In Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin’s Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film In America, the writers explore how it was up to queer audiences to gaze at straight cultural artificats through their own lens. Camp, in particular, “was (and still is) a tactic that can be used to deconstruct the heterosexual presumptions of dominant culture.” The book goes on to emphasize that queer audiences have always been fascinated by both horror films and domestic melodramas, works that “officially support the dominant heteronormative social system, but as many critics have noted, [are] structured in such a way as to emphasize the defects that plague that system.” Ari Aster’s Midsommar exists to do just that.
Where Hereditary felt like two souls at odds with each other in one body, Midsommar is a work of cathartic camp, entirely dedicated to the journey that Dani (Florence Pugh) must take towards enlightenment. There’s no second act shift, no lean in to something like how Hereditary had Ann Dowd’s drag-like aping of Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby, but rather a constant presence of off-beat humor mixed into the horror. To cite Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.”
It’s in a head exploding upon its smashing, the petals of a flower contracting and expanding ad nauseam in a crown, the synchronized moaning and screaming present in a group’s collective consciousness. They’re images that are equally revolting and appealing, depending on the audience member watching and the context they’re being given. The beauty goes hand in hand with the grotesquerie, and the distinct style of Aster’s filmmaking is even noticable in the flowery presentation of decaying bodies (something that calls to mind Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal adaptation, itself a queer and camp series that trades in slow, stylized horror).
And the Hårga, where Midsommar’s characters head to find either peace or death, is a deeply theatrical realm. It’s self-described as “silly” and presented as a place where artifice is an ideal alternative to a world grounded in reality. This notion, in and of itself, is inherently queer and camp, but the way Aster frames the warmth of the Hårga as a stark contrast to the emotional stagnancy of city life and all the grief that comes with it isn’t exactly unique. It’s where his description of Midsommar as “The Wizard of Oz for perverts” proves more apt a descriptor than expected.
Kansas and the Land of Oz exist in as much visual and thematic contrast as the Hårga and the city Dani is from, the former depicted by sliding into glorious Technicolor and the latter leaving behind the winter for the beauty of midsommar. If the Hårga is Oz, there must be a tornado: Aster takes us through a turbulent flight, a camera that literally turns the film on its head, and a walk through the woods to a land of wonder. Where Oz had munchkins, singing and welcoming Dorothy to a place she could find herself and her new family, the Hårga has a commune willing to incorporate Dani into every aspect of their lives.
And there lies Dani’s true obstacle: the suffocation that her idea of family has brought onto her. A sense of control seems impossible for her; she’s prone to disassociation (with the world around her becoming either an abnormality or a completely faded out void of sound and sight), she’s barely able to manage her anxiety after the death of her sister and parents, and she’s being gaslighted into maintaining a relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), a man practically begging to get out this coupling while staying tied to her out of pity. Everything in her established life is more of a burden than a comfort, a representation of the patriarchal norms that need rebelling against. Anonymous suburban houses in the night keeping everyone boxed in (antithetical to the notion of both camp and queerness) are traded for the wide beauty of the daylight and the Hårga, a communal wonderland where one is invited into a community, as long as they don’t seek to exploit it.
In Midsommar, a number of outsiders are invited into the Hårga by natives Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) and Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg) under the guise of witnessing their traditions and celebrations. Aside from Dani, there’s Christian, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), Connie (Ellora Torchia), and Simon (Archie Madekwe). Aster frames everyone in this group except for Dani as an outsider looking in, whether that’s a heterosexual man applying his fetishistic gaze onto every woman, or a straight couple unwilling to open their mind to the way a community they view as “other” functions, or two anthropologists who seek to exploit the culture that they’ve entered without ever truly engaging with it. Ultimately, everyone is about as dense as a bachelorette in a queer bar, except for Dani, the character coded rather explicitly as a part of the family.
Dani is in fact recognizably queer to the individuals of the commune and to any queer viewer relating her narrative to that of many a protagonist of so-called women’s pictures. As Patricia White explains in unInvited: Classics Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, “the women’s picture scenarios of secret suffering, anonymous desire, immediate recognition, forbidden physicality—of perversion and excess—have definite queer appeal.” Just as domestic melodramas invoke queer subtexts with their focus on female homosociality, we see Dani evolve from someone hooked on the codependency of her heterosexual relationship to someone who actually engages with the rituals and customs of a decidedly queer community.
