On Death Cults and Bordered Utopias: Ari Aster’s Midsommar

By Ben Furstenberg and Johanna Isaacson

In an election last June, the Social Democratic party in Denmark handily beat the far right. Before we count this as a triumph for the left we must examine the compromises and betrayals that the Social Dems made to achieve this victory. With the promise of buffering the national welfare system for Danish citizens, the party also capitulated to far-right anti-immigrant policies and embraced a “nationals first” approach. This tendency has already led to widespread discrimination and hate crimes, as well as proposals such as curfews and banning full-faced veils on so-called “ghetto people.” In 2016, a “jewelry law” was passed that allows police to confiscate valuables from migrants and asylum seekers as they cross the border. In response to criticism of this nationalist populist surge, soon-to-be Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen asserted,  “You are not a bad person just because you are worried about immigration.” [1]

This is the utopia we face in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. It is a fantasized version of Scandinavian social democracy as envisioned in the U.S. political imaginary. Liberals and near-leftists have long deployed this image of an achievable heaven on earth, a socialism operable within and alongside the global capitalist economy. However, the history of social democracy, the compromise form of building socialism without abolishing capitalism’s bourgeois state, private property, commodity form, and wage labor has been haunted by a curse that’s repetitively reincarnated.

The film sends a group of Americans to this bordered utopia with fantasies intact. The world is called Hårga—it is a would-be collective utopia purged of many of the ills of late capitalism: private property, individualism, isolation, competition, possessiveness, the nuclear family, money, and consumerism, among others. However, this “utopia” is also a white supremicist identitarian cult which sacrifices outsiders to assuage the fear of obsoletion. 

The events of Midsommar are set in motion with college student Dani (Florence Pugh) discovering that her bipolar sister has killed herself and their parents in a murder-suicide. Her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), was already on the fence about his relationship with anxiety-riddled Dani, but now feels pressured to stay with her and see her through her mourning. His indecisive characterlessness leads to a passive invitation for Dani to join him and his friends on a trip to Sweden to visit the home of their Swedish friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blongren). For a period, Dani is able to enjoy the bucolic, slower form of life in Hårga. But this idyllic tone instantaneously turns to terror when the guests are taken to attend an “ättestupa” ritual, and realize that Pelle’s offhand remark that the commune members only live until the age of seventy-two was in earnest. Two elders die in their own extreme gore after throwing themselves off of a cliff in front of the community and the paralyzed guests. Only the British visitors Simon and Connie have a rational response to this horrific scene. They insist on leaving immediately, but are suspiciously split up by the commune and then disappear. 

After this, the deaths keep coming, and of the visitors soon only Dani and Christian remain. When Dani, newly crowned Hårga’s Mayday queen, discovers Christian in the midst of a gonzo mating ritual with a young Hårga woman, she retreats to her quarters to mourn, but, in utopian formation, the collective surrounds her and shares her grief. Finally the commune reveals itself as a death cult to Dani and she embraces it as such, sentencing Christian to die with the other human sacrifices. 

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This linked presentation of social utopia and ruthless exclusion can be viewed as a critique of utopian visions. However, it is more productively read as a critique of utopias that don’t go far enough, only accepting the elected few to be held and cared for. Like the bordered utopias of social democracy, Midsommar can be seen as an assertion that collective support and love have no meaning when they rest on a structure of exclusion and othering. 

The first signal that we are in a place where egalitarianism goes hand in hand with eugenics  is the “ättestupa” geriacide. Although there are elderly people in Hårga, all of them are vigorous and able-bodied. Aster’s tonal shifts clarify the film’s perspective on this ritual that the female Hårga leader, Siv, tries to justify as a “beautiful” and natural part of the life cycle, a “long observed custom” that will be full of joy: “Instead of getting old and dying in pain and fear and shame we give our life as a gesture before it can spoil.” This promise implies that the life of the elderly is rotten and worthless. Siv’s justification could be taken at face value but the image of death that precedes it belies this fantasy that the Hårga can achieve a natural relation to the earth’s cycles through senicide.

Like the bordered utopias of social democracy, Midsommar can be seen as an assertion that collective support and love have no meaning when they rest on a structure of exclusion and othering. 

In order to emphasize their natural connections, the Hårga community is filmed with a color palate of natural earth tones that stress their organicity. The ritual leading up to the deaths of the elders is filmed in these tones, and proceeds with staid sobriety. However, when the elders drop from the cliff, this naturalism is broken with grotesquely. The female elder’s face is smashed in, gushing a bright red blood and the male elder’s suicide is botched, forcing the group to awkwardly finish him off with a mallet. This veers into what Mark Steven has called a horror of “splatter capitalism,” severe gore that points to the evisceration of modern bodies by capital. [2] The jarring juxtaposition of lurid red gore with muted earth tones not only denaturalizes the deaths of the elders but punctures the tonal complacencies of the cult, indentifying  them with modern forms of violence. 

