The following article contains spoilers for Ari Aster’s Midsommar.
One of the principal criticisms of Midsommar is that it’s main thematic assertion is that international travel is dangerous. Cultural critic Richard Brody said it best when he wrote “the subject of “Midsommar” is the absurdity and obtuseness of suspending moral judgment for other cultures in the name of curiosity, respect, or relativism.”
On a surface level, this understanding is understandable and easy to come to. It’s not that the film doesn’t on some level suggest something like this. Every non-Hårga character except for Dani (Florence Pugh), ends up biting the big one, and because they’re there doing an anthropological study, there’s definitely a warning against excusing certain behaviors and beliefs.
Once you see some old folks die via ritualistic suicide it’s time to tap out, sprint towards your inadequate student housing and reconsider your choice in major. However, this criticism ignores Dani’s arc. She finds a home with the Hårga. They help her mourn her family and cope with her own emotional necessities. They provide her the support system she desperately needs and help her in overcoming a dependency on a group of toxic people. Her crowning as the May Queen sees her effectively taking a place of acceptance and purpose within the Hårga, something she may not have have attained back home. The film’s final shot is her smiling deliriously like someone who just found out she can walk on water and is both freaking out and scared, and also thrilled.
Considering Dani’s ending the central argument morphs from “tourism is bad, actually” to “tourism is bad unless you’re Dani”. This still really doesn’t seem right; so, let’s reexamine the central “tourism” angle of that thesis via discussing cultural makeup of the Hårga.
It’s worth questioning why Aster chose to re-purpose a real Nordic tradition to be the focus of the Hårga. Any prospective setting for the film—considering the baggage of killer cults—would come with its own cultural commentary, whether it be set in the U.S.A., China, India, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, or the Congo. It would either be a typical cult story, or just seem racist. Whatever Aster chose for the setting would undoubtedly somehow reflect onto the film’s larger message. So, what can we learn from his choice of Sweden? Would a film that inherently demonizes a culture just sit better if the culture chosen is a deeply white one? Maybe. Even then, why Sweden, though?
Part of the allure that Nordic culture holds is this perception that they embody English-speaking history; this idea is founded on the understanding that Angle Vikings invaded and settled in Britain in the eighth century. This has created a cultural lineage of sorts, with many films that explore Nordic culture usually dealing with some ancient mythological figure. Take The Ritual (2017) for example, which sees a group of friends stumble upon an ancient cult who worship a living breathing beast straight out of Nordic myth. It creates a broad suggestion that in the history of the English speaking world there is an old, ancient evil, something deep inside our culture long forgotten but still present. It’s a safe way of critiquing the core cultural values of “the west”.
The Hårga of Midsommar, when compared to their counterparts in The Ritual, are far warmer and more welcoming; they send their citizens out into the world and welcome visitors to partake in their oldest traditions, offering flower crowns and a bed to sleep in. On the surface, they stand as an idealized glance backwards into the English-speaking world’s cultural heritage. Of course, this is challenged by a few things. Like the murdering.
In total, around nine people die at their hands. However, Midsommar loves complexity. It goes as far to inject something as morally cut and dry as death with a surprising amount of moral ambiguity.
Firstly, before joining the cult Dani only witnesses two deaths, these being the very public ritual suicides. I’m not going to debate the morality this, but the explanation from a Hårga Elder – that they were consented to and done to prevent further aging and maintain personal dignity – certainly dulls any moral outrage one may feel. Even though Dani does freak out and want to leave, she ends up staying. It’s easy to get back on board. By the end, once she learns about Josh and Mark and Christian, she’s in too deep- she’s accepted her position as the May Queen and her heart has been shattered by Christian to the point of no return. It’s easy understand Dani’s decision, despite what we know about the Hårga.
The only other death that the audience sees is Josh’s (William Jackson Harper). It also comes with its own form of moral ambiguity (although, granted, it’s less effective than before) in that Josh is blatantly violating the wishes of the Hårga by taking photos of their scriptures.
Given it’s brutality, it’s impossible to fully excuse the Hårga. But it is almost tempting, and certainly, at the very least it’s worth entertaining the idea of letting it slide. He was blatantly breaking the rules, after all, and he was never a very nice person. Midsommar is daring us excuse the Hårga. This sinister whispering in our ear is part of what makes Midsommar so evocative; people are brutally killed in ways that are hard to see, but it’s kind of unclear whether we should lose sleep because of it.
The most outwardly fiendish element of Hårga culture is their reverence for genetic “purity”. It’s hard not to mention the racial overtones this takes. The Hårga are a group of white nativists who proudly advertise the purity of their lineage, how outsider blood is nowhere to be found in all their families. Their blood is supreme above all others.
