Midsommar – The Arts of Sacrifice, Reciprocity, and Breathing

So look, Ari Aster dropped this weird movie early in the height of the heat this year and it rattled my cage quite a bit. From its subjects to its imagery, Midsommar was a traumatic event for me this year and I’ve revisited it…I think six times? That’s a lot for a newer film, but it’s one that I can’t seem to get enough of despite the way it guts my heart on every viewing. There is so much going on in almost every scene, from toxicity to family to a pulsating, all-natural backdrop. 

Breath is such a currency in this film, and Aster spends it well. From the beginning we see Dani (Florence Pugh) sniffling, struggling to breathe in her stress. We follow this with a horrific scene that is about nothing but breath. For those that are reading this and don’t care about spoilers, the scene is difficult for anyone who has suffered from less-than-positive thoughts before. It’s beyond upsetting and revolves entirely around the simple act of breathing, something humans have turned into an art form (we smoke everything we can fit into a pipe these days). Here we see the devastating consequences of doing it improperly, with people entering the home of Dani’s family in gas masks to protect themselves from the poison within. This poison, summoned from car tailpipes, has been harvested by her sister Terri for a borderline ritualistic suicide. Taped beneath the door, she has sacrificed her parents to her depression before setting up a gruesome tableau by taping a pipe full of the gas to her own mouth and suffocating herself. She’s even splayed out in the Christ-pose, a lamb offered up to audiences for plot purposes that drive our characters and narrative into their full setup. This is our first sacrifice, but it’s far from our last. 

This theme of sacrifice, those that are sincere and those that are hollow, will follow us through the rest of the film. It requires reciprocity and meaning and, yes, even breathing.

Inhaling and exhaling become quite prominent almost immediately after this. Everything from the smoking of weed to the traditional quick exhale/inhale affect of the Hårga is designed to remind us that this was all kicked off with breath and that it will end with it as well. Every moment revolves around it, from Dani’s panicked and gasping cries in the airplane bathroom from the way the flowers seem to be taking air during hallucinogenic trips on psilocybin in gorgeously-lit fields, and I believe Aster is asking us to consider every breath we take as part of a larger world. We breathe with the environment, with the world we’re part of, but we have to understand this as a metaphor for belonging. 

That sense of belonging, of being held and holding in return, is part of the art of reciprocity. Creating a sense of belonging, of true love in any sort of relationship, revolves around that give-and-take sensation that is at once a burden and a fulfillment. Midsommar wants to talk about a lot of these relationships, from the idea of family to romantic relationships and even the balance in our relationship with the earth we walk on. Symptoms of connectivity, or the lack thereof, are visible in all aspects of these types of interactions and healthy ones come from reciprocity. Watching Dani and her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), interact and represent the unhealthy form of this type of thing. We see it early on, the emotionally manipulative actions both of them partake in. Don’t get me wrong, Christian is a shitty boyfriend, but he’s in a relationship that isn’t right for either of the people involved and he’s the one that has realized this. Instead of giving honesty, though, he gives a half-assed dedication due to the situation he’s landed in. No one can plan to be involved with someone who lost their whole family, it’s just not something you can forsee (though he should have, since apparently the warning signs were all there), and he foolishly has stayed in the relationship too long to be free. This proves to be his undoing and Dani’s salvation but…is she really okay?

The Hårga serve as the reciprocity Dani is looking for, a selfless family that allows her to join them and become held at last. With the loss of one family, she is introduced to another, one that is chosen. I’ve harped on plenty about “the chosen family” but it really is an important thing to consider. Most of us have that friend group that we consider our own, people we’d do anything for and who would do anything for us. I’ve got my own group like that and I never feel anything but appreciation and love for them, grateful every single day for their presence in my life. How many of you can say the same? What Dani experiences, though, is very different. She is taken by a commune (okay, a cult) that lives as though no one is any singular individual, instead part of a larger whole. This can feel enticing but her behavior makes it seem as though she’s traded one type of unhealthy relationship for another and it’s telling that even reciprocity can be misused. 

Both that reciprocity and the lack thereof seem to unveil themselves through the art of sacrifice, whether that done by choice or those done without. We see this early on during the ättestupa, a ritualistic suicide performed by the elders on the edge of a high precipice. When a Hårga reaches the end of their four-part lifecycle they climb high, cut their palms, and leap to their deaths as they pass on their life energy to the rest of the cult. If this is done improperly, with them surviving the fall, they are beaten to death with a giant hammer. While horrific, this tradition has long been used to describe ritualistic and purposeful suicide in Swedish culture. Not all portrayals are positive; for example, one family is so miserly that they commit the act just to keep their wealth from being spent on hospitable acts. Aster takes a different view but encapsulates all of the brutality surrounding the deaths, showing their gruesome finales with all sorts of judgemental views cast upon it even while justifying tradition instead. 

Sacrifice isn’t always a choice, though, and the decision made by Dani in the final moments of the film is one of brutality. She rejects Christian, sacrificing his life to free herself from the suffering she’s found in the non-reciprocal relationship that has mutated from their life together. He, in turn, is encased in a carcass (that’s not on the nose…not at all…) and burned alive in a sacred temple built especially for the occasion. While we’re told those living inside won’t feel pain, as the two cultist volunteers are given yew to negate the suffering, we hear them scream in agony as they burn and realize that Christian can also feel the same fire without the ability to cry out. It’s a brutal ending but one that feels full of purpose. It’s a shame that we also learn just how full of bullshit the cult is due to their own members suffering after being told that they’re going to be okay. This is where we discover the true nature of sacrifice in the film.

The reciprocity is the sacrifice, the back-and-forth of a true relationship that feels fulfilling and happy. The deaths in the film accomplish nothing as the cult’s beliefs are proven to be false, but the act of a healthy and loving tie is shown to be represented by sacrifices. Dani gives everything of herself to Christian without being given much of anything in return. Early on she calls a girlfriend, desperate to feel better about the relationship, and she is informed that open intimacy is lacking between the couple and that reciprocity is needed. These simple acts shouldn’t be ignored as they are the last gasp at a true connection. That’s the focus of what Aster is trying to say, that even though we feel comfortable in an interaction doesn’t mean it’s right and that reciprocity is necessary for everyone to feel fulfilled. 

Practice the art of calm, the art of breathing, and fill your life with sacrifices and reciprocity. These are the lessons of Midsommar, a film that is so deeply discussed as a disturbing horror film and that loses the message beneath what people only see on the surface. The heart of it is still meant to be something of a slasher film, a folk-horror tale that puts us in an alternate reality with drug trips and cultural differences, but the essence of it involves shining a light on all of our interactions, whether they be platonic or otherwise. These meaningful moments make for an ancient-yet-contemporary look at what it means to truly give and be given to, asking us what connections we’re lacking and which ones we’re not fully giving to. 

Take a deep breath and ask yourself…who do you love?

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