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Christian and Josh treat this horrific scene as anthropology students, that is, with dispassionate distance. The Hårga people, on the other hand, perform ritualized emotion. But as soon as their member’s pain stops, so does their empathy. This shows the essential similarity between Hårga’s bordered utopia and Christian and Josh’s imperial identity as Americans and intellectuals. Neither are capable of truly mourning the deaths of the dispossessed and both participate in a Darwinian logic that tacitly supports eugenic murderousness. 

The only character in the film who could be called “infirm” is the severely deformed oracle who the people of Hårga have created through intentional inbreeding. While he is used in religious rituals and to develop the Hårga’s scripture, he is not otherwise present in their society. He exists at the margins, cloistered in sanctums, not participating in the meals and festivities. In his exceptional role he seems to act as a reminder to the Hårga community that they must pursue their course of eugenic exogamy, which shapes the “seduction” that lures Dani’s boyfriend Christian to his fate. 

In depicting this seduction Aster again mobilizes tonal shifts to resist a kind of cultural relativism or respect towards the community’s breeding practices. Although the group does not announce a policy of eugenic breeding, their uniformly Aryan appearance makes clear that they value racial purity. Of the group of visitors, they recruit only the fair haired, blue eyed Christian to breed with one of their own. Leading up to his coerced mating scene Siv invites him into her hut and insists, with authority, that he has been selected because he is “an ideal astrological match.” But again her somber tone, which would imply that we should respect the rituals of this cult, is undercut– this time by comedy. Christian responds, “I think I ate one of her pubic hairs.” Later, the sex scene itself erupts into full-blown comic satire, further framing this eugenic “utopia” as a farce with deadly consequences. 

The bordered utopia will always deny it is racist and say it is culturally motivated, as when Danish politicians demanded that “ghetto children” be taken away from their parents for at least 25 hours a week for instruction in “Danish values.” When these policies were called out as anti-Muslim, the Danish justice minister Soren Pape Poulson said: “That’s nonsense and rubbish. To me this is about, no matter who lives in these areas and who they believe in, they have to profess to the values required to have a good life in Denmark.” [3]

Racial exclusion is key to the logic of the film and this would seem obvious by the end, when all of the non-white characters have been killed off. Yet few reviewers have found this worthy of note. Perhaps this is because the film itself mystifies its racial message by mixing in deaths of white people. However, the deaths of the non-white characters are exceptional and reveal the racist core of the seemingly utopian practices of the Hårga. 

Simon and Connie are two non-white characters who are brought to the Hårga by a friend. They are immediately distinguished from the others by properly reacting to the ättestupa ceremony with shock and by demanding to leave. Instead they are delivered exceptionally cruel offscreen deaths. 

Simon has probably already been flayed when we next see Connie, waiting to leave  Hårga. She has been told that Simon has left town without her, but the viewer knows immediately what has happened. Connie suspects it too but has no choice but to let herself be driven to her doom. Dani witnesses the conversation with trepidation but does nothing to intervene. 

Later we will see Simon’s fate in the most elaborately grotesque visual of the film. He has been contorted into a “blood eagle,” a Viking form of torture in which the ribs are severed from the spine and the still-breathing lungs are pulled through the opening to form wings. His eyes have been removed and replaced with flowers. This fate is reserved for the most innocent victim, perhaps representing the need to fully dehumanize the “other” in order to keep the bordered utopia intact. 

The third non-white character, Josh, is more ambivalent. As a serious anthropology student, he does not exhibit repulsion, but fascination with the Hårga. He is killed while unlawfully invading their sanctum and his death is never investigated by Christian, who seeks to steal his dissertation project. Josh’s onscreen killing is less spectacular than that of Simon. He is still an outsider to be eliminated, but at the same time, as an American, he is an imperial force whose values of pillage and ambition tie him to the inverted imperialism of nationalist exclusion. 

This destruction of racialized outsiders is analogous to the recent actions  of  Scandinavian social democracies. For all the generosity putatively animating the society, the sharing of wealth, and the collective “holding” through generous social safety-nets, there’s a hideous offspring. The question of who is a worthy and fitting member of society and recipient of this generosity arises wherever there are boundaries between the inside of the national community and its dark outside. These boundaries tyrannically assert the “proper” relationship between the host, whose customs and way of life are to be celebrated and reproduced, and the guest, the temporary worker, the stranger in a strange land. Whatever rules of reciprocity may operate within, nationally-organized economies are still ultimately defined by othering and zero-sum competition. 

