On "Midsommar": Grief, Coping, and the Pagan View
Before I get started, I want to make three small notes. First, this analysis will contain copious spoilers, so anyone who has not seen Ari Aster's film and who wants to avoid plot spoilers should consider themselves sufficiently warned. Second, the analysis is not a scholarly analysis to the extent that this means that I've done copious and careful research. I am not a movie scholar and insofar as I'm some kind of philosopher professionally, I'm hardly one that should be consulted as an expert on the topics I'm about to discuss. In fact, I haven't even read other reviews of the movie! Which is okay because, thirdly, I intend this blog to serve more as a place to dump the things I'm thinking about that keep me from thinking about other things than anything else. (It perhaps also goes without saying that these posts aren't heavily edited and are almost exclusively written with two/three beers in me)
With those caveats in mind, let's get down to talking about the movie and what the reading I have on it.
Part I: A brief synopsis and a rejection of a naive reading
Ostensibly, Midsommar is a movie about an American couple--Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) and Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor)--as they travel abroad and visit the commune village of Swedish co-ed and fellow anthropology graduate student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Along for the trip are Christian's friends Mark (Will Pouter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) whose purpose in the film is to serve as comic relief and to highlight just how shitty Christian is (respectively). Along with the implicit promise of uninhibited European sexuality (TM), the group is also explicitly promised to witness and participate in a nine-day pagan festival that only occurs once every ninety years. However, as might be expected, the village commune is not as idyllic as it seems at first sight, the festival is not as harmless as the group would have hoped for, and the young co-eds are picked off one by one over the next nine days until only Dani remains.
On the basis of this synopsis alone it's clear that Midsommar has the formal structure of the basic slasher horror movie: young, good-looking people (everyone's good looking, of course) embark on a trip in search of pleasure only to discover The Other who serves as a stark reminder of 'abnormality' and acts as a correcting force against the hubris of the protagonists. Everyone learns a painful lesson and we, the audience, are humbled and reminded of the precariousness of life.
This reading is, I assume, intentional--it would be hard to imagine how it couldn't be--but it is the most surface interpretation of the movie. It is the first naive view and I think we should discard it fairly quickly. The movie simply doesn't play out as a straightforward slasher even though it has the bones of such a movie.
Rather than being a good reading of the movie, this interpretation only sets up the background against which we should be reading the movie. That is, I take it that the structure of the movie is intended to evoke precisely the tropes of the basic slasher movie so as to make us pay attention to all the ways in which it diverges from it. The most notable of these divergences is, of course, the fact that virtually the entire movie (with the exception of one crucial scene) takes place in full daylight. The horror of Midsommar is not one that comes out from the unseen or the unknown; quite the contrary, the horror is one that doesn't hide and one that we're forced to see. This is especially obvious when we take into context the scene of the two ritual suicides (easily one of the most painful things I've ever had to sit through). That scene and the choice of setting everything during the Aster is not only showing us that horror isn't hiding, but by making us see all the mutilation, gore, and violence, is signaling to us that we will see everything.
I take this to be a bold choice for two reasons. First, the dread and anxiety of most horror movies is primarily generated through the fear of the unknown--we are scared when we don't know what to expect and let our imagination fill the gaps. The monster (psychological or otherwise) obtains its power from not being seen, named, and classified. And generally, once it has been revealed the amount of anxiety and dread is significantly reduced: our fear has a definite shape, definite cause, and can now be studied, analyzed, and ultimately defeated. In general, the longer that a filmmaker is able to keep this tension of the unknown going, the more intense and more prolonged the anxiety in the audience is--thus, as a good rule of thumb, the sooner the audience sees the monster, the worse the horror movie.
Midsommar directly violates this rule of thumb. There is never any mystery about who or what is causing the horror that befalls our protagonists, every ritual is explained by the obliging villagers (To the extent that they themselves understand the rituals! There's very little hint of deliberate deception on their part!), and we see every horrible detail. In broad daylight. And, interestingly, for the most part, the movie succeeds! Even in that context Aster was still able to make me feel plenty anxious and worried about what was going to happen. Part of this is, no doubt, due to the fact that mystery remains even in the daylight (the audience is still behind a linguistic and cultural barrier after all), but it still stands as a testament to the movie that it could do this without resorting to the most common trope of horror: darkness. [That being said, I should say that there were definitely times when it seemed to me that the tension simply couldn't build because of how beautiful the surroundings were. I think this, too, was intentional and has more to do with what I take to be my favored reading of the movie, but it's worth mentioning here. I'll return this in a bit]
It should also be noted that the use of permanent sunlight here, while subverting the genre in one sense, also conforms to it in another. Namely, by setting the movie in a place where (even for a short time) there is no night, the audience is being led into a different realm. They're no longer in their familiar world of cycles, patterns, and predictability in which nigh follows day and day follows night. No, they have now entered into a world in which even basic assumptions and expectations (even the biological rhythms!) don't apply (this is also signified by the dizzying shot of the car as it drives to the village--we are literally flipped into a new world). So, in another sense, Aster is playing his cards very carefully and towing a fine line between subverted and satisfied expectations.
