“How Midsommar exposes the banal everyday horror of toxic relationships”

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With their relationship in trouble, Dani (Florence Pugh) joins her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) on a make-or-break trip to an ancestral commune in northern Sweden. Once there, they are invited by the forever-smiling villagers to partake in celebrations for their fabled midsummer festival – and they are all too happy to accept. However, it isn’t long before the seemingly pastoral paradise transforms into a sinister, dread-soaked nightmare as the locals reveal their terrifying agenda…

It’s no secret that director Ari Aster wrote the script for Midsommar after going through a particularly awful break-up.

“I went looking to do a break-up movie that felt as big as a break-up feels,” he told the San Antonio Current. “From anyone else’s perspective, it’s a minor enough event. [But] if it was a relationship with any real consequence, then a break-up can be cataclysmic and turn your life upside down and almost feel like a death. I wanted to make a big, operatic break-up movie that felt and played as consequential as the end of a relationship feels to the parties involved.”

As such, Midsommar isn’t your typical horror film, although it is undeniably horrifying. It doesn’t rely on darkness and shadow to send shivers down our spines, nor does it pepper its script with jump scares or classic scary movie tropes – quite the opposite, in fact. It is beautiful, and hilarious (yes, really) and relatable, because it weaves a love story utterly devoid of sentimentality and romance. A love story that many of us, sadly, will know by heart. 

At the beginning of the film, we see Christian (Jack Reynor) discussing the shortcomings of his three-year relationship with his friends. These shortcomings, admittedly, mostly revolve around the fact that Dani (Florence Pugh) has been leaning on him for emotional support a lot more of late… but, y’know, Dani’s anxieties weigh far heavier on Christian than they do her, obviously. He’s feeling drained from listening to his girlfriend’s (very valid) concerns and fears about her sister’s rapidly deteriorating mental health. He’s sick of having to answer the phone whenever she needs reassurance or advice about her family. He’s bored of fitting her into his weekly schedule.

All he wants is a girlfriend who “actually enjoys having sex” and, presumably, doesn’t require anything more from him than a handful of “Netflix and Chill” sessions each week – is that too much to ask? Christian’s friends certainly don’t seem to think so. And so, when Dani rings during their dinner, they groan and roll their eyes extravagantly.

“That’s not her again, is it?”

“Dude, she needs a therapist.”

The guys advise their friend to ignore the woman he’s been in a relationship with for three and a half years. Why? Because they want to get back to discussing their summer trip to Sweden and all the nubile Scandi chicks they’ll be banging under the milky glow of the midnight sun, obviously.

Christian, though, to give him the little credit he is due, answers the call. For a moment, silence. Then, Dani lets an animalistic scream roll out of her throat and down the phone, because her worst fears – the very same fears which Christian dismissed and undermined earlier that same day – have just been realised.

What Christian hears, though, is very different. To him, this howl of pain signifies his window of opportunity closing: he can’t break up with Dani now – she needs him. He’s wrong, obviously. Dani doesn’t need him: what she needs is to feel loved, supported, understood and held. And a man who is forcing himself to be with her for all the wrong reasons is never going to provide her with all of that.

Later, when Dani learns that Christian is still planning to leave her for a month-long trip to Sweden with his friends – ostensibly an educational trip to a backwoods colony of paganists – she is shocked, and rightly so: her boyfriend has only ever mentioned once in passing that he’d like to go to Sweden one day. Now it turns out that he hasn’t just booked his ticket: he leaves in two weeks time and he never even thought about mentioning it. 

Christian, though, is unmoved by her response.

“I told you that I wanted to go to that festival in Sweden,” he says.

“No, you said it would be cool to go,” she replies.

“Yeah, and then I got the opportunity and I decided to do it.”

Christian feels Dani is being clingy and unfair. He gaslights her into believing that she’s the one in the wrong (which goes something along the lines of: ‘I already told you about this, you must have forgotten, you’re the crazy one here, blah blah blah,’) before attempting walk out of the argument and, in doing so, the relationship – but Dani, frightened by his attitude, apologises and admits to being in the wrong.

“Look, I don’t mind you going,” she says. “I just wish you would’ve told me, that’s all.”

