Grabbing the Broom of Anger
It’s 2019 and women can run for President, own their own businesses, and travel into space, but we still can’t openly express emotions. If you’re not a gently smiling robot who takes every sling and arrow life throws at you with quiet dignity and grace, you’re “unstable,” “melodramatic,” and can’t be trusted to put facts before feelings. You’re treated with pity, derision, and maybe a tiny bit of fear.
American society in general values decorum and appearances over raw human emotion. It’s fine to throw a fit if your favorite football team wins the playoffs, but openly sobbing because someone you love has died? Please, you’re making people uncomfortable. Ari Aster’s Midsommar, broad daylight folk horror that takes place at a Swedish pagan festival, takes the bold stance that expressing feelings, even the so-called “bad” ones, is not only right and good, it can be life changing.
The film opens with protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh, who will be just as unfairly overlooked during awards season as Toni Collette was for last year’s Hereditary) receiving an ominous text message from her sister, who suffers from bipolar disorder. Dani, struggling with her own less dangerous but equally complicated emotional issues, has been down this road with her sister before, but this time it feels different, more urgent. She turns to her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), for support, and he’s less reassuring than minimizing of the situation, making no offers of suggestion or help.
When Dani later calls a female friend, her worries are now focused less on her sister and more on Christian, and her fear that she’s asking too much of him by needing his support in a stressful and frightening situation. Both Christian and Dani’s friend sound exasperated by the whole ordeal, by Dani’s neediness and the constant drama of her mentally ill sister. If you’ve struggled with any sort of mental illness, you know that this is the most prevalent worry, that your friends, your partner, everyone around you is just going to get tired of the whole thing, tired of you, and that one day they’ll simply stop taking your calls or answering your text messages.
As it turns out, Dani’s fears about Christian are correct -- he does want out, but knows there isn’t a way to leave that doesn’t make him look like a bad guy. Christian isn’t an evil person. He’s callow and distant, and, like a lot of men, either unwilling or unable to deal with stark displays of female emotion. While he’s not quite as bad as his friend Mark (Will Poulter), who describes Dani’s leaning on Christian in difficult times as “literally abusive,” it’s obvious that he didn’t sign up for all the less fun parts of a long-term committed relationship.
Dani’s fears about her sister are horrifyingly correct as well, when she kills Dani’s parents and then herself. Dani is decimated by this unthinkable tragedy, but both in the interest of propriety and in an effort to not be too much of an emotional burden on Christian, keeps much of it to herself, hiding so that she can weep and push her way through panic attacks where no one can see her. Rather than bring them closer together, the death of Dani’s entire family has made things even more awkward between her and Christian. His self-serving desire to be the “good guy” in the situation is not only unhelpful, it’s making things worse, and the more Dani apologizes for asking anything of him other than to be patient while she grieves, the more passive-aggressive and distant he becomes. Whereas before their relationship was merely limping towards the finish line, now it’s dragging itself, and needs to be put out of its misery immediately.
Instead, they go on vacation together.
Christian invites Dani on a month-long trip with his friends to Sweden, under the mistaken belief that she’ll decline, and he’ll be free to go without any of her additional baggage (and with ample time, it’s assumed, to figure out how he’s going to end things with her). Not understanding that with her entire family gone she has no reason to stay behind, he’s dismayed when she accepts, and by the time they arrive in Sweden, he’s simmering with resentment. Not long after they arrive in the Hårga, the remote commune where they’ll be staying, they meet another couple, Connie and Simon, and the differences are stark. Connie and Simon are constantly holding hands, Dani and Christian barely touch each other. Connie and Simon know exactly when they first met, Dani and Christian can’t agree on how long they’ve been together. It doesn’t seem possible that these two are going to survive a whole month together out in the middle of nowhere.
And that’s even before things start getting weird.
The Midsommar festival in the Hårga involves a number of rituals that range from just puzzling to gruesome. As horrified as Dani is by what she sees, curiously she no longer seeks comfort from Christian. She’s suddenly less interested in going out of her way to close the chasm that’s grown between them. When Pelle, the only one of Christian’s friends who doesn’t treat her as if her sadness might be contagious, expresses compassion towards her (not to mention a bit of romantic interest), she’s taken aback, touched, and intrigued all at once. But it’s mostly the place itself, the Hårga, that moves something within her. As is the point of a commune, everything is done together as a group, including chores, taking meals, and even going to sleep. As opposed to Christian and his friends, where she feels like an interloper, here she’s immediately welcomed into the fold, eventually donning a stitched pinafore, dancing, and even, somehow, speaking the language like she was meant to be there her whole life.
Perhaps most invitingly, here, emotions are not just meant to be expressed, but shared. When one of the Midsommar rituals goes gruesomely awry, the commune doesn’t turn away in shame and disgust, they rend at their clothes and wail in shared grief and anguish. Compare that to most funeral homes in the U.S., which have private “crying rooms” where people can go to express their sorrow away from polite society. Here, in front of God and everyone as the saying goes, grieving is a communal experience to be let out into the world, instead of holding it inside, letting it eat you until there’s nothing left.
Later in the film, after a betrayal that Dani probably sees coming but still isn’t emotionally prepared for, she has another panic attack. If she were alone, as she seems to have been so many times at her neediest moments, this might be the breakdown from which she never recovers. A group of women tend to her, and where normally she would be calmed down, her pain minimized and distracted, they instead surround her and sob and rage with her. Her pain is their pain, their howls of sorrow and fury merging as one.
Think about every time life has broken you, even for just a day or two, and how good, how right it would have felt to be surrounded by people taking your pain and lifting it up, validating it, instead of telling you to calm down, it’s not so bad, why are you making such a big deal out of this? Think of how safe and understood you would have felt, instead of unstable and ashamed. It might be the first time in her whole life that Dani’s pain was really, honestly acknowledged, instead of minimized for someone else’s comfort.
When next we see her, she looks drained and exhausted, but something has changed. She’s no longer worried about putting her own pain aside for the sake of someone else, least of all Christian. She’s the May Queen, and he’s about to witness her fiery reign.