Anyway, back to the plot. Now, it's clear from the structural and visual cues that we should not interpret this as a standard horror film, but that we should read it against the background of one (at the very least). This bring us to what I take to be the second naive (though perfectly natural) reading of the movie: that the movie is an allegory for breakups and collapsing relationships.
Part II: It's not (really) about failed relationships
Given that the central framing device of the movie is the collapsing romantic relationship of our two protagonists, the ways in which they are so incompatible with one another, and just what a total piece of shit Christian is to Dani, it's natural to see their relationship and its downward trajectory as the central key to the movie. We can, for example, see Dani's willingness to sacrifice Christian in the final ritual (I said there'd be spoilers, right?) and her joyful smile in the final shot as the stressing the importance of righteous anger in the process of rehabilitation (the fire consumes and consecrates and then Dani's happy). Likewise, we can think of Christian's drugged participation in the fertility ceremony as the kind of loss of will that I've heard people express in justifying their infidelities ("it just happened!"; "I can't explain why I did it!"; etc.).
Now, these elements are in the movie and I don't doubt that at least some of the movie is intended to address just how painful and traumatic the death of a relationship can be, but I just don't think that this is the whole truth (or if it is, then I thought I saw a more interesting movie than I did). I say this for two reasons: first, it's important to note that Dani and Christian's relationship was failing before they set on their trip. We know from the very first scene that they're not happy and that the relationship is not sustainable--we see Christian and his friends discussing how Christian is planning on breaking up with Dani months before the trip to Sweden. In fact, we want them to break up because we realize how terrible Christian is to Dani almost immediately. If the movie were primarily about the tragedy and pain of ending this relationship, then there's very little to be said about it--the audience wants this relationship to end and we know that it would be a good thing if it did. It would be a different matter if the two were deeply in love and if social forces (pagan, magical, or otherwise) tore them apart (think Julia and Winston in 1984). That would be a tragedy and we would be pained for them and reminded of the fact that such a tragedy can befall us, too, because perhaps nobody is strong enough to resist all such forces. But the end of Dani and Christian's relationship is not that kind of tragedy. This is not to say that the collapse of their relationship is not painful or that it's not tragic--but that tragedy comes from somewhere else. I'll say more about what that source is shortly.
The second reason I doubt that the movie is primarily about their relationship is because it's hard to explain how the first scene (the winter scene) in which we see Dani's parents and sister die fits in. The scene is impossibly hard to watch and Dani's scream through Christian's phone when she realizes that her sister has murdered her parents is just agonizing (the only other scene that's had this effect on me is the scene in Hereditary). What is this scene supposed to tell us about the relationship or its failure? I recognize that it's possible that it could be interpreted as "the-reason-why-a-bad-relationship-is-maintained", but I think this sells it short. The scene is simply much too powerful than to be mediated by their failing relationship.
I grant that this isn't a decisive argument--I just think there's something deeply unsatisfying about that kind of interpretation and I think there's a better one in the offing. But let me slow down a bit. Even if we take it as the serious interpretation, consider the alternative ways in which the film could have conveyed the information that Christian can't possibly break up with Dani given these circumstances. Why show us the bodies? Why let us hear the anguished scream? Why have us experience the trauma? It's surely not to make us empathize with Christian! It's not as though we're rooting for Christian and then go through this to see why his hand is forced in this case. No, the guy sucks from the first time we see him on screen and we hate him for it. We feel sorry for Dani! And for two reasons: first, because she's lost her family, and second, because she, too, can't break up with Christian given the fact that he seems to be literally her only social and emotional support (despite his shittiness). We know that if the death of her parents had happened a couple of months later, she wouldn't have to be with Christian.
If this makes the scene about their relationships, it is only obliquely so. In fact, what I'd much prefer to say is that this scene is not at all about their relationship. Rather, it's about...
Part III: Trauma, Coping, Community
Trauma. Midsommar is, I believe, above everything, a movie about trauma and two different ways in which we can deal with trauma.
The key traumatic element in the movie is, clearly, the death of Dani's sister and parents. However, the specifics of her situation aren't terribly important. As grim as it might seem, it is simply a truism that existence entails the possibility of suffering. If one is extremely lucky, this possibly is actualized only rarely--the death of an elderly relative, periods of survived sickness, depression, and so on. For many people (the vast majority of people on earth!) this suffering will be much more frequent and much more intense. To be alive is, to some degree or other, to be made aware of death, pain, torture, prolonged illness, disease, starvation, failure, insanity, depression, and so on; most of it preventable, and almost all of it completely senseless. If this description doesn't ring true in any way, count yourself lucky for now (but brace yourself).
