“Midsommar” and the Horror of Human Empathy

Midsommar In Ari Aster's "Midsommar," one person's grief belongs to everyone. (A24)

In Ari Aster’s latest, sharing each other’s emotions is scarier than being alone.

There’s a school of parenting where if a toddler is having a tantrum, the elder shares it with them. They don’t invalidate the child, tell it to be quiet, or turn the cold shoulder. Instead, they turn their shoulder towards the kid; they echo its hardships until they get out of it together. In one piece, that is—not two. They are, for as much or little as their family begins, the only part of the world that exists.

In Ari Aster’s Midsommar, all the characters are children. They’re watchers instead of doers, lacking families or any involvement in society. American grad students Christian (Jack Reynor) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) are anthropology students, their interests and professions predicated on observing from afar. Their friend Mark (Will Poulter) is a strawman who doles out chauvinistic one-liners, unaware that the outsider he mocks is the lonely man he is.

That leaves Dani (Florence Pugh), who, after losing her sister and parents in a murder-suicide at the beginning of the film, has only her relationship with the manipulative Christian. He acts nice because he “has” to; she apologizes because she can’t afford to lose anything else. He only acts out of obligations; she responds with the only emotional truth that any of these social orphans feel. These aren’t real emotions, though. They’re insipid, reactionary.

It’s when the four join Swedish exchange student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to his home village that a family shows itself, only it’s exponentially larger than anyone could have hoped for. It’s his entire community. It knows no bounds. It simply knows itself, and that’s all that’s necessary. The commune works in harmony just as nature does, weaving in and out. Take away one leaf and you take away the entire forest.

But aside from the parallels between this pagan setting and the nature they worship is something much more insular, and it affects the outsiders more than anyone else. So what’s the issue? Is it the anxiety that Dani feels as her “friends” posit her as an intruder within their social group? Is it the grief that exacerbates things, or is it a mindset whose incompleteness churns out fragments of growth while the viewer waits for her to attain anything more?

For a while, it seems to be all of the above. That’s better than nothing, though—it’s much more than her peers get. Much like in Hereditary, Aster plays with the viewer’s awareness of genre tropes, placing them alongside the antagonist(s) in terms of character agency and in line with the four when it comes to emotions. It’s clear that Mark’s xenophobia will bite him in the ass, and when it does, his loss is something of a relief. It’s clear that Josh’s obsession with watching instead of partaking can only get him so far, and when he takes a club to the head, it’s inevitable. It’s all for the greater good. But while passiveness is the real poison here, that doesn’t mean activity is the key to success either.

Case in point: Christian’s comparatively active pursuit after a young siren named Maja (Isabelle Grill), who’s cast a love potion on him. As they have sex, what’s thought to be his own satisfaction becomes the pleasure of a dozen others. A dozen strangers, watching and writhing along, come to share his emotions with him. His actions give pleasure to Maja. Maja’s moans echo through a dozen other women. As it turns out, no emotions can exist in a vacuum.

In theory, this is something to celebrate. Assuming the situation was less unethical, why wouldn’t you want to share your joy with your family? Why would you keep it to yourself? Why wouldn’t you want it to erase others’ grief? Their emptiness, their sadness, their trauma, that microscopic void hidden in the recesses of one’s mind that has the strength of a black hole? Would it be selfish not to do so?

As it turns out, no emotions can exist in a vacuum.

Possibly, but therein lies the fear of Midsommar. This isn’t just a movie about death, or grief, or breaking up with the leech you’ve called your lover. It’s about the horrors of human empathy — how feeling less alone means losing your individuality. For this particular quartet, they have to cling onto whatever individuality they have, and with their banal outfits and archetypal personalities, they pride themselves on a sense of self without having any of their own.

That leaves the viewer—the one existing on a plane larger than this single story—to project as much or as little of one’s own past experiences as they’d like. In a way, it gives Midsommar a meta quality to it, gleefully confining its characters under a sunlit proscenium. Its Dorothy, its Cowardly Lion, its Scarecrow, and its Tin Man—all in their own hellish Oz—exist as the Jungian shadows of the audience they dance around for—the audience of you and I.

So who is the inverse? It’s the cult itself. We are the cult. We’re the ones that get joy from each other, share each other’s sadness, and feed on emotional intake until we reach a catharsis as unhinged as the end of the world. We’re the organism that hopes to take in all who enter. We’re the screams, the cries, the whispers. We identify with Dani as she gives into the larger collective, realizing her own potential even if it means subjecting others to the pain that comes from jettisoning the most toxic person from her life.

Whether that’s good or bad is beside the point. The cult in Midsommar is divorced from most economical, political, and social strata, reducing it to the basic emotional responses. Aster doesn’t care much for ethics either, and he knows that it’s impossible to feel something without others reacting in whatever way they may. They could laugh alongside us or bathe in our tears, but either way, it’s about birth through pain. Death through happiness. The phagocytosis that swallows others whole and digests the rest through fire, even if that means letting people suffer in the process. Nothing is your own. It’s ours. It’s normalized, but does that make it less special?

Possibly. That uncertainty—that loss of perspective in the world—is what’s scary. The experience is brutal. It’s cleansing. It is what it is, and it’s never enough. It’s the cult of humankind.

Midsommar Trailer:

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