Warning: Because of the film I’ve decided to talk about, the following subject matter will be unavoidably uncomfortable and dismal. Second Warning: If you’ve not yet seen Midsommar and you want to see it, well, first of all, get to it 🙂 (it’s free on Amazon Prime), and second, you may encounter some spoilers. Okay, you’ve been warned, onward:
I think it would be remiss to discuss the inception of this post without discussing the context. First of all, I’m writing in the fairly early morning of March 20th, which I’ve already mistaken for March 19th, because at this point we’re all basically quarantining ourselves (to the extent that we haven’t been governmentally mandated to quarantine) and the days are starting to slip assiduously into one another. Second, I, the super-introvert who initially prized herself on her abilities to hide out alone in her apartment while interacting with the outside world predominantly via telephone, almost lost my shit trying to execute my original idea: a first person monologue of the naked, decaying, monstrous half-corpse in The Shining who emerges from the shower of room 237 first (presumably) for Danny – in the movie – and second, more overtly, for Jack. You need to understand, I was perhaps overly excited about the idea of a first-person fictional exploration, and one that gave a voice to an otherwise voiceless female, until I tried to make it happen and felt that it flopped completely (the piece was so odd that it was utterly unrelatable). So, here I am, at 6:30 a.m., attempting to execute a “backup” plan for my “Fiction’s Fearless Females”* post before I run to the grocery store to go apocalypse shopping.
So, instead of creating a monologue by a startlingly voiceless naked monster-woman who lurks in the bathroom of an expensive hotel, I’m going to take an easier route and discuss Dani (played by Florence Pugh) in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, because she’s nothing if not a complex, often difficult to understand but ultimately at least somewhat fearless fictional female. Michael suggested writing about Adelaide Wilson, played by Lupita Nyog’o, in Us, and I almost did that – because she is fascinating and brilliantly acted – both the original character and the “tethered” version of her character – but I ultimately had more of the “Dani” post already in my head, and felt I could write about her without re-watching Midsommar (I can’t say the same for Adelaide) so I went with my easiest bet, especially since my post is late already (and yes, for that I blame the plague).
So what we learn about Dani in the beginning of Midsommar is that she seems perpetually concerned about, and perhaps overly responsible for, her sister, who has Bi-Polar Disorder; we don’t know much about her sister beyond that. The sister’s mental illness seems like her defining marker and is the presumed impetus of the calamity that will ensue after the first couple minutes of the film. I tend to be wary of the use of mental illness as a stereotypically cheap plot device, but I guess that’s neither here nor there right now – indeed, it’s another post entirely. So Dani reads an e-mail from her sister about not being able to take it anymore, about “going away” and taking her parents with her, and while Dani’s somewhat coldly indifferent boyfriend, Christian, assures Dani that her sister has said similar things before and it’s an attention-getting ploy, we learn a few minutes later that Dani’s sister has killed herself and the girls’ parents by running a hose from the toxic gas emission of a car through various parts of the home that Dani’s parents and sister share. And, if I recall the film correctly, Dani’s the one who finds them all dead. Though there’s not much in the way of typical horror movie gore, the scene is both chilling and gruesome through its terse, simple camera shots, and the whole ordeal invokes that macabre sense of morbidity that is, in my opinion, becoming such a hallmark of Aster films as he continues to add to his repertoire.
Losing your entire immediate family to a murder-suicide, finding the bodies, and being in a situation where you can (wrongly) justify your responsibility for the travesty’s occurrence is a catastrophic trio of trauma. Indeed, this sequence of events seems noteworthy and calamitous enough to comprise a cinematic climax, and yet, all these events do is lay the foundation for a plot that’s enigmatic and emotionally grueling – for at least some of the main characters in the diegetic narrative, and for the viewers, who are likely astounded to contemplate what direction a film that starts such a way will go, based on its sinister and disturbing beginning.
One element of the film that interests me, of course, is Dani’s reaction to the trauma she faces, and how her reaction drives the narrative. I’m also tempted to make the case, as I analyze Dani a little bit closer, that while I do like her character, her “fearlessness” in this film might be – depending on how you read the film – her shortcoming, her Achilles heel, her downfall, even if it’s a laudable characteristic. Fear, after all, though sometimes needlessly hyperbolic and speculative, and though pretty much always unpleasant, has served its purpose for centuries when it creeps through our psyche and settles in the deepest recesses of our mind. And it is also, in some sense, a leveler – an irrevocable marker of the human condition. The word “fearless,” to that end, is always used with a certain implicit qualifier: the reality that everyone is afraid at some point, even if they appear confident, even if they walk through their terror with grace and seem to surmount it. At the same time, when we rally against fear, from a religious or socio-cultural standpoint, what we seem to be rallying against the most is an excessive amount of fear that traps us and mutates our daily life into a chaotic labyrinth of “what ifs” and “I hope nots.” In fact, it seems especially appropriate in these times to admit both that fear is indelible (and indispensable) while warning ourselves that too much fear will consume us. Fear itself, in reasonable doses, keeps us from touching hot flames and fighting bears. In the abstract, it’s not such a deplorable emotion.
