This piece includes major spoilers for MIDSOMMAR.
I’ve been defined in part by grief.
Grief has visited me on more than one occasion. I’ve woken up to find it sitting on my chest, looking down into my eyes with expectant longing. I’ve looked up from dinner to see grief suddenly across the table, ready to share some terrible moment I had nearly forgotten. Every time grief has entered my life, it comes unexpectedly and stayed longer than invited.
But no matter how unpleasant and unwelcome, grief’s presence has forced me to take stock of my experiences and ask myself who I am now that it’s here. And when it leaves, who do I want to be?
When I saw Ari Aster’s film, MIDSOMMAR, I recognized grief right up there on the screen. It lurked behind the main character, Dani, haunting her interactions and shaping her decisions. And in watching Dani’s journey, I saw the horror that lies inside experiencing grief.
We’ve all felt the moment when the terror of loss becomes real. Your constant nightmare suddenly presents itself in three dimensions. Your life has changed and there is nothing you can do about it.
At the beginning of MIDSOMMAR, Dani is worried about her sister’s mental health. She’s been unwell for a long time. So when she gets a vague email from her sister hinting that she and their parents are “leaving,” Dani immediately tries to contact her family to make sure they’re OK.
She fights against her fear that something might be wrong. They’re fine. They have to be, right? When she can’t get ahold of her parents, she calls her boyfriend to help calm her down. Of course, her family is fine, her boyfriend, Christian, tells her. This is all just another cry for attention, doesn’t Dani know that?
But it’s not. In fact, Dani’s sister has made good on her promise, asphyxiating herself and her parents while they sleep.
All her attempts to ward off disaster through worry were in vain. No matter how hard she tried, she was completely helpless to stop her family’s destruction.
But while this revelation is terrifying, Aster keeps the audience at bay. Instead of letting us see Dani as she learns the terrible news, we only hear her agony through the phone as her boyfriend stares vaguely into the middle distance. This overwhelming sorrow, Aster seems to say, is just the gateway to the true horror to come.
And how true this is.
Grief lingers. But there is no place in the modern world for the grieving. When Dani can’t control her sadness on the flight to Sweden, she weeps in the bathroom. When offered drugs at the outskirts of Hårga, she tries to decline until she feels more settled — it doesn’t work. No matter the situation, Dani must keep acting and making decisions about her life, even though it feels like it has ended.
As Dani’s grief becomes normalized, her behavior and decisions begin to morph. She is becoming someone different than she was before, and she feels helpless to stop it.
Even as her friends begin to disappear, Dani grows closer with the cult. This culminates in a traditional dance — a frenzied, drug-fueled twirl around the May Pole. Soon she’s laughing as she runs in circles, tripping blithely over her fellow contenders. The loss that totally defined her has forced her to evolve. She’s not the broken young woman that came to Sweden. She is the May Queen.
The horror of trauma, Aster seems to say, is you can’t cast it off. Once it’s with you, it will change you. Like a cerebral Cronenberg, Aster sends his characters on a journey of transformation — whether they like it or not.
Grief is injected into our lives like a syringe of dirty brown dread that covers everything in a sticky film of pain. We can push it away, but only momentarily. MIDSOMMAR shows us that it’s only by transforming through our agony that we can ever hope to get out alive.
As the May Queen, Dani presides over the sacrificial burning of her friends. Now that everything has been taken from her, she can transcend her grief. As the flames grow higher, she screams again, releasing her terror and sadness into the bright summer skies.