At the heart of Midsommar, the new eerily sunny horror movie from director Ari Aster about a modern-day fairy tale gone off the rails, is a toxic relationship between a man and a woman. That might sound like overstatement given that a) the relationship initially appears as an anemic, go-nowhere union all too common in twentysomething lives; and b) because it’s set against the backdrop of a batshit Swedish commune full of weirdos participating in an ancient pagan festival that somehow successfully marries the vibes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre with The Sound of Music. And yet, among ritual suicide, disemboweled bears and cultish human sacrifice, it’s male indifference and emotional disconnect that stand out as the real problem.
The basic setup is this: Christian (Jack Reynor) and Dani (Florence Pugh) are an American couple on the impending fritz, mostly because he’s sick of her emotional baggage. And while she has more than enough reason for that baggage, Christian, a coldly smug anthropologist who can’t pick a thesis, is largely indifferent to the emotional experiences of others, especially hers, and is barely able to tolerate this inconvenience. After all, he’s struggling to succeed academically. So when one of his pals in the anthropology group, the Swedish Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), suggests they all go to his hometown to check out the once-every-90-years summer festival of his commune, Christian decides to keep it a secret from Dani so the dudes can all go together, do research and maybe bag some Swedish babes along the way.
Christian isn’t the worst of boyfriends, but he’s recognizable to anyone who’s had an excruciatingly middling relationship: Just enough to check the boxes, never enough to feel like you’re really cared for. No matter how much Dani apologizes and contorts her emotional experiences, Christian always finds a way to let her twist about, supporting her just enough that she can’t accuse him of doing nothing. He consoles her while she sobs, but he still bails to attend a party. He forgets her birthday. He doesn’t care when some friends start turning up missing, because, again, he’s doing field research.
His male friends are equally self-serving. There’s Mark (Will Poulter), a horny doofus who would nail any woman that moves, yet his response to Dani is largely to complain about her particularly needy brand of chick hassle. (After Dani has called Christian again during a boy’s night out during a family crisis, Mark, who convinces Christian to dump her already because, among many reasons, she “doesn’t like sex,” exclaims that her second phone call, is in fact, “abuse. She’s abusing you.”) There’s also Josh (William Jackson Harper), a nerdy fellow anthropologist eager to do field research on his thesis on the June European tradition of Midsommar with no regard for trampling on boundaries or privacy. For instance, he’s told to absolutely NOT photograph the commune’s religious artifacts — and then, of course, does it anyway.
Meanwhile, Pelle is essentially the cultural ambassador to this experience, eager to have his American friends see the deep familial connections of his commune up close and personal during its rare traditional summer festival. But he also sees the opening between Christian and Dani as an opportunity to White Knight the situation and offer a little sleazy comfort to her toward his own ends.
In other words, these guys aren’t really friends. In fact, they’re quick to betray each other and exist merely as friend-adjacent — if that’s a comment on how many male friendships exist out of nothing more than convenience, it works.
The group’s journey to Sweden, replete with the most realistic mushroom trip possibly ever portrayed on film, transports them back in time to a medieval existence short on modern amenities but long on Old World charm. Here’s where the film’s unsettling juxtapositions strike in swift succession. In Pelle’s hometown of Harga, there are beautiful rituals of a cappella song and consumption, always with fresh flowers and food on elaborately set tables. The costumes alone are a hippie’s wet dream, intricately embroidered and so unstained they could be in a medieval Cheer laundry detergent commercial. The Hargas dance, sing, and significantly for Dani, deeply enmesh in each other’s emotional experiences, matching each other guttural utterance for guttural utterance in theatrical unison. (Christian ultimately begrudgingly invites Dani to join him after she finds out he’s going, and she accepts, much to he and his friends’ dismay.)
That emotional availability, however, is nowhere in our trio of male characters, who only seek to experience and acquire with distance and no real risk. As such, the men observe and brood, wrestling with how to play it for their own gains, sexually or academically.
And just as today we find men suffering enormously for the inability or unwillingness to engage with their feelings, it’s the cold, rational individualism of Christian, Josh and Mark that stands in stark contrast against the unifying, emotionally open groupthink of the Harga commune. Specifically, between Mark and women — they’re only conquests. Between Josh and the very culture he aims to chronicle — they’re only information to absorb, deconstruct and reconstitute for academic success. And between Christian and everybody else — they’re merely bit players in his world.
Because the men lack any deep connection, they’re easily separated from each other, becoming increasingly more distant as they each become aware of what the Hargas intend to do with them, which, among other things, includes an impregnation ritual and a little human sacrifice.
Among the reasons the ending of Midsommar is controversial is whether the film’s victims meet justifiable ends. But one possible reading is that no matter the horror or grim customs of the Hargas, what they remain throughout the film is connected to nature, each other and the emotional truth of the experiences they share, even if those experiences seem horrific to the outside observer, and are carried out to a psychotic, Kool-Aid-drinking degree.
From the opposite side of the spectrum, total emotional disconnect in life or love — coldly pursuing understanding without heart, loving without ever caring — is shown to be equal madness.
Maybe then, the point is that we’re all mad. If that’s the case, I’d probably choose human sacrifice and emotional mirroring over the shitty boyfriend. Or perhaps the fact that I think that after watching Midsommar is part of the film’s success.
Either way, when Pelle asks Dani if Christian makes her feel truly “held,” we understand intuitively what it signifies in the human experience, what her grief aches for and what the grieving heart may go to great lengths to understand so that it can heal and move on. We also understand she’ll never get it with Christian, which is how, in the true seductive fashion of any cult, you may find yourself nodding at the end at what she’s willing to sacrifice to get it.