"In Halsingland women hold the power"YouTube/A24

Content Note: This article contains discussion of abusive relationships, drug use and sexual assault .

This article contains full spoilers for Midsommar.

Four months on from the release of Midsommar, Ari Aster’s hotly anticipated follow up to Hereditary, one particular sentiment has been widely shared: a cathartic self-recognition in response to the film’s depiction of a toxic relationship.

Aster has said in interviews that he got the idea for the film after a bad breakup, something many of us can relate to, which goes some way to explaining the explosion of Midsommar memes. A24 took note and spotted a cheeky marketing opportunity, announcing a promotional competition to win free couples counselling. For many female viewers, the film’s fiery climax has struck a chord: for them it represents Dani’s freedom and ecstatic revenge. Some have even declared Midsommar a modern feminist classic.

Midsommar is sinister, but also captivating, even exquisite

Like Hereditary, Midsommar is preoccupied with relationships and grief. Dani, rendered spectacularly by Florence Pugh, loses her entire family in an unthinkable tragedy at the start of the film. Her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) fails to provide any meaningful support to her afterwards. The audience first sees him in a diner with his college bros, one of whom, the boorish Mark, urges him to dump Dani, telling him he’s “wanted out of this stupid relationship for like a year now.” It is moments later that Christian receives Dani’s wordless, howling phone call announcing her loss.

One comment from Mark in this scene strikes the viewer as pointedly ironic. He claims Dani (who is shown to suffer from anxiety) is “literally abusive” for frequently asking Christian for reassurance. In fact, if anything the opposite is true: Christian gaslights Dani on multiple occasions and conceals the planned trip to Sweden from her, only inviting her begrudgingly when she confronts him. In Sweden, he is shown to be generally neglectful: he allows her to be pressured into taking mushrooms and lets her wander off as she’s having a bad trip, forgets how long they’ve been a couple when asked, and to top it all off, even forgets her birthday.

The other male characters are unsympathetic to varying degrees, except for poor Simon, who seemed like a perfectly nice guy, and Pelle. While Christian and Mark are obvious jerks, Josh is also shown to be insensitive to Dani’s wellbeing; when Dani asks him of the Ättestupan ritual, “Is it scary?” he raises his eyebrow wryly and says nothing. All three are deeply self-centred.

Pelle, in contrast, is kind and attentive to Dani’s needs. He remembers her birthday when Christian forgets, giving her a hand-drawn portrait as a present. In one major scene, he asks Dani of Christian the now famous question: “Do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?” Judging from the online reaction in some quarters, Pelle has achieved heart-throb status, but he naturally has a dark side. After all, he lured his friends to the commune to be sacrificed, foreshadowed in the painting shown before the film in which he is depicted as a Pied Piper.

Another factor behind the film’s feminist following is its foregrounding of female desire and subversion of the male gaze. Maja, the young Harga girl who takes a liking to Christian, aggressively pursues him, and after the sex ritual Christian flees fully naked from the shed, entirely exposed to the camera. The full-frontal nudity wasn’t in the original script and was Jack Reynor’s suggestion to redress the balance in a genre populated egregiously by screaming naked girls.

In Halsingland women hold the power; the leader of the festivities is the community’s matriarch Siv, who is the one to propose “a unique glimpse into our sexual rituals” to Christian. Even for an anthropology student, this is taking participant observation a bit too far. He balks initially, but ultimately acquiesces, and his occasional glances at Maja suggest some degree of interest.

However, this raises some disquieting questions. Given Christian is heavily drugged during the ritual, does this not constitute sexual assault? The emphasis on fertility, heavily regulated reproduction and the implied duty of the women in the community to bear children (though not to become mothers as we understand it: as one woman points out to Dani, childrearing is a collective responsibility) are also likely to give pause to the feminist spectator, not to mention the young age of Maja.


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It also raises the troubling matter of race in the film.  The sea of white faces greeting the group upon their arrival hinted things would not end well for Josh, Simon and Connie (not that the white members of the group fared much better, bar Dani) and the sight of runes and white clad Swedish neopagans is a profoundly uneasy one for obvious reasons. This connotation is pointed out more explicitly in the director’s cut, with Josh holding a book titled “The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark” in the car on the drive to Halsingland.

Midsommar is sinister, but also captivating, even exquisite. Part of its power to fascinate and disturb lies in this dual nature. Whether the ending is a happy one and whether Christian deserved his fate divides opinion.

However, it is easy to grasp why that final shot of Dani’s beaming face - combined with the shimmering beauty of Bobby Krlic’s score - has resonated with so many as an image of female triumph. After shooting the film, Florence Pugh posted a behind-the-scenes photo of her grinning on Instagram with the caption: “This is the face of someone who knows the ending.”


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