It’s a fair enough point. And it’s understandable that, after what Dani’s been through, she isn’t about to let her long-term boyfriend ghost her. So, reluctantly, he invites her along – and Dani begins to hope that the trip will help them repair the damage in their relationship. 

Florence Pugh; Jack Reynor DSCF9328.RAF

At first, the Swedish commune seems just what the doctor ordered. Butterflies drift lazily through the air, the pretty little village sits in a bubble of blue skies and sunshine, the pagan locals – dressed in wholesome white linen – are impossibly fresh-faced and friendly.

“Welcome home,” one tells Dani, wrapping his arms around her and drawing her into a hug.

Home, of course, turns out to be the kind of place where hallucinogenic drugs are handed out like sweeties. Where young women bake their pubic hairs into pies and offer them up to the guys of their dreams. Where pissing on a dead tree can result in a death sentence. Where elderly cultists hurl themselves off of cliffs because “it’s tradition”. Where the sun never sets, the villagers never stop smiling, and the big yellow barn – the big yellow barn which is strictly off-limits to outsiders – holds more terrifying secrets than we care to mention.

Ignoring all of this, though, “home” offers Dani something which she actually needs: the distance and perspective to examine the pieces of her clearly broken relationship, and work out whether it’s worth her time to put them all back together again.

We, the viewer, knows the answer right from the start: Christian and Dani’s relationship should have died a long time ago. Right from the beginning, it’s made clear that he’s thinking about dumping her, that he’s going through the motions of being a good boyfriend until he’s paid his dues, and that he’s simultaneously been pushing Dani away in the hope that she will do the hard bit for him: he wants her to initiate the break up.

We know, likewise, that Dani isn’t innocent: her co-dependency has rendered her blind to Christian’s behaviour, and she views her relationship as beautiful even though it’s inherently toxic.

“You build your life around a person, and all of a sudden, you find yourself in this very existential situation where you’re alone again,” Aster explains to Vice. “You have to look at your situation head-on, and face the fact that all of us are alone by nature. It’s why we put so much energy into our relationships – because it’s a distraction from the fact of our aloneness.”

And, as the director makes clear in his fever-dream of a movie, we, all of us, “must ride alone”.

Dani doesn’t understand this, and clings to her increasingly aloof boyfriend. She forces herself to believe him when he says that, despite the many problems she has caused (nice one, Christian), he loves her – and so she does her best to make things work. She does this even though his cursory hugs and empty platitudes make her feel desperately, horribly lonely. Even though he brushes off her concerns and casually gaslights her into believing she’s crazy. Even though he doesn’t look at her, not properly, anymore. Even though she’s second-guessing herself all the time, feels confused, and finds herself always apologising to (and for) her boyfriend.

She does this even though that aching, aching, aching hole in her heart keeps her awake at night.

And, while the below scene didn’t make the final cut, it sums up everything this movie is about: the acceptable, and unacceptable, sacrifices we make in our relationships.

It is important to note here that Christian is not a bad person, nor is he the worst boyfriend in the world. He’s just… well, he’s just not as invested in the relationship as Dani is and he’s an emotionally-stunted coward, quite frankly. And it is ostensibly due to his cowardice, more so than Dani’s wilful ignorance, that this love story stays on its feet far longer than it should, staggering onwards to its brutal (and inevitable) conclusion.

“There is plenty of information that’s strewn into the fabric of the film that is pointing you directly to the ending and where we end up, so that by the time we end up there, it’s meant to feel satisfying while at the same time being exactly where we’ve always known it was going to go,” Aster previously explained to the HuffPost.

“You’re getting the thing you wanted the whole time, the thing you’ve been kind of hoping for, but then it comes and tastes different. I hope it’s just as operatic and cathartic as the movie has promised, but hopefully, it catches in the throat a little bit more uneasily.”

Aster wants Midsommar to become our favourite break-up movie. And, while it’s a bitter pill to swallow, the lessons packed within it are guaranteed to sit with you long after the credits roll – the most important one being that you should never hold on to someone who doesn’t deserve you, or stay in a place that causes you more pain than joy. It’s far better to suffer a short burst of pain than a lifetime of being stuck somewhere you know you don’t belong.

And, y’know, it’s far better to date someone who actually listens when you point out that the wide-eyed cultists around you are probably plotting your doom. Fact.

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Image: Csaba Aknay/A24

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.