In any case, this is the kind of suffering that Dani is made to bear: her sister has killed not only herself, but her parents as well during a particularly bad (but from the outside typical) depressive episode. She has reached out to Dani and one can't help but recognize that if Dani had somehow been able to get a hold of her sister, the tragedy could have been avoided.
This, of course, is not to lay responsibility at Dani's feet. She is not responsible for what happened. However, we are lead to believe that Dani feels some responsibility for the event. In fact, I'm inclined to call bullshit on anyone who wouldn't feel any sense of responsibility, any pang of guilt, any thought of "if only I had done something!" in that scenario. We might agree that in the abstract Dani ought not entertain such thoughts, but there's something that strikes me as almost inhuman about such a reaction. [Philosophers might recognize that I'm making the same point that Bernard Williams makes in "Moral Luck" regarding the trolley driver] And this is no accident. It is precisely because we would and do feel that something horribly wrong has gone in the case when someone doesn't have these feelings that Aster is going to play with in the rest of the movie.
In any case, this suffering is Dani's lot. She must either find a way to cope or perish. By what means can she cope? What resources does she have? The first resource, of course, is the one already mentioned: she can internalize her pain and give it an explanation through the things that she could have done to prevent it. In other words, she can make sense of what is senseless suffering by appealing to her role in it--she wasn't there to help/stop/save her sister and as a result she bears the consequences of her weakness. The second resource is external: she has the group of friends and loved ones to whom she can turn in this horrible time. But who are these people for Dani? Well, they're Dani's therapist (who should not be discounted, but who doesn't seem to be helping too much) and the terrible Christian and his uncaring friends. This, again, is the tragedy of their relationship--he's thrust into a role of support and comfort that he's woefully incompetent in fulfilling, and she has nobody else but this bumbling idiot and his equally incompetent friends to turn to. In short, the tragedy is that that this is all there is for her.
So just in these first scenes we get the first main critique in the movie which can be put as a series of questions: what happens when inevitable crushing suffering finds you and you have nobody to turn to? What happens when it finds you and the only people around and your version of Christian and his friends? What happens if you're not lucky enough to have anyone better in your life? And, of course, the question that stands behind these: is this the only way to deal? [Note: maybe this doesn't worry you! Maybe your support network is a strong one! If so, great! But imagine anyway.]
So, we have, on the one hand, what I'll call "the modern" way of coping with life's senseless suffering: internalization and the network of support one has managed to build up.
On the other hand, we have the alternative as exemplified by the communal life of the village. They, too, are people who suffer senselessly. We know this because Pelle tells Dani that he, too, lost his parents and that it was the commune that helped him out and rescued him. But also because we know that they, too, grow old and have to have that earnest thought of death. So, they're not exceptional in the sense that they've found a way to escape the existential problem. What makes them exceptional is the way in which they confront it. But what way is that?
The first place to look for this is in the hard-to-watch ritual suicide scene. Four things can be noted here on the same theme. First, the suffering as present in the threat of impending death and old age is ritualized. The soon-to-be-departed have a final ritual meal as part of the community in which they take a central and commanding role. Their predicament is one that the entire community is involved in and one that each attending (sans our visitors) know they will have to face one day as well. Second, the suicide itself takes place in front of the community and everyone witnesses it. Third, when the dying man botches his suicide and merely severely maims himself, the community cries in pain with him--they are pained that he didn't kill himself, and not because they're upset that they have to see it (as we might be!), but for his sake. And fourth, they don't shy away from his torment, letting him die on his own. Nor do they assign the unenviable task of assigning one person to end his misery. Rather, three separate people from the community finish him off (contrast this with Christian who reluctantly has to nurse his girlfriend). In all four of these respects there is no barrier between those who face death. At no point are they alone. The pain and suffering is shared between everyone.
By being shared, the suffering is also externalized. It's not the individual suffering who has to bear the responsibility of fixing things. Crucially, there's no question of responsibility here. To the extent that pain and suffering is rationalized in this community and made sense of it's not through an appeal to what one could or could not have done to prevent it. Rather, pain, suffering, and trauma is just something that happens--a part of life that is accepted, ritualized, shared, and overcome--and not something that can be explained through reflection.
