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Is ‘Midsommar’ a Female Empowerment Fairy Tale or an Ugly American Nightmare?

Ari Aster’s shocking, ambitious follow-up to ‘Hereditary’ has a lot on its mind. But how it communicates its themes isn’t your standard horror movie fare. Did it bite off more than it can chew?

A24/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

About four years ago—before he’d found success with his 2018 debut feature, Hereditary—a Swedish production company approached the aspiring filmmaker Ari Aster with an idea for a horror movie. “Torture porn” was still in vogue (in some sense, it’s never not) and the company was envisioning a Hostel-style movie involving “American tourists going to Sweden and them being killed off during Midsummer,” the summer solstice festival with deep pagan roots. “I had never before written anything for hire and I can’t really imagine myself doing it again,” Aster recently told Vulture. But he found a way to make the assignment a private creative challenge: Aster was then going through a breakup and wanted to write a movie that was at least obliquely about the emotions he was experiencing. “So as an exercise,” he said, “I sat with the idea and I said, ‘OK, is there a way to, like, take the money and find a way to smuggle a breakup movie into this?’”

Somehow, there was. Midsommar, Aster’s second feature, is a glaring, waking nightmare of a movie, an unsettling commingling of the huge, overwhelming terrors that haunt our psyches and the tiny, cumulative ones that pester our everyday lives (spoilers follow). It is as much a horror story about a Swedish cult as it is a horror story about having a shitty boyfriend. Florence Pugh stars as Dani (who Aster has called “a kind of surrogate for” himself), a 20-something graduate student dealing with the aftermath of a sudden family tragedy; Christian (Jack Reynor) is the insensitive guy who was just about to break up with her before the tragedy happened. Christian and his PhD-aspiring bros (who, in Aster’s deliciously caustic worldview, aren’t nearly as brilliant as they believe themselves to be) have been planning a trip to Sweden, partially to try to get some anthropological inspiration for their dissertations but, as it’s also indelicately stated, to try to score with some blond Scandinavian babes. Christian, in the end, will get his wish. He will spend his last moments alive wishing like hell that he hadn’t.

Midsommar earns the distinction of being perhaps the first movie ever to warrant the description “The Wicker Man meets Waiting to Exhale.” As Aster explains in the film’s press notes, “The initial image that sort of catalyzed Midsommar involved the sacrificial burning of a temple. I got excited about fitting the ‘breakup movie’ in a new setting, putting an operatic spin on the rote sort of cathartic ending we’ve seen in those movies before—you know, where the jilted protagonist burns the box containing all the items she collected over the course of the relationship she’s finally liberated herself from.”

But is the ending of Midsommar actually cathartic? For days after I saw it, something about it left an ashen taste in my mouth.

Look, it’s undeniable: Christian sucks. He is a hulking embodiment of white American male entitlement, and Reynor plays him with fine, knowing calibration, like a Seth Rogen from hell. “You’re an American,” one character says at one point, “just jam yourself in there,” and Christian spends much of the movie doing just that. Across Midsommar’s two-hour-plus run time, we see Christian repeatedly deny Dani’s emotions, steal another student’s thesis, speak insensitively of Dani’s mentally ill sister, pressure Dani to take hallucinogenic drugs when she’s sure she’ll have a bad trip (one of the gravest of all party fouls!), talk about her incessantly behind her back, and all other manner of what we might in the modern parlance (in which this movie is definitely fluent) call “microaggressions.” Like his more humorously awful friend Josh, Christian is a closely observed avatar representing the worst parts of modern American masculinity, and the film finds a wicked delight in the moments when things finally stop going his way.

But is he so terrible that we want to see him die? And not just die, but be drugged into oblivion and lured into a questionably consensual sexual encounter, placed inside the still-warm carcass of a grizzly bear, and burned to death in an excruciatingly slow-paced public pagan sacrifice? Even for a garden variety shithead, that’s a bit much. Aster himself has admitted that Christian isn’t the worst guy, and he’s “decent enough that he doesn’t leave” Dani after her parents and sister die. In the end, as he endures indignity upon indignity, I could imagine the audience’s sympathy slipping dangerously in his direction.

Maybe that’s fine. Midsommar isn’t engineered to be a simplistic tale of male misbehavior and female strength, and thank god(s?). “Dani is empowered—but she’s also not,” Aster says in the press notes, speaking of the film’s ending and the division of power that, by the end of the movie, has gradually tipped from the American men to the Swedish women. “There’s a balance between men and women in Harga, but women clearly have more power. Some of the guys in the movie are jerks, but I didn’t set out to make a polemic on toxic masculinity. That said, this eventually reveals itself to be a story of female empowerment, albeit one that’s bittersweet and not exactly clear-cut.”

Through the force of her complex, engrossing performance, Pugh brings Dani’s many ambiguities to light. As she did in her 2016 breakout film Lady Macbeth, the 23-year-old British actress creates a character so humane and likable at first glance that it’s disorienting when you realize she is still capable of unspeakable things. Grounded by the realism of Dani and Christian’s relationship, Midsommar has a way of making the customs of modern American heterosexual relationships seem almost as absurd as the Harga’s courtship rituals. One of the film’s ultimate ironies is what sets Dani off toward her ultimate revenge against Christian is one of the only misdeeds he isn’t solely responsible for—his participation in the sexual ritual into which the Siren-like female members of the Harga have lured him. As baroque and darkly humorous as this set piece is—it’s got to be one of the most emasculating sex scenes in the history of movies—it registers to Dani’s eyes as good old American infidelity.

In this scene, and a few others, Midsommar reminded me of another movie I have lingering mixed feelings about: Luca Guadagnino’s recent remake of Suspiria. “It’s a film about women trying to build up private sources of power because they aren’t allowed to have them publicly,” Guadagnino’s screenwriting partner David Kajganich told The New Yorker last year. Both films depict, in their dramatic final acts, scenes of secret rituals involving naked and occasionally grotesque female bodies that elicit some combination of shock and uncomfortable laughter. And to some extent, both use female characters as avatars for their male creators—a method of cross-gender representation that sometimes works in more naturalistic senses but in other cases (as when it’s trying to make any sweeping gestures toward “the divine feminine” or going overkill on the vaginal imagery) falls flat.

Aster’s previous movie, Hereditary, struck a rare balance between piercing visuals and forward-moving plot. If Midsommar is the slightly weaker film it’s only because, at least for the last 45 minutes or so, narrative lucidity plays second fiddle to shocking images. The pacing becomes too abrupt. Dani’s evolution into the May Queen—and her shift into identifying with the Harga—seemed to me to be missing a few beats. It makes Christian’s brutal death feel more like the inevitable machinations of the movie rather than the motivations of a legibly evolving character.

“For the guys in the movie, this is a folk-horror movie,” Aster has said, “but for [Dani] … it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy, it’s like a fairy tale.” As powerfully as Midsommar starts out, I’m not sure Aster finds a way to weave together those disparate threads in the end. Aster has said his initial cut of the movie was around four hours long; Midsommar would not be the first time a filmmaker tried, with his sophomore film, to do a bit too much. It’s more subtle than the crushed skulls and flayed bodies, but what Aster has proved with this movie is how good he is with the horror of the everyday. The scariest parts of this movie are the most banal: Dani’s lack of an emotional support system, Christian’s culturally sanctioned entitlement, and the mutual terrors of codependency. Aster has said that he’s planning on moving out of the horror realm for his next movies: He told Vulture his future plans include “a big domestic melodrama” and “an absurdist dark comedy.” But I bet he’ll find the latent horror in those spaces too.