Midsommar is a Revenge Story
“Folk horror” is an aesthetic, this movie has more in common with the 1970s rape-revenge films
Ari Aster’s second feature film, Midsommar, is a story about a group of American graduate students visiting a remote Swedish commune during their midsummer festivities. Horror history tells us how this goes: one by one they find themselves unwitting participants in arcane rituals or sacrificed until the horrific, Wicker Man, ending. But it’s also not that simple.
What Midsommar is really about is a twenty-something woman, fresh off the trauma of a family tragedy, breaking free from her gaslighting and emotionally unavailable boyfriend. And while it will go down in history as folk horror, all that genre really is is a vehicle for the revenge story Midsommar is at its core.
The rape-revenge film was prominent in the 1970s. The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and Deliverance all feature graphic scenes of forced sexual violence that result in the victim, or others, seeking out and getting physical revenge on the assailant(s). Virtually all the victims, in this case, are women (Deliverance is a notable exception but, as Carol Clover points out in Men, Women, and Chainsaws, the rape victim, regardless of gender, is feminized through cinematic cues). The basic format goes like this:
- A woman (or feminized man) is assaulted sexually and physically
- She spends some time rehabilitating herself physically and emotionally
- She exacts violent revenge against her enemies
Midsommar is, at its core, this same movie but with exceptional care taken in characterization and, specifically, what the story feels like — especially for the woman victim in question.
“I see it as a horror movie about codependency… I hope the catharsis you feel when you’re watching is unmuddied, but then as you walk away, it becomes more complicated. That’s the hope.” — Ari Aster, Bloody Disgusting
The film opens with a conversation between Dani (Florence Pugh) and her absent boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). It’s telling that we start with Dani, alone, and Christian reluctantly on the other end of a worrying phone call, out with friends. Dani’s concerned over her bipolar sister’s threatening email and sudden silence. Christian is calmly exasperated and downplays it before getting off the phone. Then disaster strikes. Dani, still alone, gets a call from the fire department. Her sister has committed a murder-suicide of herself and their parents. Christian, who was actively talking through breaking up with Dani moments before, is now obligated to stay with her though, evidently, not obligated to better his emotional maturity or relationship with Dani.
This is the trauma. It’s not a rape or a violent assault. Even the murder-suicide is a passive, nonviolent death by carbon monoxide poisoning. Dani has been through a serious traumatic incident and is left physically prone as the camera zooms out her window, not unlike the images of women on the floor or ground after an assault scene.
We jump ahead in time. It’s summer now and Dani’s doing better. But she’s not doing great. She’s going through the motions and trying to work through her continued depression and grief while Christian keeps secrets, makes vacation plans for himself, and gaslights Dani’s attempts to voice concerns about his emotions or behavior. Ultimately, to appease her, Christian invites her along on a trip he and his fellow anthology grad students are taking to a commune in Sweden to observe a rare midsummer festival.
This begins Dani’s rehabilitation phase. Introduced to the world of the Harga, a community-minded and incredibly welcoming group, Dani begins to allow herself to open to interaction and joy. This is not more evident than in the May Quen sequence where the women of the Harga, as well as Dani, perform a dance competition while under the influence hallucinogenic. Dani frolics with her fellow women, an entirely different kind of comfort and coping than Christian’s silent and pained obligation to hold her while she wailed. She wins and is crowned May Queen of the festival, exalted by the Harga and welcomed into their community.
The works not done, however. While Dani shakes the weight of her traumatic loss from earlier in the film there’s another trauma to face: that of an emotionally unavailable and manipulative partner.
Dani’s ultimate revenge against Christian’s neglect and abuse is granted when she’s tasked with picking who will be the final human sacrifice to close out their ceremony. While we never see her visibly choose, it is Christian who is sewn up in the bear costume and lit on fire while Dani watches with a light, small smile.
The vengeance isn’t subtle and Christian’s deplorable tendencies are on display. What many pieces around Midsommar get wrong is mistaking aesthetics and form for genre and theme. Along with The Dark Secret of Harvest Home and Wicker Man, Midsommar fulfills many of the requirements of a folk horror piece. But what it’s actually doing and saying is something entirely different.