And in Midsommar’s narrative, it could have been an emotion that saved Dani from a lot more trauma – trauma compounded upon the initial trauma of losing her family in a horrible way. It is obvious to the viewer that Dani’s boyfriend, Christian, is not “good boyfriend” material. Though he’s not malicious, his friends are a pack of immature douchebags who happen to be anthropology PhD students, and Christian is much more of a follower than a leader. This is a group of guys who puts Dani down, keeps trying to persuade Christian to break up with her, and objectifies women constantly and consistently when they’re together. So when, in a gesture of fearlessness, Dani talks Christian into taking her with him and his group of friends to experience a Midsommar festival in Sweden, her fearlessness is a bit distressing. We’ve already seen her constantly try to appease Christian and to make him think and feel that he’s right about every one of their disagreements by this point in the film – and we don’t criticize her for it, because it’s understandable given her situation, and anyway she’s still remarkably level-headed for a young 20-something year-old woman who’s lost her entire family in the blink of an eye. But it would be reasonable, based on her desire to go to Sweden with Christian, to infer that she really does think he’s right about all their disagreements, that she deems herself wrong for wanting the amount of support and affection she secretly desires (and certainly deserves) from her boyfriend. The film keeps Dani in her place just enough for us to assume we know better than her, and it thus tempts us all to say that if we were in Dani’s situation, we’d never go on a trip with a bunch of immature assholes to watch an unusual, possibly religious ceremony in another country, especially if the option followed shortly after the deaths of our entire family. But, what we fail to realize when making that self-assessment is that most of us have never been and will never be in Dani’s position. Whether she is afraid of Christian’s month-long absence or desperate to escape the sadness of her post-traumatic daily life (or some combination thereof), we are likely to sympathize with her desire to go to Sweden with Christian and his friends, even as we cringe at the precariousness of the situation.
Dani’s perhaps harmful and hyperbolic fearlessness is evident almost immediately when the trip begins. Pelle, one of Christian’s anthropology friends, the one who’s from Sweden and invited the rest of the guys to the festival, offers the group some ceremonial fungus to celebrate the oncoming tradition. While popping hallucinogens might not seem like the most enticing undertaking for a person who’s witnessed a major trauma and is in an unfamiliar place with a “boyfriend” who only half-likes her, Dani’s fearlessness (of the consequences) and/or her fear (of not fitting in with the guys) drives her to take the mushrooms anyway. Of course, when she does, it’s not a pleasant experience for her – a reality that shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s read or heard the least amount of information about hallucinogens. Such drugs tend to morph with your mood, to emphasize, exaggerate, and re-create your most salient or your most subdued, secret insecurities, fears, and impulses, so the fact that Dani takes the mushrooms is a decision that could underscore the degree of naivete embedded in her fearlessness; it does not seem inaccurate to argue that, perhaps, she believes she can handle more discomfort (more additional trauma, even) than she actually can.
While I could dissect this film scene by scene, doing so might actually require that I re-watch it (and, as you probably know, life in an apocalyptic plague is surprisingly busy), and I think such an article might get tedious. After having done some of my own research on the film, there are two slightly overlapping but dichotomous reads of the events that ensue once the group reaches Sweden. For a little background, the rest of the plot takes us through the often gruesome, always unpredictable, generally strange Midsommar festival, with its sacrifices (homicides), dining rituals, and bizarre sex scenes, and we’re likely to learn that after a certain point, rather early in the film, Dani couldn’t escape the festival if she wanted to. Indeed, the visitors who do try to escape after witnessing the first “sacrifice” (the ostensible suicide of two village elders) only show up later as semi-mutilated corpses that the cult caught and killed. So the question of Dani’s decision making, to the extent that it was ever relevant, becomes eclipsed by the question of her agency: Dani, we come to see, fairly early in the film, loses the ability to choose. Indeed, the cult and its Midsommar ritual seem so careful, so calculating, and so manipulative, that Dani becomes more or less an object tossed about amid more knowing subjects, a person following the mandates of greater forces – with trepidation, but without much option to do otherwise.
