Midsommar (2019, R) is a dark fairy tale (horror) film. In watching it, my mind felt like a riot of themes and thoughts. Three figures refused to let me go: the May Queen, the Oracle, and the Bear. The movie is filled with overriding themes of trauma-bonding, cult over community, and the loss of masculinity.
The more I reflect on this movie the more I’m in awe of it. It’s dark, and violent, and mature. But so is life at times. And so is the central theme of powerful, fearful, raging feminine angst and betrayal.
So I went and googled pages and pages of articles and reviews. I couldn’t find anyone is making some of these points that interest me.
So yes, spoilers ahead.
I see the May Queen, the Oracle, and the Bear as the key stakes in this story: dominant Kali, shattered Quasimodo, and a Caged Brute saved for stuffing.
Pelle may be the new oracle, but he is emasculated and manipulative. ‘Unclouded’ means fundamentalist, easily able to repress his doubts. He’s manipulative in that he’s leading his ‘friends’ to a reality none of them want or understand. He knows they are lambs for the slaughter, but he’s such a ‘good little cult member’ that nothing troubles him.
And that’s why bears are caged and burnt: in this world, masculinity is a problem to be dealt with. In the end, Pelle sits in the audience, crowned like the May Queen, but spineless.
So check my site disclaimer if you disagree. In time, I may disagree too. 🙂 But after one viewing of this movie, here are some toothy thinklings that prodded me to look under the surface.
Here’s what this post is not: its not a review of the feels, or how shocking it was, or a paean to the daylight terror. And its not about fan theories. I don’t know much about the director and his vision, and I read that Swedish audiences laughed at this show like a comedy.
For me, I confess the horror elements felt pretty rote.
The movie is about as jarring as the ‘Vikings’ series, or ‘Game of Thrones’. As of this post, I had literally just finished reading ‘DMT: The Spirit Molecule’, so the trip elements stood out to me.
So I’m going to take the story on its own merits. I get the strong sense that it is a cultural commentary, where the director is using a terror-based cult to point out bad answers to real problems.
And with that, here’s praise for the incredible Florence Pugh, who’s continuing to blow me away with her delivery.
Ok: here’s a list of reflections:
Normal vs New
The movie begins in the ‘normal’ world. It is dark, filmed at night, and filled with flat, faceless homes. Bored teens drinking together. Feeling aimless about their life and their sexuality.
This age in life is a midsummer time, when youth is all about competition and energy, lusty with weddings and food and young families. These teens can’t decide on their future. Dani is deeply codependent, wanting to leave her flaccid boyfriend, but fearful of her own power.
Her sister’s bipolar struggles ignites the action. I’m pretty sure that’s meant to be a thematic nod to the day and light poles of life, and as we’ll see, foreshadows my theme of traumatized women taking charge to normalize death.
Halsingland, the isolated, retro-pagan, anachronistic cult village is bright and logical. It has clear rules, is filled with smiles and laughter and children. It seems like a place where youth can come alive again. Where being human makes sense.
The flipped camera and the first mushroom trips indicate a gateway, a transition between worlds. They seem to be entering into greater contact, a more wholistic contact, with reality. Several times, Dani seems herself becoming the earth itself.
Haunted by two figures
Two figures haunt the micro life of Dani (her sister), and the macro life of the commune (the inbred oracle).
Her sister was bipolar, and suicidal. The deep trauma of losing her family in a single night forced Dani to seek help and compassion. Her boyfriend, Christian, can’t decide if he’s dumping her or not. They are codependent, and both aware that it’s a problem. Dani is deeply attentive and caring for her sister. She feels that outsourcing her own judgement to Christian caused of all the death. It’s obvious he’s simply managing her on the phone, and she’s gaslighting her own intuition. He doesn’t care, and wants her to hang up. This contrasts to the deep breathing-bonding with the clustered women later on, that helps her face what she’s been avoiding.
The inbred oracle is forever celebrated and pedestalled, and yet held at arm’s length. Everyone recognizes that inbreeding causes problems, so this oracle figure means something important. Especially since his visions and writing are the code, the template that drives the commune. Effectively, the reins of power are repeatedly handed to a traumatized male outcast. Why? How could that ever generate healthy direction?
In both cases, these 2 figures are deep in trauma and abandonment, and are yanking the strings of the lives around them.
