Midsommar is about the lure of fascism to the alienated white petty bourgeoisie.
The film opens with Dani, a young white female grad student, trapped in a dark, disconnected ‘ordinary’ world. She is agonizing over an ambiguous, disturbing email from her sister, trying (and failing) to get some comfort over the phone from her emotionally distant boyfriend, Christian. Dani’s guilty anxiety about whether or not to take her sister’s threats seriously will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a loved one have a mental crisis from hundreds of miles away. Dani cannot communicate with her sister or share her trauma; she is haunted by obligations to her sister that are absolutely pressing but impossible to fulfill. Her sister enacts a ritual sacrifice of herself and her parents, filling the house with car exhaust. However, within the context of the ‘modern’ world, this jump into the abyss can only be read as insanity.
In opposition to the grim and grab ‘modern’ world, the village of Hårga represents a triumph of Aryan collectivity which is profoundly attractive to Dani. There is no difference; there is no disconnection. Everything proceeds according to a perfect order. The villagers practice an idealized form of agricultural labor. We see women washing dishes, but the act seems symbolic more than anything, since nothing in the movie is ever dirty. We are bombarded with perfect, vivid colors against perfect, vivid white. We don’t see the kind of simple, soul-grinding drudgery that characterizes rural domestic labor—just the production of kitschy folk commodities and quaint foods. (And it is the outside capitalist’s worlds demand for these folk commodities that sustains the village economically, as we learn through Josh’s discussion with the village elder.) They use computers and watch Austin Powers. Contrary to the stereotype of a cult, the Hårga encourage their young people to go outside—not just for a sort of Rumspringa but for a third of their life—and experience the world. They are not an ‘alternative’ to the modern world but dependent on it and perfectly in harmony with it, and their nature-folk-worship only makes sense in the context of the modern world. The villagers of Hårga would be totally alien to actual ancient Swedish peasants.
The commune goes on and on about how connected they are with nature; but of course, they aren’t, particularly. Nothing about their violence is “natural”, in the sense of proceeding unmediated from the Forces of Nature; it is profoundly. Their practices around sex and death are profoundly odd. They resemble some real social practices, but they could not possibly sustain a real village commune for centuries. Everyone is tripping balls, constantly; you need mushrooms to get yourself through this existence, it doesn’t proceed according to the ‘natural’ human life cycle, such as it is.
Thus, the figure of Josh, the black anthropologist, is incredibly important. The movie carefully primes us with the familiar horror stereotype: the ugly Americans who charge into the ‘indigenous’ community and get what’s coming to them. The scene with Josh is so obviously telegraphed: the elders tell him about a sacred book he can’t see; of course he breaks in and looks at it anyway; of course they come and kill him and we think, Of Course, you Idiot, you broke into the Thing You Never Were Meant To See and paid the Price. But rather than see this as another revenge-by-the-natives-against-the-arrogant-anthropologist, we need to take race in the movie seriously.
Josh represents an indissoluble threat to their way of life, their imagined unbroken Aryan paganism. I’m sure Josh, if he were real, as a serious scholar of midsummer rituals, could tell us that the Hårga are based on nineteenth-century European understandings of paganism, suffused with racist ideas and having little to do with actual peasant communities. (The elder at the beginning of the movie is entirely nonplussed when Josh compares one of their beliefs to the practices of a group in India.) The script for the movie carefully notes the poster of James George Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, a key basis for this kind of ‘scholarship,’ in Josh’s apartment. The camera also lingers on a book called The Secret Nazi Language of the Elder Uthark, reminding us of new-age fascism reinterpretations of paganism. (Extra thanks to a commenter on reddit for pointing out, which I did not know, that the poster at the beginning of the movie reads ‘Vote Free North. Stop mass immigration to Hålsingland.’) The imagined Aryan homeland must be maintained. They represent a colonial, imperialist fantasy of migration: their children can go out and conquer the world; they bring back only who they chose to, people who can be sexually exploited and killed as soon as they serve no other purpose.
The overwhelming fear of analysis, comparison, and a critical eye from the Global South prevents the villagers from understanding or accepting Josh—they can only kill him. The framing of the ‘arrogant anthropologist invading the native community’, a horror trope based on the actual historical racism of anthropology, blinds us to what is actually happening on screen. The murder of Josh represents the pervasive fear of ‘the academy,’ ‘SJWs,’ all those clever minority professors plotting white genocide in their ivory towers, whose rational exegesis threatens the mass delusions on which white petty-bourgeois fascism depends.
Similarly, the interpersonal dynamics of Christian and Dani’s toxic relationship blind us to the wider gender violence the cult asks her to accept. There’s been a lot said on “neoliberal identity politics,” much of it crap, but I think the film offers a useful example of a certain form of it—how you can use accepted tropes (accepted because they reflect reality) of certain kinds of stereotyped ‘bro’ behavior to lure the audience’s attention toward this and away from the wider violence going on all around you. It also represents the fantasy of complementarianism, which can be found in conservative religious writing but also misbegotten feminist writing which got away from a correct critique of the antimonies of white bourgeois feminism and ‘agency’ into reactionary nonsense. The women here have Power, they have equal status and in fact sexually exploit men, not the other way around. (I’ve avoided singling out Aster because, first, The Director Is Dead and what matters is what’s on film and, second, I don’t know/necessarily want to know his actual intentions, but I do find it annoying he sees this as a Clever Subversion of Horror Tropes when literally one of the most ancient stories around is that of the man trapped by the sexually predatory sorceress.) Their work, as I mentioned before, consists mostly of the sort of care and cultural production people tend to find value in, away from dirt and drudgery. The perfect—white—female community, in which everyone immediately feels your pain and is there to support you. The fulfillment of the pain (and it’s very, very real pain) of the white female bourgeois subject, who is a Queen of her own private fairy tale all along.
The village runs along the ritual sacrifice of the elderly and the outsider (and it is No Accident that the first to die are the POC Simon and Connie). Those who no longer have a concrete use can be ejected, as can those from the outside. Not just sacrifice, but total consumption by fire, and in a building specially designed for that purpose, after paralyzing the victims with various chemicals. This ritual purging is done for the emotional well-being of the villagers. But if the village is an idyll, from whence the extreme emotional angst that must be purged? Is this simply the Human Condition, Human Nature? Or is the central irony that the villagers do not understand that it is the village that causes the problems for them that it then solves? At the end of the film, he villagers Ulf and Ingemar willingly sacrifice themselves, but as the flames billow, we see at the end the pure terror in their eyes. They have realized, too late, that to sacrifice yourself for the Nation means nothing at all.
(But how was the movie, Elizabeth? It was good but I didn’t like it as much as Hereditary).