Pelle explains that a real community is a place where “we don’t argue about what is yours and what is mine,” but all of that is contingent on belonging and acceptance into the community in the first place. Internal generosity is always set against a global logic of scarcity. The Hårga forms an island in the sea able to operate by special customs. The feast of the hosts is enjoyed at the expense of the guests, some of whom may be invited to fulfill key reproductive functions, and others suitable only for sacrifice necessary to the cult’s self-renewal.  

* * *

If the film constitutes a critique of what we could call the bordered utopia of social democracy, that is, a false utopia that circumscribes itself because it is rooted in a logic of exclusion, then the quasi-feminism of Dani’s revenge plot shows how these othering utopias foreclose themselves on a more intimate register as well. Dani’s “journey” is guided by an imagination of female autonomy based on an unspoken myth of homogeneity. She not only seeks an empathetic community to grieve with her, she seeks a mirror-commune, a collectivity that will emulate her without questioning her. Dani is able to experience both a cleansing break from a toxic relationship and an embrace by a communal “family” only because she looks like that family and she is willing to accept the destruction of those who don’t. 

This narrative makes explicit the rationale of many conventional “feminist” bordered utopian narratives. This logic hit an all-time nadir in a recent tweet by white supremacist Tara McCarthy: 

“Women in the Alt Right are constantly harassed by low status anonymous trolls trying to put us in our place. Women…are harassed for various ‘reasons’. The ultimate goal seems to bully us off the internet. Men in the Alt Right are going to have to decide whether they will continue to passively/actively endorse this behavior, or speak out against it. If you want more women speaking publicly about ethno nationalism, I suggest you choose the latter.” 

This insistence that alt-right women are entitled to equal treatment in order to serve ethno nationalism resonates with Pelle’s treatment of Dani. In Midsommar, Pelle steps up to McCarthy’s challenge and calls out Christian’s bullying behavior. He plays the “feminist” only to induct Dani into a white supremacist cult where women do all the cooking. 

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Although these white nationalist calls for “feminism” seem extreme, ostensibly liberal endorsements of imperialism in the name of anti-patriarchy follow this same logic. Women who heroized Malala Yousafzai for triumphing over Pakistani patriarchy without acknowledging the role of U.S. imperialism in the region as a source of violence against women are examples of the common sense racism behind mainstream feminist narratives.

While many films naturalize this false feminist utopia, Midsommar’s stylized approach to Dani’s narrative estranges this logic and makes it overt. The film makes great use of melodrama, staging Dani’s grief and relationships in over-the top gestures.  Additionally, Harga’s organicity is saturated with psychedelic distortions and drug references. These stylistic choices trouble typical forms of identification and realism.  

Thus far, reviewers have mostly seen the film either as a gratifying revenge narrative or a neutral tale of a break-up in which both parties are just wrong for each other. But the film doesn’t operate in these realistic frames. From the beginning Dani’s grief goes beyond the scope of two people breaking up, or even beyond the loss of her whole family. Her lamentations pierce through to the social structures that subtend these people and events. Her keening expresses the grief of having been interpellated into a world constituted by the patriarchal family, as Sophie Lewis has persuasively argued. [4] This howling negativity is the true utopia of the film. The point is not purgation. Quenching this grief without addressing its roots would constitute capitulation to the bordered utopias of social democracy and liberal feminism. 

Similarly to the protagonist of Hereditary, Dani is both theatrically expressive and embarrassed by her grief. This shame stems from an unconscious knowledge that women’s anguish is the repressed monster of the film–it is a rejection of the whole system that structures Dani’s relationship with Christian, her family, with school, with her own isolation. Like that of Toni Colette as Annie in Hereditary, Pugh’s performance of this perpetual broken-heartedness is a melodramatic tour de force. Her emotion is operatic without being silly. The pain is real but not realistic. It is cosmic. As in Fassbinder’s Brechtian melodramas, Aster demonstrates this by both amplifying and diminishing the sounds of her despair and anxiety. This aural estrangement is evident in a scene where Dani contacts Christian after hearing of her family’s death. Her frequent phone calls had been the source of his friends’ misogynist ribbing, and he reluctantly answers her call while they continue to humiliate him. Through his cell phone we hear Dani’s tinny keening, giving it an eerier feel than if we heard it at full volume. Another moment of estrangement is the shot of Dani laying across Christian’s lap, wailing. We see this intimate scene through a doorway in a medium long shot, distancing us and showing the scene as “framed” by the camera. 

