight, just below a collection of family and friend photos, and then the two shamed pictures. Neither Dani nor Christian can talk about these elements, or even have a proper fight, so the wall tells us what the characters are experiencing. The fight is the highest image and relates to Dani’s loss (the family photos), shame (the two photos), and fear. Perhaps Dani feels like she is being devoured by Christian’s manipulative behaviour, like the giant dinosaur being attacked by smaller beasts. As the awkward conversation continues, Christian moves closer to the door, looking out like the image over the peephole. Dani, however, is still the larger figure in this shot, placed in the foreground. In fact, Christian is rarely dominant in shots, and he is often shown at a distance or through a mirror, conveying that he is detached from Dani, and this typically happens when anyone mentions Dani. He might be in focus right before she arrives or starts talking, but when she does, he is pushed back slightly or becomes more uncomfortable. For instance, when he admits to his friends that he has invited Dani to come to Sweden with them, he is only partially shot through a mirror.

Dani’s relationship with Pelle is positioned in an entirely different way, just to really emphasize that he isn’t burdened by her presence. If you pay attention, any time Dani walks into a room, he turns to face her or smile at her. He even blatantly explains his plan for Dani during the car ride to Hårga, as Mark asks why Sweden is filled with so many beautiful women, and Pelle replies, “the Viking’s grabbed all the best babes from other countries and dragged them over”. The camera focuses on Dani as he says this, cutting just as he notes “dragged them over”, as Dani is not being dragged, but she is being taken. This car scene also establishes why the commune wants Dani, as Pelle has just implied that the population and land stays beautiful by what it brings over and integrates. Dani is like a resource in this situation, a source of new blood and beauty for the community. The commune has clearly pre-approved this joining, as each figure treats Dani a little different than the other group members. When Pelle introduces Dani to one of his sisters, she studies Dani, looks back at Pelle, smiles, and then smiles at Dani. It’s another unspoken element in the film, as Pelle and his sister are clearly planning something, but Dani doesn’t know what it could be. This greeting happens again when Pelle introduces the group to his father who shakes everyone’s hand but hugs Dani, and then stares right at her as he explains how happy they are to have them join their ceremony. Dani doesn’t have to prove anything to the commune, because it’s already been decided that she will join.

There are a couple of horrible implications to the commune’s decision for Dani. First, what happened to the previous May Queens? There is no point at which Dani encounters another woman who has been the May Queen, other than some pictures, so where are they? Perhaps the May Queen has her day, and then becomes just another figure in the commune, a person working for the collective good rather than the individual. Second, it’s made abundantly clear that the reason Ingemar brought Connie and Simon to the ceremony is because he doesn’t like them. There is a quick scene where he explains that the reason he knows the two is because he dated Connie right before she met her now fiancée, and there is some awkward tension, especially as Connie refuses to call it dating. It seems like he specifically brought people that he has a reason to dislike, or be jealous of, and thus wouldn’t feel bad about killing. Pelle was about to do the same, as it’s never explained how or why he is friends with Christian’s group, as he is quite different from them. It is possible that he didn’t like them at all, and that is why he brought them to die, except for Dani, who he has a crush on, and who is white, unlike Connie.

Perhaps the most relevant implication to Midsommar is the underlying white supremacy in the cult, which is never directly addressed in the film, but has been discussed in it’s reception, even by director Ari Aster. Dani is brought to Hårga with a specific intention, she is a resource and the only newcomer who survives the week, but notably, she is already looks like she belongs to the cult. She is blonde and white, what the commune already is. It’s also impossible to discuss this film without mentioning the current and ongoing white supremacy and neo-Nazi movement that is misreading and abusing Nordic mythology, runes, and general history, especially in places like the US, which is the film’s target audience. While Nordic literature and history were never my area during my Masters, I knew multiple colleagues who were constantly having to explain just how dangerous and blatantly incorrect this modern usage is, and why elements of it are being redefined in such a harmful way, along with what those elements historically meant. I want to make it clear, the film’s ending is not happy, even though Dani is. The film is criticizing this cult and its mentalities, particularly the white supremacy that is undeniably present, especially with their obsession with blood lines. I highly recommend reading Noor Al-Sibai’s discussion on this, especially as the film’s popularity often neglects this perspective, instead going for the ‘good for her’ reading of the ending, which feels extremely inappropriate when taken seriously. Midsommar might be a metaphor for breaking up, but there is a lot more going on, so to reduce it just to that reading is a more than a disservice.

