This article contains major Midsommar spoilers.
Sometimes the best way to stop the bleeding of a wound is to cauterize it. So it was when Dani finally began to heal from the carnage of a personal trauma—and a quieter lingering one—by watching Christian burn to ash in the final moments of Ari Aster’s pastel-colored nightmare. It is an image loaded with allegorical significance as one lover says goodbye to another in a billowy plume, which is scored to the screams of other men in the same burning hut who clearly did feel pain. It’s also one that confirms the truth of Aster’s confession at our screening: he wrote this during the end of a relationship. Don’t worry, he’s better now.
Midsommar is a methodical and luscious horror movie that spends most of its time establishing an atmosphere of unnerving reverie. While the opening sequence is set in the dead of winter returns to many of the same jarring audio and visual tricks of Aster’s debut masterpiece, Hereditary, Midsommar takes a hard left turn after we see that Dani’s parents died of accidental asphyxiation caused by her sister’s suicide. It’s a grim scene that is immediately contrasted with the warmth of summer that the rest of the movie is set in. Spring has come and gone, but her relationship with Christian has limped on. Even in a season of bloom, there is nothing healthy or full of life between them.
The core romance at the heart of the film it is something that should’ve ended before the film started—as the cold open features Jack Reynor’s Christian hesitate for apparently the hundredth time about breaking up with a woman he is leading on. And now this wounded modern thing has been thrust into a rustic world of ancient ritual. At the midsommar festival that Dani and Christian attend, the fictional religion of Hårga strips them of their social norms and expectations. Christian has stayed with Dani for the intervening six months in the film not because he truly sympathies with a girlfriend who just suffered a horrific family tragedy, but because he feels the social pressure of being “a good boyfriend” and being a shoulder to cry on for Dani. Yet upon arriving in the idyllic Swedish village where Midsommar spends most of its running time, inhibitions are stripped away one at a time for each character.
It is a subtler challenger for Florence Pugh’s Dani, a magnificent sketch of a woman who finds herself a stranger in a strange land because she is desperately clinging to a lifeline she fails to see is drowning her. Christian came to Sweden in part to spend some time with his buddies, most notably Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who grew up in this strange village, however he also was attempting to escape a relationship he viewed more as burdensome obligation than romance.
Dani is made to feel inadequate for rightfully demanding to know why Christian hadn’t told her he was planning to jet off for several months, and his indecisive callousness is what forces her to implicitly beg to join. Christian’s great flaw is his inability to empathize with Dani; her sorrow is his albatross. Yet her flaw is that she invests too much into his black hole under the self-delusion that he’ll eventually reciprocate. It is only within the cult that she finds her own way.
Instead of being treated as an interloper by Christian and his friends, she is greeted as a member to be celebrated among the Hårga enthusiasts. They invite her to participate in a solstice dance that decades of horror movies likely had viewers dreading. To become the May Queen is surely to become the sacrificial lamb, right? Instead it is a true initiation where she proves her value to a community that is welcoming of her, and suddenly she does not need to be where Christian is. In a way, they are both finding out who they really are.
One of the most amusing aspects of Midsommar is how the intellectualism of its central characters explains why they do that horror movie thing which normally makes no sense: they fail to leave after things get weird. Whereas a British couple who has also been roped in by a cult to be sacrificed has the good sense to get the hell out upon realizing the quaint little solstice customs include ritualistic suicide of the elders, the main characters stay put. This is primarily because William Jackson Harper’s Josh is studying the midsummer customs of northern and central Europe for a dissertation, and the inclusion of suicide just makes it more worthwhile. Instead of leaning into a “dumb Americans” cliché, Midsommar suggests the deification of open-mindedness and sensitivity in millennials can become its own undoing.
By taking such an academic approach toward what is visibly a cult, Josh is still exoticizing this foreign culture to the same point of obliviousness as a rude American. He also provides a path for the indecisive and unimaginative Christian to also seal his fate. In spite of knowing that he is there because Pelle has convinced Josh this will be a remarkable subject for his graduate studies, Christian decides he is also going to write a dissertation on the Hårga religion and its midsommar practices. Christian’s total lack of self-awareness of his own selfishness blinds him from the utter betrayal of his actions against Josh—just as he cannot see how being unresponsive to Dani’s trauma is just as bad as not being there.
