Updated: Sep 24
Midsommar is the new symbol laden film released by A24 and director Ari Aster. Animals, plants, language and colors all have meaning.
Midsommar is also one of the most emotionally annihilating films I have ever seen.
The film’s American protagonists and their Swedish guide Pelle, arrive in the Swedish province of Halsingland, specifically the idyllic commune of a people known as the Harga and the first animal they see is a caged, subdued bear.
In ancient Scandinavia, Vikings were said to go berserk (bear-serk) during battle, transmuting from mere humans to grizzly supernatural warriors, imbued with the spirit of bears. Bears were highly revered for their single-minded ferocity. Another quality highly revered by the ancient Norsefolk was honesty and loyalty, aka Oathkeeping. The rune Othila (like a diamond with two legs) represents this characteristic. Anyone found to be an Oathbreaker was viewed as the weakest and least noble of persons and was sentenced to death.
One of the main characters, Christian, is portrayed as such an Oathbreaker. He lies to his friends, cheats on his mentally unbalanced girlfriend Dani, underhandedly appropriates his colleague’s thesis, and shows no bravery or will to rescue his friends from impending doom despite Dani's warnings. His fate concludes with him being drugged, paralyzed and placed into the skin of the same bear, which has been killed and gutted.
The Harga have invested him with the odious traits of darkness and animosity and they banish him to the dark realm like that of Helheim (Hell in Norse mythology) and burn him alive. Though Christian possesses none of the bear's noble or threatening traits, this sequence is a poetic reversal, a turning inside out, which we see more of in this film.
Riding the Runa
Runes are the individual units of the Norse futhark, an alphabet that possesses linguistic and symbolic meaning. When runa are inverted -- flipped horizontally, vertically, or at a 90-degree angle -- they indicate converse qualities. Raido (the R rune) is often seen backwards. Raido literally means 'riding' or transport. It represents moving through space or time. Though I'm no astrology enthusiast, I recognize the power of ancient symbols in our collective unconscious. I saw this film during Mercury Retrograde, a phenomenon which causes observers to see the planet Mercury as moving backwards even though it is not. Raido Inverted indicates a perceived backward motion, but also symbolizes the cyclical nature of movement and time -- not necessarily a going forth, but rather a return to. The character of Dani, has just suffered the premature loss of her parents and her sister Terri, after they poisoned themselves with toxic car exhaust fumes. Pelle draws a portrait of Dani marked with Raido Inverted, she is due for a return to her past pain, as well as a newfound home and family. The portrait Pelle gives her also bares the rune Dagaz, or day –a sideways hourglass--turned at a 90-degree angle.
Day and night, consciousness and unconsciousness are rich themes in Midsommar. Inversion is also portrayed by the Harga maidens walking backwards as they pick ripe flowers for their midsummer ritual. The scene where the cast is transported into Halsingland is turned upside down, as well. They are not merely entering the underbelly of reality; they are returning to it.
Blue and Yellow, Blue and Yellow, Blue and Yellow
The Harga, an imaginary Swedish cult conceived for this film, seem to have their own origin story for the colors of the Swedish flag. Blue is worn by Dani's aging parents when they die, and this motif is mirrored later in the film with the elderly Harga couple who wear the same shade of blue as they throw themselves off cliffs in ritualistic suicide. Dani's sister Teri also committed suicide by exhaust along with her parents but was wearing yellow, and had a yellow hose duct taped to her mouth; yellow flowers flame a picture of Dani as her parents sleep, never to wake. Here, yellow alludes to youth, but a youth that must be sacrificed. Yellow flowers are plucked (backwards style) in their prime to make a potent hallucinogenic tea. But blue represents age, the elders' duty to give up whatever potency remains within them and pass it on to future generations.
Perhaps the midsummer ritual is an ancient charm meant to protect the pagan culture, ancient rituals formed during the crusades when Christians -- Christian -- invaded. In 1990's Norway, there was a spate of church burnings undertaken by anti-Christian, anti-Colonial metalheads. Many of these churches were built on top of Norse sites of worship to Odin and other Norse gods. The church burnings, seen in news headlines around the world, are reflected during the ending sequence when the yellow temple is burned to the ground, with Christian and the other 8 human sacrifices inside. Lastly, the opening sequence shows a single artwork divided into four parts, rich in blues and yellows, dark night and sunlight, death and life.