“So. We’re Just Going to Ignore the Bear Then?”

The environment becomes utterly disorientating once Dani arrives at the commune, as the sun rarely sets, and the plants seem to grow and breathe in multiple scenes. The film introduces this with an extraordinary tracking shot, where the road flips upside down, and everything becomes reversed. The sky is at the ground, the road and trees above. But one notable feature in this sequence is the poster advertising the Hårga festival, is shot upside down. We have entered this fantasy realm, where nothing is secure, and things and people transform. That is because nature is in a constant half state in the film, or as Pelle suggests, it is a hermaphrodite, both male and female simultaneously. It is never just one thing, it is constantly doubled, and that half state appears in several moments. The opening ritual emphasizes moderation and hybridity, as the Priestess declares, “This high my fire. No higher, no hotter”, just between those states. The elders also emphasize that life is a process of recycling, giving life through death. It’s why each of the bodies is given to the earth before they are burned at the end of the film. A leg sticking out from the ground, Simon flayed like a bird, Connie drowned and bloated with water, Mark filled with straw. Each death represents a specific blessing to the land, from the harvest to livestock and the environment itself. Dani even repeats a version of this when she blesses the land as the May Queen, as she and her attendants fill a hole with an egg, meat, and dirt.

It is interesting that the only person to notice that there is something very strange about this environment is Mark. Mark is immediately alarmed by this landscape, and then disrespectful of it. He vapes when they first arrive, he is terrified of ticks, he doesn’t like that the sun never sets, and pisses on the ancestral tree. He might be one of the more infuriating characters in the film, but he does recognize that something weird going on that the others aren’t aware of. Mark draws the audience’s attention to how strange, and occasionally violent, the commune can be, and although he is disrespectful, he continually emphasizes that this landscape is warped, and not just in a European way. He is the reason we notice so many of these halved states, caught between two orders. He is even transformed into a scarecrow, filled with straw, by the end, and is thus both body and earth. We also get these double states with Simon and Dani’s father, as both are still breathing slightly as the camera falls on them, Simon in the chick coop and the father in his bed.

One crucial element to the May ceremony is its dark banishment. When Dani approaches the Maypole, her new friend informs her that the dance initially began when the Dark One cursed the villagers to dance until they died. The commune now dances in spite of the Dark One, which is a whole commentary on depression and Dani’s dark winter. The Dark One is later personified during the fire, as the Priestess approaches Christian, calls him a beast, and then commands, “we banish you now to the darkest recesses, where you may reflect on your wickedness”. This moment is a form of repression, but rather than repressing Dani’s grief, they are repressing the person who dismissed that grief. Christian becomes a symbol for darkness and dismissal, thus becoming more of an icon and representation than a person. He transforms into a literal bear, which the commune has already dismissed in an earlier scene. When one of the characters asks why the commune has a bear, the tour guide just shrugs and notes that it’s a bear, nothing more. Christian’s placement inside the bear skin collapses him onto this dismissal. However, Christian’s name also makes this dismissal religious. The pagan commune is dismissing and repressing Christian or Christianity, as Christian has proven multiple times that he is willing to take credit for other people’s work, to throw people away when things get difficult, and to warp the truth so he is never to blame. We could read this as a reference to monolithic Christianity, but I’ll leave that to you. 