I imagine the oracle is always pushed to the fringe of life. So he enjoys being vindictive, watching sex ceremonies, orchestrating deaths, dreaming up god-visions and ceremonies that harm and terrorize the people in his life.
It reminds me of Shyamalan’s ‘Village’, but this time the monster is enthroned in the center.
Fear of Abandonment
Around the centerpoint of the film, Dani has a dream where her friends drive off and leave her. She is abandoned in a daylight hell on earth.
What’s telling about this is what happens next. Her fear of abandonment becomes exhaled car exhaust against the world. She seems to be discovering her own rage, her own ability to respond.
And she’s ready to smother and kill.
She feels abandoned by her family, out in the cold. And in the first half of the movie, she constantly gaslights her own desires, because she can’t risk being ‘the bad guy’. She cant risk rejection, even when its by a clique that doesn’t want her. And she knows it. But they all pretend.
This fear of abandonment is deeply, primally human. In our early years we derive our identity and self worth from group belonging.
In Midsommar, she has no one but a gelded group of aimless dorks. For some reason she feels she can’t listen to the strong advice of her girl friend on the phone. She’s in the prime of her young beauty. Perhaps she’s the kind of woman who does want a man, and craves the strong bonds.
But there are no men in her life to affirm her, support her, and empower her. No healthy examples of mature masculinity. It’s all toxic. She sleeps under a painting of a fairytale bear, a Nordic symbol of primal strength. She feels she has none.
And that’s a critical point.
She’s terrified that her unmet needs will drive everyone away. She’s desperate to be heard. I’m assuming that she’s left a home where she was very codependent with her parents. Their unhealthy relationship prompted her to find a soft, non-aggressive man? Perhaps her parents were authoritarian, pressing her into the shadows, quite possibly giving all the attention to her sister. Looking at the decor in their rooms, Dani’s room felt simple and chaotic. Her sister’s room was dense with detail and elements.
She’s entering the college and working world, but she’s emotionally handicapped, and begging for the safety of authority. Which is why Christian’s half-hearted dismissal is enough for her to repress her own fears in an instant.
She just left the cult of her family, and is sensitive and floundering.
This takes us to the Midsommar cult. I think the founder of this commune had a similar origin story, 30 years before. And its out of this welter of pain that a plan was born.
This brilliant overview by Leo really helps us understand the power of cult dynamics – not to shame us. But to realize that cults are tribes that become ideologies. We can’t help it, until we start paying attention.
A digression on Masculine & Feminine
First, I need to outline my clumsy take on masculine, feminine, and the social structures that emerge too often from them. It’s not a ‘new’ take, but my own thoughts on how the masculine embodies death, and the feminine embodies life.
That’s why Midsommar is so visceral and powerful. Because I believe the director ‘gets’ our failed patriarchical system, and is showing us the dark underbelly of a Matriarchy, as bright as it seems, and leaves us in the last shot with a sense of smiling, grim horror.
Cultures become stuck in stereotypes when we flatten sexuality to mere organs and ‘traditional’ gender roles.
And that’s how we get Patriarchy and Matriarchy, the conflicts of this movie. Both systems are deeply flawed, because they are stereotypes. I fully understand the call and the pull, because both responses are a human bi-polarity. But neither is able to integrate the other.
Patriarchy, of its name and nature, assumes the ascendancy of male impulses. Matriarchy pedestals the female impulses. Stereotypes like this are dangerous – which I contend is the whole point of Midsommar.
The Midsommar problem
Who is in confident charge in the cult? Women are free to demand sex (Maya and Christian), women host all the ceremonies, and are constantly affirming and holding each other (the lighting the candle scene). This kind of confident leadership looks wonderful, and is needed.
But the May Queen steps out from the shadows as a deity, a godlike figure who decides who lives and dies, and presides over the May sacrifices.
Our world does need more women to feel empowered and free. Our world is desperate for more of it – but on their terms. Many women feel like Dani at the opening of the movie. Entering a commune like this, filled with Amazonian confidence, calls to her. She hungers for the normalized nurturing and sharing of feminine living she sees around her – even as the events terrify her.