Alice in Unterheim
No mention of the Norse gods is made in the film, even though runes like Teiwaz (the upwards arrow sign which represent Tyr, the god of war) appear throughout. The Harga seem to operate in murky realms of Norse mythos. The movie was shot mostly in Hungary (according to the credits), not in Sweden at all. Perhaps Hungary was scouted for convenience, or perhaps being true to Norse mythology doesn't matter at all. Still, there are parallels between the various mental and emotional states of the film's characters and the nine ancient worlds of Norse mythology. The nine realms are conveyed through the nine sacrifices made. Of the nine realms, most important are Midgaard (the world of man), Asgard (the world of the high gods or Aesir), and Helheim (well...hell, but more specifically the realm of darkness and the dead souls who may never cycle back to life; the realm of oathbreakers).
Midsommar viewers are first ushered into the supernatural motif used in Lewis Carroll's “Through the Looking Glass”. Dani and Christian come home after a party, where the former learns of the latter's plans to visit Sweden without her. She is filmed on camera while Christian appears in the mirror to her left. He abjectly apologizes and invites her without his mates knowing. A few sequences later, when Christian is with his mates discussing their theses, Dani enters and is filmed through a mirror while the guys are filmed on camera. She barely occupies the same space as them, emotionally or spatially.
When the protagonists arrive in Halsingland they ingest some psychedelic shrooms and begin hallucinating. Eat them, Drink them, they do and enter a world where the supernatural can possess them. Dani envisions herself merging with nature throughout the film. Her perception of the tree above her is distorted, the branches crossing each other like an MC Escher painting. Grass grows through her hand, later in the film, her feet blend in, disappearing into the grass below.
Dani experiences an intense pain, the death of family, and the only other person in her life, Christian, does not seem to care. Her sister was bi-polar, and she herself may suffer from the same ailment. Throughout the film, her complex grief bubbles over, but she tries her hardest to hide it from everyone. She runs, hides, cries in the shadows. After being crowned May Queen, she stumbles upon the love ritual between her boyfriend and the Harga girl, Maya or Maja, and has a complete meltdown. She tries to find somewhere to cry alone, but the Harga women take her, and they cry together in chorus. This communal wailing is mirrored in the sex throes during the love ritual, the cries of pain when the Harga man falls to his death but fails to kill himself. The air they breathe, in and out, connects them all. Breath and the lack of, is a motif. More Vedic than Norse, the breath joins us all on a meditative level.
After imbibing the hallucinogenic holy aquavit tea, the Harga and Dani make a sharp outward breath. Maya does this same sharp exhale her first time on camera. Her first real night in the commune, Dani dreams of her American acquaintances driving off without her and the air fills with exhaust. She screams after them, but her screams are also black exhaust, alluding to her family's death. This black exhalation is reflected again when Dani is crowned May Queen and the flowers in her basket-like, Hathor-like crown pulsate in their dark centers; plants which give oxygen rather than steal it. The pulsing black flowers’ centers also allude to Pelle's paintings, which illustrate the stages of a love spell. One panel in particular features a bare vagina, rimmed by black pubic hair --which stands out since none of the Harga women have black hair. Dani silently sentences Christian to death, even when she is given a proxy sacrifice. She is draped in a mountain of flowers, only her crowned head exposed. Completion of the ritual. As the temple burns with its human sacrifices, the Harga cry and thrash together in Dionisian ecstasy. Dani is the only one who is calm and smiling. The circle of suffering is complete and she can now move on.
On a personal note, I have recently suffered one third of Dani's loss. Losing a close member of one's nuclear unit is debilitating. I had kept composure for a month, but found myself wailing all the way home from the theatre. Unable to sleep, I write this. The way in which Dani cries in pain over the loss of her family, and is coddled by Christian, harkens back to Aster's previous film Hereditary, where the protagonist Annie, mourns the loss of her child, also while being held by her similarly aloof husband--the same way a few of us may have soothed a sick, alcohol-poisoned roommate as they purge themselves of toxins. Other motifs shared by both films include the uncanny use of breath, atonal violins layered over eerie vocals, a mentally unbalanced supernatural female protagonist, and symbols. I have not ascertained the origin of the strange crucifix 'rune' on the yellow temple, but assume it is another cinematic invention like the Harga cult itself.
Byrdie is the co-owner of Accuprint Pack 'N' Ship in Beacon, NY. She is a film lover and proud mom to one non-human.