Thus the longer he stays there, the quicker Christian likewise succumbs to his inhibitions. As with Mark (Will Poulter), Christian likely hoped that being in Europe with his bros would be a sexual adventure. He just wouldn’t vocalize it so pigheadedly as the grossest of them. Yet when the local villagers convince Christian to take some combination of unpleasant halluciongens, he becomes pliable to act on what he wants to do: sleep with Pelle’s sister. The fact that he is still in a relationship with Dani never really mattered to him internally, and it also fails to matter externally when that sexual release finally comes in some bizarre ritual that involves him wooing half the woman in the commune—all nude.
In retrospect, this also explains what happened to Mark in the film. Ironically, despite being the typical boisterous yankee on holiday, Mark has more self-awareness than Josh or Christian to what kind of movie he is in. Noticing the bleak looks he gets after desecrating a sacred tree, he is smart enough to understand that a culture celebrating suicide might be dangerous to piss off. Nonetheless, when an attractive girl beckons him from a feasting table, he is still not bright enough to evade the trap. Like Christian later in the film, Mark is lured away by a sexual prospect, albeit he has not taken any psychedelics yet. Even so, we know after what happened to Christian that eventually more pills are offered to increase the pliability of an outsider who is used strictly for breeding purposes in a scenario with odd bedside manners.
Thus Mark was drugged and used to impregnate another woman, and when Josh sees Mark late at night with a distorted face and an absence of pants, he is seeing the same confused deer as Christian appears later in the film when he runs naked through the commune. Pelle brought all three of his college buddies for this purpose, as well as to be sacrificed in the final offerings. This is why he insisted Mark could not spend time in Stockholm after landing at the local airport. These men were cattle for the women of his community, including his sister, and they would be delivered as fresh (and in Mark’s case, thirsty) as possible.
All of which brings us back to the very end of the movie. Dani has suffered the most hellish of tragedies in her life, and despite having a boyfriend to cry on the shoulder of, she has received zero support for the loss of her true support group. With no parents or sister, she convinced herself Christian was the only thing she could cling to for life, but the more time she spends with the locals of Pelle’s tribe, the more she realizes their collectivist love for one another is deeper and healthier.
The film is contrasting the modern world brought about by Christianity with (a fairly romanticized) one of Paganism. Christianity places value on the individual, for their soul and salvation, and the boy named Christian is nothing if not selfish and focused on himself. But even then he is not a true Christian and his modern shortsightedness makes him easy prey for a community that prioritizes the group over the individual, and general happiness over a more abstract sense of personal fulfillment. In this same way, Dani Ardor must realize her ardor for Christian is wrong.
There is room to interpret that Dani might be attracted to Pelle. He is the only named character who shows genuine sympathy to her about the death of her parents, and seems to genuinely cheer on her success as the May Queen with a kiss. However, Pelle is a deceptive liar who also showed similar concern for the friends he brought to die. Maybe there is the possibility of a relationship with Pelle as Dani becomes further indoctrinated to this community, but I generally reject that reading. This isn’t about finding the right guy—it’s about finding herself and breaking free from the baggage that is killing her.
By breaking free from Christian’s own self-destructive tendencies, she is able to find joy and acceptance in the community. There is a possibility she’d stay there—I do not think the drugs are stopping till summer is over—but in the moment of her reign, it is simply about accepting the pain and anguish she has long denied. To move on, she has to let Christian go. Hence when given the choice of sacrificing Christian or another villager to “balance” the life and death offerings of the cult, she lets Christian, dressed up like a bear, be an extra log on the fire.
I do not know the significance of the bear outfit Christian roasts in other than Aster likely discovered it from some obscure pagan ritual. But like the jester hat on Mark’s corpse, it signifies that he is a fool who dies as he lived: unable to get up and help himself. And given those other men in the fire could feel the flames’ kiss despite drugs, it’s presumable that Christian also died screaming.
It is an ugly end, but it allows closure for Dani. She’ll never fully get over the horror of what happened to her family, but she can finally begin to heal from that wound now that she is surrounded by people who care about her pain and she is free from a malignant presence in her life that was keeping her paused midway through a cycle of grief. She had to literally burn Christian out of her life but she is now free to be a queen.