Christian is unable to scream or move once the fire is lit at the end of the film. He is reduced to the same state that Dani experienced, where she couldn’t move on with her life nor speak. But more importantly, Christian is not given the right to scream, like the other sacrifices. Two members of the commune are burned alive with Christian, but they receive yew, which supposedly stops the pain. It doesn’t though, and they begin screaming as the fire reaches them. Their screams are amplified outside as the commune thrashes and screams with them. I think the yew is just a hallucinogen to help their nerves, and not some trick, but either way, Christian is not given any. He is drugged but still experiences the pain, and his screams cannot join the commune. They do not perform for him as he is the repressed. It’s also Dani’s decision to sacrifice Christian, as she is given the chance to sacrifice a total stranger instead of him. But she doesn’t, she chooses to repress her past life, and the symbol of that, to join this new life with the commune.

There is an excellent reading on the runes used in Midsommar, and it explains the two runes most often found on Dani. When Pelle draws her portrait, he includes the Raidho and Dagaz runes, although notably, the Dagaz rune is inverted, which according to Jo-Anne Rowney, means that it has an inverse reading. The Dagaz rune usually means rebirth and dawn, but inverted, and placed next to the Raidho rune, which relates to death, its meaning changes. One thing that isn’t noted on the site is the inverse Dagaz looks like an hourglass to Western eyes, and so although it seems quite grim beside death and inversed, I think there is another reading here. The runes also appear on Dani’s dress during the Maypole dance, and they seem to suggest that Dani and any hope for rebirth is defined by death. Rebirth isn’t this bright and happy thing, it’s an inversed (back and forth) painful labour that takes time. Dani is defined by these cycles of birth and death, summer and winter, and neither can fully distinguish itself from the other. The Hårga commune might be constantly sunny, but the events of the previous winter weigh on Dani and integrate themselves into the summer. Dani sees her family in the crowd just after she is crowned, and her sister is briefly shown as a hillside in one of the shots, suggesting that Dani is responsible for this environment, and that her grief carves it like the commune carves runes.

“Do you feel held by him?”

Midsommar begins with death and ends with rebirth, or more specifically, making something from death. Rather than just creating life, it sets up the next generation without following that generation, like the harvest and Maja’s unborn child. Rebirth also acknowledges death, it’s not the opposite of it, as there is death within rebirth, and vice versa. There is something beautiful and sickly about Dani’s fate, and you can’t help but be momentarily happy that she has found a place, and that she finally feels held. But at the same time, this film is a satire and commentary about cults, so this ending is not a celebration.

Dani’s transformation into the May Queen rejuvenates the commune, as the moment she receives her flower crown, the flowers begin breathing with her. She is held by nature and the Hårga people, but it is also important to note that Dani brings life to what is already there. She doesn’t invent it, the flowers and people already exist, she just distorts and gives them some version of power. Dani also understands Swedish during her dance, as she has already been acclimated to this world. By the time one of the women mentions to Dani that “You are the family now”, that fact is already clear. But note the phrasing here, “the family” not “you are family”. Dani, at least momentarily, is the living embodiment of that rebirth and the village, and she does sort of give birth in the final moments of the film. As the fire ranges, we see Dani dragging her flower mound/dress across the lawn, moaning as though she is in labour. She is so overcome with the flowers and nature, their grip on her, that she can barely move. The others dance around her, screaming and punching the air, and Dani joins them for a time. Then she stops, turns, and smiles. She has stopped fighting and can breathe easily now. In fact, her smile mirrors the creepy sun’s smile in the mural which opens the film, implying that her transformation is complete, and she is now reborn as this sun icon.

Every character becomes an icon rather than a person, and so Dani’s smiles signal that some transgressive and horrible breath has finally crawled out and finished this ritual. That iconographic status is made even more apparent by the song which closes the film: Walker Brother’s “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)”. This song contrasts the prior music in the film, which is mainly chanting and in Swedish, versus this more contemporary American song. It’s not a bad thing that the sun is going away in this context, I think it relates to the constant state of change and hybridity that the film focuses on. The sun is going away because winter is coming, and the seasons are changing because of Dani’s role as the May Queen. The cycle continues, and one day Dani will be the one to jump off a cliff in the ättestupa ritual to bring life into the earth. Dani is no longer overcome by her voice; she is the words through which the world manifests itself, but the price for that is unbelievably steep.