Women are constantly faced with many, deeply felt experiences – blood, pain, emotion, birth, loss, cycles. It’s tragic to me that we live in a culture where these things have no place. Where diurnal masculinity doesn’t integrate any of the needed impulses of menstrual femininity. Where women feel like second-class citizens, and their needs don’t feel normalized in ways that matter to them.
In this cult, men seem to have no effect. They are used, and ignored. Do manual labor, and make babies. After Christian lies with Maya, the women close around their new impregnate and ignore him. Deep moments of meaning are shared with other women. There is no individuality. Even the private sexual dance between man and woman is a collaboration with others, and friends throw flowered paths while the whole village watches.
Early on, we see Dani resting under a painting of a girl touching the nose of a great bear. It foreshadows the strange role of a bear in the movie. Bears are not symbol of evil. They definitely are a symbol of danger, especially male bears.
Vikings would trip before battle and go ‘berserk’, wearing bear belts and trophies to channel their strength. Viking gods would appear in bear form. Bears, in this movie, are the ‘patriarchy.’ The dark side of un-integrated masculinity. It represents the dangerous side of life, wildness, death, animal urges, fear in the night.
That’s why we see it caged. A matriarchy has no place for uncontrolled danger. Technically, neither does a patriarchy. Patriarchy handles danger like ‘Spartacus: Blood and Sand.’ Puts it in an arena and goes Conan the Barbarian over it.
Midsommar is about cult that tries to incorporate death and pain while wide awake, in the daylight, to control it, like caging a bear to be killed.
This is a problem, because many aspects of being alive can’t like be caged and controlled. We must live in respect, honor, and collaboration with them – such as the natural world, sickness, aging, death. We need to incorporate their reality into our lives, not build lives where we try to control all outcomes.
“Reality is greater than ideas.” – Pope Francis
But we just can’t help ourselves. We love making systems that fit our personality types and fears, instead of integrating everything.
Notice how in the final sacrifice men are killed and skinned and stuffed with flowers and burnt.
By the end, Dani, the finalist of the Maypole gauntlet, has become a flower-strewn monster, so decked out and weighed down she can’t walk. She struggles from right to left (perhaps from right brain toward left brain?) realizing there’s nowhere to go, because the left brain is going up in flames. She looks like a joke, like a hill, or a huge tumor. She herself has almost disappeared.
The obsession to control life and control experiences turns us into beasts, and turns a daylight lovelife commune into a predating monster. All the white and happy colors is a mask, all the makeup is a dissonance.
The absent solution
Weak men are the hallmark problem in this movie. The ones in Dani’s we meet are spineless, and unwilling to stand. The boldest boy, Mark, early on turns into comic relief when faced with bugs and flowers. It’s probable that her dad was authoritarian.
Modern culture is shown as sick with acedia and men dismissing or gaslighting women. The commune is managed by gentled men. There are no Aragorns in sight.
The key thing missing in the movie is the bear, and masculinity, a force to balance broken womanhood, to modulate life and keep cancer at bay. The men are emasculated, gentled, and dorks. Women have been so burned by bad masculinity that new ‘gods’ are introduced, or restored.
The world is ruled by the May Queen, a flower-clouded Kali of death and life. She is partnered with a silent Quasimodo, who’s choked, human needs sour into violence. Together, they wield violence and trauma to create a culture where everything pretends to be done in daylight, with a sunny logic that ignores all the dissonance just under the surface.
Everyone is regularly taking psychedelics to dull their human responses. The cult dynamics of de-personalizing and group trauma bonding are intense. Everyone is lightly high, and expressing their emotions together. Laughing and screaming creates a riot of internal rewiring and attachment. Individuality sinks back into pre-human, communal living of the animal world
The rules all make the world seem safe and predictable, with the regular injection of outsiders to replenish and sacrifice.
But even that injection causes dissonance and self reflection within the cult. So its important that things are done publicly to gaslight objections. Things are dealt with quickly and violently to break down responses.
And primal violence trauma-bonds each generation, every 90 yrs. Dani’s dream is a summary of the movie, how her fear of abandonment prompts an exhaust of her shadow on the world. And she steps into a terrible role, leaving one cult for another.
I’m not here to say that what this movie needs is a man. No.
What Dani needed was to find the help she craved to detach, to allow her friends to ‘die’ to her, and to strike out into a new life on her own terms. But that inner strength was never modelled, never empowered, or encouraged.
And so she falls from frying pan into the fire.