Written by Drew & Kris Schadegg
@SumOfAllFearPod on Twitter
WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS.
Ari Aster's sophomore project came swan-diving off a cliff this week into movie theaters everywhere, stirring a mess of divided opinions and interpretations across social media. Like Hereditary (2018), Aster has again found an untapped path that is both immensely original, while also borrowing the best of familiar genre pieces. It's emotional, soul-wrenching, deeply disturbing and powerful.
It has already been described by fans and foes as everything from boring and derivative to genius and a truly unique masterpiece. What has been particularly intriguing has been the flood of opinions on how Midsommar should be interpreted. Is it a feminist trope, with the female lead overcoming her emotionally abusive boyfriend? Is it a revenge movie, where we see the victim becoming the hero? Is it the grief-stricken Dani finally finding her true self and loving family?
As controversial films often do, Midsommar has been the object of a lot of presuppositions forced onto it without a discerning eye to what Aster himself intended and the powerful message of grief, unhealthy relationships and codependency he brings to terrible light.
How Grief Can Change Everything
The first 20 minutes of Midsommar is possibly the most realistic portrait of horrific grief that has ever been put on screen. That is not an overstatement. We're immediately dropped into a dark, grey winter setting with Dani struggling over a cryptic email sent from her sister that seemed to imply that she was going to kill herself and their parents.
She calls her boyfriend, Christian, who is out for drinks with his buddies. He tries to calm her down, convincing her that this email is just another cry for attention. His reaction isn't particularly odd for someone who knows how these things normally play out.
The sister is described as bipolar, but there is some indication that she is also wrestling with borderline personality disorder. This is what borderlines do. They tend to fracture their closest relationships by their impulsive behavior, constantly going to extremes and threatening harm to self and others. They thrive on chaos. If you don't give me the attention I want, I'll do something bad.
Dani hangs up the phone contented that Christian is right and she's just overreacting.
A few minutes later she calls him back shrieking in uncontrollable sobs. We then see that her sister has attached hoses to the tailpipes of the family cars in the garage and elaborately run them through the house to the parents' bedroom and down the hall to her own room. Tape is covering cracks in the door and the second hose is duct tapped directly to her face. A horrifying scene of murder-suicide.
This is followed by an excruciating scene of Dani's grief. Wailing in Christian's lap. She has lost everyone in her life, but him. He's all she has left.
Codependency is Dani's Coping Mechanism
Before we learn of the fate of Dani's family, it is revealed that Christian is checked out of the relationship. In fact, he's planning a trip to Sweden with his buddies to experience a Midsommar festival with an isolated people-group in the remote wilderness (everyone's idea of a kickass vacation, right?).
He’s ready to end the relationship, having stuck with it far longer than he should have. He has stuck with it because he is too weak to end it. He has stuck around, because he feels that Dani cannot take care of herself. He hasn't pulled the plug, despite the disconnect in their relationship. It's dysfunctional and narcissistic.
Let's make one thing very clear. Christian and Dani are in a codependent relationship.
Dani was the codependent caretaker of her sister and brings those same tendencies to her relationship. We're clued in when Christian describes how Dani constantly gives in to her sister’s pleas for attention and threats of self-harm. Codependents are frequently attracted to borderlines (and narcissists).
After the tragedy, there is no way that Christian is going to abandon Dani to her grief. What would people think if he left her now? She surely can't survive on her own. See the narcissism? Despite that, he still hasn't told her about the forthcoming Swedish cult vacation (by the way, it's only two weeks away!). Dani learns about it through his buddies at a party.
She reacts in textbook codependent style...
I'm mad at you, but it's ok, it's ok, it's ok. No problem. I'm not going to rock the boat or read into it. I'm just going to lose myself in you and your interests. I'll just go with you to Sweden. I'll ignore my own identity and just blend it with yours. Codependents are fantastic chameleons, you know.
What's Christian going to do? Well, he's just going to ignore the glaring dysfunction and bring her along, cause the alternative is just too difficult for him to deal with. Plus, he likes being needed. Narcissists always do.
The Hargan Cult as Codependency Manifest
Dani, Christian and his buddies head off to Sweden and become enmeshed in the seemingly peaceful Hargan people, who are on the cusp of their Midsommar festival. What is abundantly clear right from the outset is the identity of this community is found in group-think and behavior. There are no individuals, only the whole. Life is only about service to the community, which on the surface is refreshing and pure. Underneath, however, hides horrific brutality that feeds the life and death cycles that make up Hargan life.
This is first demonstrated in a terrifying scene. The outsiders witness the ritualistic suicide of two elderly Hargans, who jump to their graphic deaths from the precipice of a cliff in front of all the people.
Dani and crew react like anyone would...with a big "What the Fuck!?
Hargan leaders try to appease their guests by explaining that this is a beautiful end-of-life rebirth. No worries, right? Well, we later see that brutal death rituals are not the exception but the rule, as most of the outsiders begin disappearing, later to be sacrificed in the culmination of the cults' rituals.
Dani and Christian both take more mushroom tea (oh yeah, did we mention they've been dosing since they arrived at the commune?). Dani's trip culminates in what seems like a gestalt moment of self-realization, as she becomes the honored May Queen. She melds herself into this new community, receiving the praises of the people who are lavishing her with attention.
Unfortunately, her euphoria is quickly halted.
Christian's trip was a little different. He has been prepped and drugged to be used for breeding. Dani tracks him down only to find him partaking in a sex-ritual with one of the young women of the clan, in a graphic scene where he is surrounded (and assisted) by a team of nude Hargan women.
Her grief over this infidelity is powerful, but she finds comfort as the Hargan women surround her and grieve with her. If she cries, they cry. If she shrieks, they shriek. We sense that she has found a new family. New life amidst her pain.
As the May Queen, she is given deciding power over their final ritual sacrifice. A final offering. Her travel mates have already been offered up, all but Christian. She now has the power to send him to his death. She chooses to do so.
The film ends with the temple in flames, panning up to a smiling Dani.
The Ending Explained
After watching this film, it took a few days to digest. Many reviews saw Dani as finding a new family and achieving this great, powerful feminist moment. Some saw this as a true rebirth. New life amidst tragedy. Kris and I began talking about a different conclusion.
Was this really a great awakening for Dani or was she just replacing her codependent relationships (with her sister and Christian) with a new codependent family? Did she really learn anything at all? Or was this all a metaphor, symbolic of the cycles of codependency that so many struggle with. Was she this powerful character who overcame something or ultimately a pitiful character who cannot break the chains of her grief and dysfunctional relationship patterns?
Not until writing this article did we find the answer from Aster himself.
"[The Hargans] are codependency made manifest, right? So she's moving from a codependent relationship to, like, the ultimate codependent relationship," he adds. "So it's like she's really not actually being liberated from anything, she's being tethered to a new thing that will be impossible to untether herself from." (Zuckerman, Thrillist)
Midsommar is powerful. Not in its depiction of how Dani powerfully overcomes her codependency, but how she is unable to. People are always looking for a happy ending. Something cathartic, even in a movie filled with grief and dread. The reality is that many of us don't ever break the cycles. Many of us continue to seek out the same dysfunctional relationships, just in different forms. Dani embodies that reality.
Co-Written by Drew and Kris Schadegg hosts of the Sum Of All Fear Podcast where they breakdown clinical phobias and the horror movies that prey on them. Kris is a practicing Mental Health Therapist and Drew is a Writer with degrees in history and theology.