As Sophie Lewis asserts, Aster does not have explicitly radical views—he has stated that his interests are aesthetic rather than political. [5] However, his intertextual view of film allows Midsommar to comment on generic, common sense views of politics and culture. His variation on “folk horror,” is knowing and denaturalizing. He keeps the “spine” of the genre while completely reinventing the filmic language around it, with melodrama being the prime influence, a genre which, he says “tak[es] characters’ inner states and then match[es] the world of the film to what’s happening inside.” [6] 

As much as Aster is influenced by melodrama, the genre arguably belongs to a previous era, a time when repression and conformity was an explicit part of modern life. In our moment that superficially celebrates freedom and sensuality, when repression works in more sinuous and subtle ways, neo-melodrama must be seen as a citational, estranged, meta-genre. And although Aster does not have the same explicit politics of other directors of the meta-melodramatic genre such as Fassbinder or Todd Haynes, his framings create similar effects and affects. As Thomas Erffmeyer enumerates, some of the aspects of Fassbinder’s melodrama include “extremes of emotion, stylized acting, the use of outrageous coincidence, and a generally ‘excessive’ level of spectacle.” All of these elements are glaringly apparent in Midsommar. Like folk-horror, melodrama takes the form of a parable and exteriorizes psychological conflict. In this, Gerd Gemunden compares melodrama “to the Brechtian Gestus which challenges the representation of things as unquestioned givens.” [7] 

Deirdre Pribam argues that melodrama provides an alternate aesthetic to that of an internalized, privatized, introspective, individualizing modernity. Instead melodrama presents “socioemotional” individuals whose feelings belong to the public sphere. These are “culturally embedded beings operating within or contesting social institutions and practices.” (243) and the accompanying aesthetic mode is expressionist, extroverted, excessive, and gestural. Emotions are seen as public, like Dani’s extreme grief and joy, and cannot be tethered to individualistic narratives. [8] 

Melodrama is a form that generally takes place in domestic interiors and helps us estrange everyday reproductive and emotional labor. It would seem, then, that Dani’s move away from everyday life and into the fantastic, sun-drenched realm of Hårga would mark a move away from her shadowed, domestic claustrophobia and into the light. But instead, just as melodrama estranges domestic life in the first part of the film, any trace of realism in the second part is infused with a psychedelic and comic logic that correlates to the estrangement we feel in the film’s first section. Hårga is not an escape from or antinomy to Dani’s modern domestic alienation, it is a further step down the rabbit hole that reveals that this same alienation pervades public life. The transition illustrates Chloe Watlington’s understanding of the family as “a microcosm of a national tragedy: a world that ruthlessly forces everyone but the few, clear “winners,” into isolation and despair”–a bordered utopia that is actually a dystopia. [9]

Hårga is not an escape from or antinomy to Dani’s modern domestic alienation, it is a further step down the rabbit hole that reveals that this same alienation pervades public life.

The transition from one world to the other unfolds under a literal sign of exclusion: “Stop the mass immigration to Halsingland.” “Vote for free north in the fall!” read the banners flying over the road to Hårga. The upside-down world that Dani is to enter finds a language for this logic in psychedelic imagery that constantly reminds us how the Hårga distorts our real, desperate desires. Instead it forces us to settle for what we’re given while repressing the question that Thom Donovan has posited:  

“what are the deaths of others that undergird and thus make possible our existence indeed our flourishing and what are the collective lies and gaslightings that keep others from knowing their coerced and forced deaths?”

Immediately upon her arrival, Dani is coerced into drinking a psychedelic concoction and throughout the rest of the film this dosing continues. This initial trip establishes Dani’s relationship to the “natural.” She sits under a tree and envisions grass sprouting from her foot. It seems that this will be a moment where she will be able to connect with nature. But this feeling corresponds to a stoned pronouncement by Mark (the most flagrant symbol of patriarchal hollowness of the group) that he is connected to the group as family. This linkage of Mark and Dani’s “connection” shows that the effects of the psychedelics are not to unite the group with nature, but rather to thrust them deeper into alienation, separating them more dramatically from communal hope by offering cheap illusions of reciprocity. 

From this moment on, the psychedelic experience of nature in the Hårga will serve to point out how unnatural and constructed the situation is. The people of Hårga present themselves as simple, natural folk with customs that might be troubling to some but who are harmonious with nature. However, the vitriol and calculation behind this organicity is constantly exposed. For instance, the friendly and jovial “brother” of Pelle, Ingemar, also brings visitors to celebrate Midsommar at Hårga. When introducing his guests, Connie and Simon–two of three people of color who will be killed by the community–he lets slip that the choice of these two was not innocent. He was rejected romantically by Connie. The pair’s death will not be an inevitable outcome of an organic communal ritual but a form of individual revenge operating closer to the logic of incel culture. 

