What on earth just happened?
Midsommar, the new movie from Hereditary director Ari Aster, is not what you’d call a straightforward, lighthearted summer film. “I keep telling people I want it to be confusing,” Aster told me when I spoke to him about it shortly before the film’s release.
But in truth, the events in most of the film’s 140-minute runtime are fairly easy to follow; it’s in the ending where things get a little wild, grand, and possibly baffling. (Which seems, if you’ve seen Hereditary, to be Aster’s signature move.) However, whether you really lock into what’s happening at the end depends on how attentive you were to what happened earlier, particularly shifts in Dani’s mental and emotional state.
So here’s a quick overview of Midsommar leading up to the ending, what happens at the end, and what it (probably) means, though there are plenty of alternate interpretations available. I’ll presume you’ve seen the film already, which means that there are LOTS OF SPOILERS to come.
Seriously: If you don’t want to be spoiled, abandon ship now.
Midsommar is the story of Dani’s emotional journey
You can split Midsommar into a few distinct sections.
There’s the overture: everything that happens before the title cards appear, in the snowy undefined landscape, when Dani’s family dies and she is plunged into grief.
Then there’s the first section, which begins two weeks before the group — Christian, Mark, Dani, Josh, and Pelle — head to Sweden, and ends when they walk through the big wooden sunburst and into the idyllic village of the Harga. Throughout this section, Dani is trying to put on a brave face; she only lets out her guttural sobs in private bathrooms, with the doors closed. The mushrooms the group takes upon entering the field before the village nearly unhinge her, but she runs into the woods to hide their effect and is only found by the group after she falls asleep.
The second section begins when the Americans arrive in the village and lasts until shortly after the events at the Ättestupa, the high cliff where the elders throw themselves to their deaths. The outsiders, still reeling from watching the brutal deaths, are seated at the table with the others, and the novelty and beauty of the place has worn off. Josh is mad at Christian for stealing — excuse me, collaborating on — his thesis idea. Mark is convinced that one of the Harga men, who’s glowering at him across the way, is going to kill him for pissing on the ancestral tree.
In this section, Dani has been slowly becoming aware that she’s trying too hard to make excuses for Christian, who seems disconnected from her, forgetting her birthday and generally being inattentive to her emotional state. Pelle tells her that he, too, lost his parents (“in a fire” — the details aren’t clear, but after watching the film, you might have a better sense of how that happened) and asks her if Christian feels like “home” to her, whether he “holds” her. That seems to shake something loose in Dani.
During dinner, Dani tells Christian that fellow outsider Simon left his girlfriend, Connie, behind in the village (or that’s what they think — of course, the reality is something quite different), and then bitterly says that she thinks Christian would do that, too. Instead of replying with reassurance, Christian sourly eats a pie containing what looks to be a pubic hair and drinks from a glass containing a liquid that’s pointedly pinker than everyone else’s. (If you’re confused, recall the cloth the camera panned across earlier, hanging on a clothesline, that Pelle calls “kind of a love story.”)
All that to say, the sheen of this idyllic village has worn off by then. There’s a long shot in which Dani, Christian, Josh, and Mark are sitting side by side at the table, each looking angry. And that’s where the second section of the film ends: The Harga haven’t changed, but the Americans’ impression of them has shifted uncomfortably.
The third and final section of the film starts out feeling like it will be kind of a whodunnit. Simon and Connie have gone missing, and soon after, Josh and Mark both disappear after disrespecting the traditions of the Harga. (Mark wanders off with a girl with whom he has not been approved to mate; Josh sneaks back into the Oracle’s house to read from the sacred book of runes, and is killed by the Oracle, now wearing Mark’s face. Don’t mess with the Harga.)
So when the day of the Maypole dance begins, Christian and Dani are the only outsiders remaining with the Harga. And that’s when things really start to go sideways. Dani is sent with the women to ready themselves for the dance, while Christian goes as instructed to the house of Siv, the Harga matriarch, and informed that he has been approved to mate with Maja.
He seems confused by this, but also — in typical Christian fashion — lacks the cojones to show either enthusiasm or disgust. There has never been a boyfriend who’s more of a wet lump of nothingness than Christian.
(Mating rituals with outsiders are necessary to the continuation of the Harga because of their strict incest taboo, except the carefully planned inbreeding needed to create the Oracle. This could, incidentally, be read as a nod to Sweden’s history; when they first land in Sweden, Mark remarks crassly on how beautiful Swedish women are, and Josh tells him it’s because the Vikings dragged the most beautiful women from other lands back with them.)
Meanwhile, Dani has been dressed in the white dress and flower crown the rest of the girls are wearing, and she lines up to get a small dose of potent, pungent tea before the dance begins. And that’s when things really get cracking.
