If you’ve just stumbled out of Midsommar and you’re blinking into the bright afternoon sun wondering what you’ve just witnessed, don’t worry. Just like a kind of weird Pagan death cult, we’ve got your back. Because, as it turns out, weird Pagan death cults can be quite friendly. Allow us to explain.
Spoilers for the end of Midsommar follow, so TURN BACK NOW if you don’t want to know.
Midsommar is essentially a two and a half hour study of one woman’s emotional journey towards emancipation from a toxic relationship. Like director Ari Aster’s first film, Hereditary, it’s a dark drama disguised as a terror flick.
Unlike Hereditary, it has a happy ending. Because even though it might seem seem like a confusing, bleak and fairly extreme decision to kill someone for cheating, there’s a bit more to it than that.
Aster spends most of the film showing us how terrible our lead Dani’s (Florence Pugh) relationship is.
We see how casually horrible her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is, dismissing her worries about her family then barely helping her through the grieving process, almost abandoning her to go on holiday with his mates, before grudgingly bringing her along.
Oh, and once there, he totally forgets her birthday. If this was Love Island he would have been pied off after the first recoupling.
Still, Dani’s priority is keeping him happy, which she does by apologising frequently and saying ‘thank you’ at inappropriate times – hiding her true pain, crying in solitude.
Having lost her biological family, Dani is hanging on to the closest thing she has left – her relationship, putting up with some gross friends in the process (friends who will eventually vanish one by one).
Christian is so selfish he makes Dani stay with a strange Swedish Pagan group, even after it’s revealed they’re a suicide cult, because he wants to write a thesis on their culture. Like, read the room, bro.
However, that culture involves the election of a May Queen, via a trial by maypole, with the last dancer left standing the winner. This is an extremely important sequence – it’s the first time we see Dani truly happy and part of a community. Even if she is a bit baffled by the end result, which feels either set up or pre-ordained by fate.
After a special dinner, where Dani still shows some concern for Christian, asking if she can bring him with her for the next part of the ceremony, the couple are separated. Christian takes the opportunity to run off with a red-haired girl, who wants him to impregnate her (surrounded by a group of naked people who look like they’ve wandered in from the set of Hereditary).
Dani witnesses the coupling and is comforted by a group of women, who instigate a strange screaming and breathing exercise, with the gang surrounding her and reflecting her pain, copying her shudders and howls.
This is another extremely important sequence in terms of setting up the ending. Where Dani was once forced to hide her tears and her sobs for fear of being a burden, Dani’s grief is being acknowledged and shared by the people in her community.
This is why, when faced with the choice between sacrificing her boyfriend and a random member of a community she’s only been a part of for four days, she chooses to kill her boyfriend. She has a new family who will support her through her pain.
As for why Christian is sewn into a bear for the sacrifice, it’s either a reference to Nicolas Cage’s bear costume in The Wicker Man remake (with the original Wicker Man being a clear influence on Aster here) or it’s to underline the fact we’re watching a fairytale.
The movie begins with a storybook illustration laying out the whole film, and there’s artistic foreshadowing throughout that this is a dark take on a Hans Christian Andersen-style story (though he was Danish, not Swedish).
Think of the painting in Dani’s apartment of a little girl touching a bear – an illustration of the ‘The Walk of Innocence’ by Helena Nyblom, a fairy story about a young woman who kisses a bear and feels sorry for him.
There’s no sympathy here, of course, with Dani’s reaction to Christian’s death being a big grin. She has reached catharsis by confronting her fear of loss, finding a new family to help her through the aftermath.