The film shows the paradox of the foreclosed utopia through comical juxtapositions infused with psychedelic distortions. Dani is forced to relive the death of her parents through watching two elders dive from a cliff, breaking apart with unimaginable gore. The elders of Hårga try to argue that this destruction of feeble older people as a part of a natural cycle of life, but this utopia, as we have noted, is clearly a false utopia of eugenics. Instead, the repetition of parental deaths elevates Dani’s original trauma to a hallucinatory and comic level—a cartoonish fascism. 

This estrangement holds true in the framing of Christian’s final betrayal. In the discourse of a liberal feminist narrative we are supposed to see Christian’s bizarre sex-act with Maja as cheating on Dani, for which he will receive his just comuppance at the end of the film. And yet, out of his mind on drugs with which he has been forcibly dosed, Christian is merely a puppet in a surrealistic scene that involves an elderly woman helping him to thrust into the young girl assigned to be impregnated by him while a middle aged woman loudly sings an annoying folk song in his ear. Both times I saw this in the theater, the scene elicited near universal laughter rather than anger at a boyfriend’s cheating.

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This comedic betrayal must make us question the gravitas of Dani’s mourning in the subsequent scene as she is surrounded by the young women of Hårga and “held” by their reciprocal wails. The powerful scene of Dani trying to isolate herself and instead finding herself encircled by a group of young women who hold her gaze and keen right along with her, is felt as a utopian moment of collective emotion and purgation. However, in context, they do not so much hold her as mirror her, showing the mise en abyme of the bordered utopia in which empathy is contingent on homogeny. 

The film climaxes in a mêlé of surreal revenge as Dani presides over the immolation of bear-suited Christian and his fellow sacrifices. Having purged herself of her shitty boyfriend, she finally smiles. On the surface, this pleasure is offered as triumph, a sensual psychedelic consummation of the audience’s empathetic immersion. But for any audience member who has caught onto the Nazi fantasy version of communal utopia, there’s a dissonance. This creates what Mark Fisher calls, borrowing from Robert Pfaller, “interpassivity:” the fantasy of anti-capitalism serves the cause of capital itself.

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If Dani’s expression lightens at the film’s end, this is belied by the heaviness of her body. As the other Hårga denizens demonstrably lament around her, she drags herself across the landscape, weighed down by the thousand flowers of her May Day robe and crown. The scene evokes high camp portrayals of femininity in which women and femmes are over-laden by all the accoutrements of gender performance. In this case, Dani’s performance as female avenger is another form of camp since, in the upside-down logic of Hårga, feminist retribution cannot be separated from the cult of white supremacy. This comedic, flamboyant ending does not so much enact a culmination of the liberal feminist revenge plot as deploy queer reflexively to ennunciate the limits and contradictions of a bordered utopia structured by white supremacy and liberal feminism. 

 

[1] Henley, Jon. “Denmark’s centre-left set to win election with anti-immigration shift.” The Guardian, 4 June 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/04/denmark-centre-left-predicted-win-election-social-democrats-anti-immigration-policies

[2] Steven, Mark. Splatter Capital: The Political Economy of Gore Film, Repeater Books, 2017.

[3] Ngo, Madeleine. “‘No Ghettos in  2030’: Denmark’s controversial plan to get rid of immigrant neighborhoods.” Vox, 3 June, 2018. https://www.vox.com/world/2018/7/3/17525960/denmark-children-immigrant-muslim-danish-ghetto

[4] Lewis, Sophie. “The Satanic Death Cult is Real.” Commune Magazine, 28 August 2019. https://communemag.com/the-satanic-death-cult-is-real/

[5] Beresford, Trilby. “Midsommar director Ari Aster details his influences.” The Hollywood Reporter, 2 July, 2019. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/midsommar-filmmaker-ari-aster-details-his-influences-1221613

[6]  Ibid. 

[7] Gemünden, Gerd. “Re-fusing Brecht: The Cultural Politics of Fassbinder’s German Hollywood.” New German Critique, No. 63, 1994. 70 [8] 

[8] Pribram, Deirdre E. “The Aesthetics of Emotion.” Melodrama Unbound: Across History, Media, and National Cultures. Edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, Columbia University Press, 2018.

[9] Watlington, Chloe. “Who Owns Tomorrow?” Commune Magazine, 27 June, 2019.  https://communemag.com/who-owns-tomorrow/

 

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