As such, the people who act like colonists and seek to exploit a community are done away with, one by one, while the community warmly accepts Dani as one of their own. Her otherness in a group of narrow-minded individuals is present from the get-go and precisely what makes her an appealing addition to the people of Hårga. This sense of being an other is emphasized stylistically by how Aster isolates her in every frame. By no means is he subtle about it, and he stretches a certain instability (especially via dissociative episode) into every frame and conversation. Dani is a stranger in her own relationship, constantly being dismissed by Christian and being manipulated into subservience. “I’m very lucky to have you,” she tells him, but later wonders aloud: “What if I’m a chore?” She has internalized the idea that she is a burden in this world, but so deeply wants to emulate what she’s seen is correct; that is, maintaining a relationship and performing the rituals that men and women do (anniversaries, birthday celebrations, dates) for the sake of what we believe is an ideal lifestyle.
But the Hårga offers a true ideal, welcoming Dani into their world while the men indulge in their studies and stupidities, refusing to engage with a newfound culture in any meaningful capacity. She is the only one that dons their clothing, learns to cook and live with them, and participates in their traditions and festivities. Though certain aspects of their lifestyle (particularly that of their life cycles coming to an end) come as a shock and provide her with an initial hesitancy and sense of internal conflict, it’s not dissimilar to how many queer people initially reject the lifestyle they believe is queer, clinging to traditions and internalized hatred (like “masc” gay men who side-eye femininity and public displays of queerness).
Queerness is not something immediately grasped by most, but through traditions and a gradual progression into the fold is how we find a sense of community. The people of the commune share their pain and their joy, just as any minority community comes together to mourn and celebrate. When our world is invaded and disrespected, do we not navigate that pain as a whole? Do we not memorialize and pay tribute to those who came before us? The community at Midsommar’s core does the same, in a far more vocal manner, coming together in breaths, in screams, and in moans, uniting themselves beyond the body, becoming a whole rather than a sum of individual parts. Dani becomes one with a community that welcomes her, finding a home in a world that seeks to embrace and understand her, and leaves behind a world of cold touches, passive-aggression, forgotten birthdays and dismissive statements.
The Hårga additionally offers a world beyond explicit dialogue, where coded language is the standard and only those in the know can understand (to the point of the Oracle’s text only being interpretable by those within the community, similar to how coded language works in art). When Dani dances with the other women to see who is crowned the May Queen, she surpasses traditional text and learns to communicate with her mind and body. It is, ultimately, not indifferent to Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics and how we use visual coding to include each other. As one who understands what she’s become a part of, she is told bluntly: “you’re part of the family now.” And to a woman who has spent her life being sold the lie that she’s happy with her given family, this commune offers an actual chance at joy, a joy that she can feel in every fiber of her being.
It’s here we find a return to The Wizard of Oz and its status as a queer text, both it and Midsommar dedicated to the notion of finding family in an unfamiliar land that, inevitably, ends up becoming more familiar than your preconceived notion of home. There’s no “Over the Rainbow” here, because Dani has never once had the opportunity to dream of a world that wasn’t the one she was trapped in. But there is a home for Dani present in Midsommar, and as Diana Ross sings in The Wiz, “When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.” When Pelle asks Dani if Christian feels like home to her, she knows the answer is no, but can’t quite vocalize it. He specifies to Dani, still overwhelmed with grief from the loss of her given family, “I have always felt held, by a family, a real family, which everyone deserves, and you deserve.” And the Hårga offers her just that: a world where she can be held and can smile and feels the love of others flowing through her very core and through the nature surrounding her.
The way this community transfers and shares their emotions, indulging in each other’s pains and pleasures, isn’t unfamiliar territory for queer art (and Aster, like David Cronenberg before him in films like The Brood, is well aware of how a certain physicality and the horror of the body is inherently tied to that). The absurdity that is present in all of the traditions and lifestyles of those in the commune isn’t meant to be laughed at, but the way the outsiders react to it is a source of humor. Aster makes it clear we are laughing at the men who have invaded a safe space and giving ourselves over to the commune in the same with that Dani does.
Where Dorothy left Oz and the beautiful people she discovered, only to realize they were a part of her life all along, Dani remains at peace in the Hårga. Much like any classic film accompanied by a happy ending, there’s a swell of music (by composer The Haxan Cloak) and a synchronicity to the community’s chanting, screaming, and laughing. The old has been left behind for the new, the conventional burned down for the sake of queer immersion. When Dani cries, we all cry. When Dani smiles, we all smile. She doesn’t need to tap her shoes together three times to get back home, she’s already there.
Directed by Ari Aster; written by Ari Aster; starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, and Will Poulter; 147 minutes.