Until, that is, we reach the concluding scene of the film – and here’s where our different readings of the film might impact how we assess Dani’s fearlessness. The last scene of the film foregrounds a tent full of corpses – corpses of other visitors that have been killed, stuffed with straw like scarecrows, and positioned upright in the tent like deranged dolls. The corpses await their final burning – the ultimate sacrificial gesture committed by the cult, after a variety of dining scenes, games, and unusual rituals – but they require one more body to sacrifice. So they present Dani with an option: she can sacrifice Christian (who has not only mistreated her, but cheated on her when coerced into a sex ritual at one point in the film), or a presumably innocent man that she doesn’t know. They’ve given Christian a drug that paralyzes him so he can’t try to escape, and they sit him next to an innocent stranger. Presumably because of the coldness, even the cruelty, that Dani has experienced from Christian, Dani chooses to sacrifice him, and one of the final scenes of the film focuses on Christian being burned wearing a giant bear suit in the tent that he shares with the other corpses, while the rest of the members of the cult dance in celebratory unison outside the tent.
Some viewers consider this conclusion a happy ending, and if we take that route, it’s easy to position Dani as the fearless victor, despite the fact that joining a murderous cult and becoming their revered “May Queen” during a strange ceremony are both rather fortuitous occurrences. It’s obvious throughout the film that Pelle, who invited most of the group to Sweden knowing full-well they’d be sacrificed, has always liked Dani. Indeed, throughout the film, he treats her more kindly than Christian does. So Dani exercises the power given to her by the cult, mandates Christian’s sacrificial execution, and will live in Sweden with her new family, the cult – a family that includes Pelle, who we might presume was hoping for this ending the entire time. I’ve even read speculation that the death of Dani’s parents and sister were a set up by Pelle, a way to dictate her circumstances so that she’d chose to accompany Christian to Sweden. I don’t know if I completely accept this reading of the film, but it does position Dani as both intrepid explorer and ultimate victor against her creep of a boyfriend.
My read of the film tends to be, I suppose, more traditional. I don’t doubt that the read I just provided is more original, that it “reads between the lines” in an interesting way. Indeed, those who adhere to the aforementioned reading tend to see Hereditary and Midsommar as Aster’s cinematic couple – one depressing and dismal (Hereditary), and the other airy and light (Midsommar). Such a read supposes that death and terror are always going to be imbricated in the narrative of a horror film, but that even horror films, with all their concomitant hideousness, can produce hopeful messages. I, on the other hand, don’t view Midsommar as particularly hopeful. Like all the visitors who visit the cult, Dani tends to be tossed around by their traditions; she fills the role they tell her to fill during the ceremony, even though she gets to wear a crown of pretty flowers and becomes the May queen. We have no reason to infer that her queenly status will last past the Midsommar festival, and after that, who knows what strange events she’ll have to undergo at the behest of her new cult-family. Even her position of “power” at the end of the film puts her in a tenuous space: she must select a person to die. Though she can use her temporary power as a means to get back at her asshole of a boyfriend (an option she chooses, in the end), she doesn’t have the power to reject sacrificial killing completely, and the elaborate drawings that adorn the walls of one of the buildings owned by the cult – drawings that rightly predict the end of the Midsommar ceremony – lead us to believe that more uncomfortable, even horrific traditions await Dani. What’s more – she’s stuck. This isn’t a chosen family; it’s a family she accidentally stumbled into and one – if those who tried to escape previously are any indication – one that she can’t leave.
In light of Dani’s situation, we might suggest that she’ll have to maintain a certain level of her already evident fearlessness to adapt to the new life that sits in front of her. It’s tempting to see the floral head-wear and the kindness of Pelle as inviting signals that Dani’s found a better place, a better group of people, but I doubt that. Dani, who certainly exhibits a type of fearlessness that we can all applaud when she moves on with her life after her family’s death, when she asserts herself and emphasizes that she wants to go to Sweden with Christian, is ultimately – or may ultimately – be a victim of her own courage. One reading of Midsommar definitely does not reward female fearlessness, to be sure. But perhaps what my dear mother says about life is true: The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Maybe Dani’s situation isn’t ideal now that she’s a member of a hidden Swedish cult, but is the situation really much better than living in a city and country where your parents have been killed and your sister killed herself, sharing a house with a cold, distant boyfriend who stays with you because he’s afraid to break up? Quite truthfully, I’m tempted to invoke the cliché, “six to one, half-dozen to another” to answer this question. After the death of her parents and sister, Dani’s position in the world is cruel and traumatic no matter what line of plot twists we choose. And she does buckle under this cruelty, but she never breaks. For maintaining her sanity in the face of chaos, for maintaining her sense of self in the face of a boyfriend who constantly ignores or disparages her, Dani is, truly, a fearless fictional female.
-Kalie Just Dread-Ful
Just Dread-full’s note: The “Fiction’s Fearless Females” series is a tradition that was started last year between multiple blog. This year, participating blogs include Graphic Novelty2 (Nancy and Kathleen), My Side of the Laundry Room (Rob), The Imperial Talker (Jeff), My Comic Relief (Michael) and me! Because life has been busy, I haven’t posted any other installments of this series, but I likely will in the days to come. In doing so, I plan to broaden my generally genre-specific blog to allow space for some new voices and perspectives. As such, stay tuned!