A group characterized by their connection Anglo-Euro history being also obsessed with their genetic purity is a pretty clear reference towards today’s white supremacist and natavist movements. But of course, race isn’t ever mentioned in the film. They even frankly admit to the problems of inbreeding and not permitting outsider blood. At this point, you’ve got to take a step back and take a look around; every Hårga is white and they’re obsessed with genetic purity and strictly monitor the marriages of their people. If a non-white person wanted to marry a Hårga villager, all indicators suggest that they would be denied. They never let anyone in (except for when they do). Why?
The genes, of course. They must be kept clean. No racism in sight. Why does everything have to be about race? Ugh, Liberals.
This genetic supremacy is taken to new heights with Ruben, who is a product of purposeful inbreeding. This apparently gives him an ‘unclouded’ mind. The candor with which the Hårga discuss this subject is another way in which Midsommar dares you to excuse with them, to indulge them, baiting you into accepting inbreeding because talking about it so candidly must mean it’s not sinister and well they already had the kid, so like, it’s hard to get mad after the fact. Right?
This is where the belief that the central premise of this film is anti-cultural relativist is founded. But that critique fails to give the characters agency; all the film’s anthropologists decide to excuse it. Cultural relativism doesn’t mean you just smile and nod when people talk about how much they love inbreeding; you can engage with it and wonder about it. You could also just, like, leave too. It’s an academic and personal failing, not a principled one. The practices of murdering and inbreeding are disguised underneath a larger cultural system that begs for moral wiggle room, which the characters in the film grant.
The central critique is not of cultural relativism, which is still there, but instead of lackluster, intellectually dishonest research. Any good anthropologist would have immediately picked up on the genetic obsession or the tendency to kill and immediately flagged and fled. Instead the scholars in the film are preoccupied with the more eccentric, surface level details of the cult without diving into the deeper, founding beliefs. Simply because the characters , the fact remains that these people are racist. Midsommar encourages us to call a bear in a cage a bear in a cage, call a racist a racist.
So, why don’t the characters do just that?
It’s because of Pelle.
Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) is a Hårga who went to school with Christian and bonded with Dani. He’s a disarming presence that immediately lends the Hårga an air of legitimacy. He eases anxiety about cultural differences and gives the Hårga a familiar, trusted face. The relationship between the researchers and the Hårga is too personal. Calling the group racist would be harming a personal relationship. And plus, Pelle has a black friend, so he can’t be racist, obviously.
It’s just like when you have a white-power-supporting family member. When they’re around you want to hold your tongue for fear of offending them. Or maybe you’re a real centrist, and you think your family member can’t be that bad, there’s got to be some credence and moral justness to these positions. Or maybe you’re like Dani, and you fall in with a friend of a friend and before you know it, you’re at a rally where everyone’s white and there’s a few swastika tattoos and you somehow feel at home.
Dani’s ending comes after a long line of happenstance; not going on the trip, her family not dying, better friends or better boyfriend, someone calling out the Hårga out for what they are, all could’ve prevented Dani losing herself. So, Midsommar isn’t suggesting that all desperate, emotionally isolated people will join hate groups. It’s also not suggesting that hate groups contain only deeply troubled people—the Hårga are an ancient group. Midsommar’s main concern is how people need support and help, regardless of where that comes from. It argues an uncaring mainstream will force people to move to the fringes, to fall in with extremism because they frankly don’t know what’s happening until it’s too late. If someone had called out the Hårga before the end, Dani could have realized what was happening and get out; it’s not her fault.
To end off, let’s run with this white supremacist metaphor. When Dani selects Christian to die, that’s someone protest voting for the big orange guy in the Oval Office. She may not agree with everything the Hårga do, but man, it feels good to flip off Christian, and mainstream politicians, in this way. The problem is that the white supremacists voted for the same guy you did, and he likes that they voted for him. He’ll pay them back for that. So, unwittingly, you’ve sided with the Nazis. Are you a bad person? It’s hard to say. Midsommar thinks you are– the entire film goads you into compromising your principles. It wants to make you side with the white supremacist cult, the murdering cult. It does so by making Dani the most sympathetic character in the world. You get her. You’re there with her, you want her to thrive. I think, ultimately, we should condemn Dani. We should cut her off (like she did Christian except for the killing part) and we should hold firm to our principles. Forget how we feel– see the truth, see the racists for what they are and be horrified at what Dani may do next. But–man, does it ever feel good to watch Christian burn.