Where You End, I Begin: Thoughts on Midsommar
There are events in our lives that can and will happen in an instant, yet will stay with us for weeks, months, or years. These memories can remain with us the resonance after the final notes of a concert – or shadow us in pain. In Midsommar, this happens in the length of a phone call. Our hero, Dani, discovers that her entire family has been killed at the hands of her sister. The deaths are (relatively) quick, mostly painless for the involved parties. However, the aftermath – combined with the dissolution of her relationship with her boyfriend, Christian – is a slow process that lasts the length of the film. Midsommar gives us a few brief scenes, sheer moments before Dani learns of her family’s suicide/homicide. These scenes highlight her tenuous, crumbling relationship with Christian as it exists before the turning point. We see her carrying the burden of her sister Terri’s mental illness, an illness that is melting into her own. She frets on the phone with a friend over disturbing messages from Terri, while we receive clear shots of her taking her own medication. When she turns to Christian for help, he evades her calls and downplays Dani’s needs, Terri’s threats. It’s clear she’s internalized this dismal and sees herself as a burden when Dani confides to her friend, “But he never asks for anything from me! I've never even seen him cry! So, I'm the only one leaning!” But just as quickly, her friend retorts, “Or the only one opening up! The only one making yourself vulnerable. That's intimacy.” This is at the heart of Midsommar. Can we be vulnerable and maintain our integrity? That is, can we be vulnerable, truly open ourselves up, letting everything that lies inside spill out, and still be okay, still find the foundations of ourselves and our lives intact? In Midsommar, this liberation is possible, but the outcome is not freeing.
I wish this unnamed friend remained in Dani’s life throughout the rest of the film. But all we’re left with is Christian, who reveals himself to be largely useless, distant, and self-interested. The closest moment to compassion we see from him is as he stares blankly beyond the camera, while Dani cries painful, unhuman sobs after learning the horrible news. But as time goes by, Christian moves on; she doesn’t. He lies to her about his summer plans and makes half-assed excuses. Thus, she hides her emotional turmoil, crying alone in bathrooms and putting on a face while out with his friends. The rift between them has only widened. So why does Dani agree to travel to Sweden? She herself seems uncertain about this decision as she tells Christian’s friends. Perhaps she’s worried if she says no, she will then be left alone, decidedly split from Christian, even as the trust between them has eroded.
Dani has lost her family, by tragedy. But Dani feels as though she is to blame for this loss too. From the opening scenes, we know that she had taken on her sister’s troubles as her own responsibility. Terri haunts her throughout the film – at times literally. The moments we catch visions of her with Dani throughout the film are in instances of high stress for Dani, where her circumstances seem, for a moment at least, to teeter on the edge of safety and danger. After arriving in Sweden, Dani (somewhat unwillingly) agrees to take mushrooms with Christian and his friends. Her trip turns sour at the mention of her family, she tries desperately to be okay, only to catch a glimpse of Terri in the mirror where she should be instead. This sends her flying off into the woods. Dani’s fear of further abandonment is shadowing her. But deeper than that, Dani is afraid of becoming Terri – whether that means going “off the edge” (following in her footsteps) or acting self-destructively is unclear. More than simply grieving over her family’s death, Dani seems afraid of falling to the same fate as her sister in the form of losing control.
Unfortunately, the case may be that Dani was never in control to begin with. Once in Sweden, it quickly becomes plain that Pele and company are playing puppet-master with the foreigners in their little village. As the others are picked off one by one, Pele and company manage to manipulate Dani by giving her the one thing she needs: empathy. It would be easy to see Pele and by extension the village as embodying this. They welcome their visitors with flowers, laugh and drink with them, feed them, teach them their customs. And Pele plays at allowing Dani room for her trauma. When Dani (sort of) announces she is going on the trip, he immediately tries apologizing for her loss by explaining his own. The whole “my parents died in a fire” spiel is some sweet foreshadowing, but this could be read as intentionally triggering her. Later, he makes a point to press her on relationship with Christian, why she chooses to stay with him. He asks, “does he make you feel held?” Pele acts as a foil to Christian and embodies the village large. Christian is manipulative. But like Christian, Pele is manipulative. He just goes about it in a smoother, European way. They openly gaslight the visiting Americans and Brits, maintain a charade regarding the whereabouts of person and the location of the Ruby Rodder; Pele claims family is there for him, but can they really be, when you have a culture completely built around sustaining layers of lies and manipulation?
The Hårga manage to finagle Dani’s trust through this manipulation, then ultimately by drugs doled out on Midsommar to all the young women participating in their maypole tradition. It’s a fun little dance ‘til you drop competition to determine the May Queen. Interestingly, Dani manages to win through a moment of connection: her and one of the participants discovering they’re speaking Swedish together, causing the remaining girls to collide, leaving Dani the winner. She’s shocked. The group swarms around her, exhilarated, and Pele kisses her. “You are family now,” he tells her warmly. Earlier in the film, family had been a triggering word for Dani, but now, she is fine... until, after dinner, she catches a glimpse of Christian, also drugged, in the midst of a fertilization ritual. Finally, we see Dani cry with others. The girls of the village, they cry back, echoing her pain, making her “feel held.” But does it count when her companion never stopped her from looking in the first place? Does vulnerability count when this opening up, this exposure of yourself, is completely orchestrated and out of your control?
What is wonderful about Midsommar is, by the film’s end, it convinces the audience that Dani has made the right choice. That killing her boyfriend is acceptable, in fact good, and has provided Dani with closure. By no means am I trying to make a case in defense of Christian. He’s an asshole who will do whatever he can to shield himself from blame or from harm or from work. But Christian is not evil like the Hårga (quietly) reveal themselves to be. He’s just lazy and passive and a bad person, and this reflects in his position as a boyfriend to Dani. When we watch her smile that twisted smile in the last, it’s a twisted moment of vulnerability – completely contrasting her face, mere moments before, as she looked down at Christian and considers all the ways that he’s mistreated her.
In the end, Dani does become her sister, in a way. She kills her “family,” Christian. She’s been led on by delusions and made a choice that seemed like a good idea, that seemed necessary even. Even to the audience, it seems like a good idea. (Honestly, how can you not be even secretly happy that Christian burns up in that bear suit? [Lucille Bluth voice] Good for her.) We can ask ourselves whether Dani is in a better place, but it’s hard to say. What does it mean to love someone? Dani clearly loved her sister and her parents. She needs that same level of love and compassion, and the one person she needed (and wanted) it from could not give it to her. For now, she has found some release – as for liberation, this is less clear. The Hårga revel in cycles, the beautiful clockwork-like precision of nature’s order. Four panels precede Midsommar which outline the film’s story arc, suggesting an inevitability to every action that occurred. If Dani was never a free agent to begin with, is she just caught in the same web she started in? In this film, it doesn’t seem to matter. When you have nothing to lose, making one true act – however destructive – is ecstatic.