The end of Midsommar shows that this has been a fairy tale all along
The events of the end of Midsommar are fairly straightforward, even though there’s a lot that happens offscreen (like most of the deaths, for instance, and clearly some Harga machinations and plotting as well). Dani dances with the other girls, is the last one standing in their apparent competition (sort of by accident), and becomes the May Queen. During the feast following, Dani is led away to bless the crops, while Christian is led away to, uh, mate with Maja, surrounded by a dozen naked women in a semicircle who sing and match Maja’s breathing. Dani discovers Christian in flagrante and finally lets out her howling grief, surrounded by a half-dozen girls who match her keening with their own. Christian finishes the act, then runs out of the mating house naked and discovers, in a chicken coop, what happened to Simon.
The next day, following those twin fertility rituals (one for crops, the other for humans), the Harga announce that as the culmination of their great, once-every-90-year edition of a midsummer’s celebration, nine human lives will be sacrificed: four of their own, four outsiders (Simon, Connie, Josh, and Mark), and one to be selected by the May Queen. She can choose between Christian or a Harga selected by lottery, and she chooses Christian. He’s put into a bear carcass and wheeled into the previously off-limits yellow pyramid-shaped building, surrounded by the other eight sacrifices. The whole thing is set on fire; the Harga scream and yell; and the film concludes on Dani’s face, as she slowly, broadly smiles.
What the hell?
Midsommar is not the kind of film where there’s a puzzle or a mystery to be solved. But I think the best way to think about what’s happening in this last section is through some of the clues dropped throughout the film about Dani’s journey throughout Midsommar.
In the early scenes, we see the inside of Dani’s apartment, and it’s useful to note how it’s decorated. On either side of her couch are two paintings: one of a series of moons (indicating the passage and cycle of time, presumably) and one rather wild-looking one that appears to be a woman running across corpses. There are also plants all around Dani’s apartment, in stark contrast to the snowy landscape outside.
Later, when Dani is lying on her bed, we see that there’s a large print hung above it. That print is “Stackars lilla Basse!” (“Poor little bear!”), which is an illustration by the Swedish painter and illustrator John Bauer, who died in 1918. He illustrated a number of fairy tales, including Oskuldens Vandring (translated something like The Walk of Innocence), a fairy tale by Helena Nyblom about a sensual but innocent young girl walking through a forest. In this picture, she meets a bear, kisses his nose, and calls him a poor little bear.
The image doesn’t literally foreshadow the coming events in any way, but if you take all of these things together, you get hints of the story that’s to come. There’s the plants (when she’s on a mushroom trip, Dani sees grass growing through her hands and feet, and there’s a flower breathing in her May Queen crown). The moons (signifying the phases of time and light and darkness). The carnage and howling (self-explanatory). And, of course, the bear. It feels as if Dani is fated to become the May Queen, something that Pelle (who clearly has feelings for her anyhow; he speaks kindly to her, remembers her birthday, and kisses her full on the mouth) perhaps senses, and that’s why he’s so delighted when she decides to come to Sweden with the group.
That the bear image comes from a fairy tale also reminds us that Midsommar is more of a fairy tale than anything else, though — as Aster pointed out to me in an interview — it’s also clearly a folk horror film, in which outsiders visit a foreign place and start disappearing in pagan rituals. But thinking of it as a fairy tale helps sort out the ending.
(It’s worth noting that in the Harga community, and throughout Midsommar, images are constantly used to foreshadow events, whether in the images at the very start of the film — which literally tell the entire story of the film — or on the walls in the building where the young people sleep. The paintings above the beds that Christian and Dani sleep in depict what will happen to them, like a kind of prophecy.)
Dani, at the beginning of the film, loses her family tragically — she is orphaned. That’s a classic opening to a fairy tale (think of Cinderella or Snow White, for instance). She’s also a future queen. She travels to a faraway country and endures hardships and trials, but eventually, she finds a family. Yet she must rid herself of what an elder Harga calls their “worst affekts” — and finds that the ceremony of the Harga is precisely what she requires.
Her worst “affekts” — affections and emotions, in other words — are, as it turns out, all tied to Christian and the ways she’s been forced to sublimate her intense grief in order to keep him from leaving her. (Remember her conversation with an unseen friend on the phone, where she worried that someday her need for Christian’s emotional support would be a burden? Remember his horrible friend Mark saying that Dani was “literally abusive” for asking her boyfriend of more than three years to support her emotionally during family crises?)
The Harga seem to see this, and decide to use Christian, who is an “ideal astrological match” for Maja, for his genetic material, and then, as long as Dani picks him for the ceremony, for purging the worst affekts of the whole community.
Which is what is happening at the end. With the yellow pyramid building aflame, the whole community gathers outside, howling as they did at the Ättestupa. But this time, they also clutch at their faces and bodies, almost dancing, as if something bad is leaving their body. This is a purging ritual; they are allowing everything bad and dark inside themselves to be let out.
For Dani, though, the purging is complete. She is spent. And Christian is going up in flames before her eyes. As she watches, she realizes that he is gone. She is free. She smiles.
Dani — an orphan — finally has a family.