The same point is made later in the movie when Dani sees Christian cheating on her in the fertility ceremony. [Updated note: A colleague rightly pointed out that Christian is quite literally raped here and I think that's right. I've left the original text to highlight how easy it was to completely pass over that sexual assault.] Here, the contrast and externalization is even more apparent because there's no doubt as to who's responsible. It is the entire community that has worked together to push Christian into his infidelity. Of course, he bears significant responsibility as well, but it's naive, I think, to assert that he would definitely have cheated if he hadn't been drugged multiple times and if the entire village population wasn't pushing him to sleep with the red-headed girl for the purpose of bringing genetic diversity into the village (skeptics of this view should look at Christopher Browning's exceptional book Ordinary Men). In any case, here, too, despite the fact that it is the village itself that orchestrates the very trauma that harms Dani, it is also the village that takes her pain as their own. This is precisely where we see the contrast between Dani's second anguished scream, accompanied by the other selected women in the village, and that first anguished scream we hear over Christina's phone when she hears about her family.
The point is also made in the movie's final scene in which we discover that two of the villagers have already been sacrificed and that two more are willing to be sacrificed. The point here, again, is not one about responsibility or rationalization--that much is clear!--but of externalizing (and scapegoating in the case of Christian) as a means of coping with trauma and the inevitable suffering of life.
Having presented this "pagan" model of coping, we are inevitably turned back to contrast it with the "modern" model that we start with and the natural question arises: Which one's preferable? Dani's smile suggests an answer...
[Optional Part IV: PHILOSOPHY WARNING! Some Nietzsche!]
I'd be remiss at this point if I didn't bring up the fact that the reading I've given here is one done through a Nietzschean lens (those not terribly interested in philosophy can skip to the next section). In a large part this is due to the fact that I've been teaching existentialism this summer session and our class had just finished a week on On the Genealogy of Morals, so I've had Nietzsche on the brain for a while. Nevertheless, I think this reading is a plausible one given what N. says in the GM and especially in the third essay. As I read it, that essay identifies the key problem of existence as that of senseless suffering. Humanity can bear suffering, but it cannot live with senseless suffering. The essay then serves to tie the themes of the first two essays together by explaining how the ascetic ideal provides an explanation for all senseless suffering through internalization and the concept of sin ("Why did your family die, Dani? Because you--like everyone else--is born a sinner! It's you that did it!"). Lacking an alternative means of explaining such suffering, the adherents of the 'noble' old morality were eventually worn down and made fodder for that equalizing morality that N. hates so much.
Notably, things were different under the 'noble' old morality practiced by the pagans. That morality is one that embraces cruelty (as does the Swedish village!), that is cheerful in its application of that cruelty (as does the Swedish village!), that doesn't focus on responsibility but sees goodness and badness as facts of life (as does the...you get the point), that accepts the cruelties that accompany life as things that happen, and so on.
What we see in Midsommar, then, is precisely the clash between these two types of moralities--the 'old' and the 'new' and how they tackle this universal problem. In that respect, the movie is deeply Nietzschean and I would definitely show it in an existentialism class if I knew I wouldn't get fired for doing so (don't worry, I won't!).
That being said, the movie isn't perfectly Nietzschean since, at least as I understand him, N. is neither interested in going back to a kind of pagan morality (the bell of Christianity can't be un-rung), nor does he think that that kind of morality provides an answer to the problem of senseless suffering. This, after all, is why the 'noble' old morality succumbs to the new 'slave' morality: it's only the latter that provides some answer, some explanation to the problem. Thus, in suggesting that the commune's way of living is an answer, Aster and N. part ways.
It's not clear whether it's best to think of the commune's way of living as providing that answer. I prefer to think of it merely as the presentation of two models that serve to highlight the problems that N. is trying to get us to feel and why we might be unsatisfied with the kind of morality and conventions that most of us will have to rely on when, inevitably, we, too, face senseless suffering. The philosophical suggestion, then, isn't that we should embrace the pagan view and completely externalize. After all, if the movie is effective as a horror movie at all, we should feel disturbed to the extent that we end up even partially endorsing this alternative way of doing things! Rather, the suggestion is that we should think deeply about what might be attractive about this alternative model that can be preserved, what is bad about our current model of coping, and, in true Nietzschean fashion, how we can create new models and new values.
Part V: Parting Thoughts
I think it's pretty obvious given the length of this essay that I rather liked this movie. It was well-written, well-acted, and thematically rich. I'm a big fan of the way that Aster plays with the themes of grief in this movie (and Hereditary which will probably deserve its own long post) and the way he manages to dig into the psychology of what makes us scared. What makes this work so effective, I think, is just how familiar the psychological terror is to the audience. Yes, there's gore, but the gore's purpose isn't to shock, but to highlight precisely those things that we find psychologically unbearable. I'm very much looking forward to the next project.
As to all of you, if you made it to the end...wow! Thank you! Leave me a comment or something and let's talk!