Rewatching Midsommar during a pandemic renewed my desire to live
The Dani struggling in the daylight to find somewhere to hide from herself struck something deep within me.
It took me years to figure out that crying wasn’t the worst part of depression. It wasn’t the feeling of drowning in tears and spit, nor was it the suffocating sensation of constantly having to avoid spilling over completely. Crying was only the beginning, and being numb meant finally giving in to the destruction. And if there was one unlikely film that helped me get through this waking nightmare amid the doom and uncertainty of a pandemic, it would be none other than Ari Aster’s 2019 folk-horror Midsommar.
There were plenty of unforgettable scenes in Aster’s fable about 20-somethings in a disturbingly comical Wicker Man/ Final Destination plot, from the crowning of the heroine Dani (Florence Pugh) as the May Queen to the denouement of her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) burning to death in a yellow sacrificial barn while paralyzed in a bear suit. The scene that struck me the most, however, was the one where Dani lay in bed motionless with no discernible expression on her face after learning about the death of her family.
It was a quiet scene less than 15 minutes into the film, and yet it triggered something in me that was far more discomforting than anything else shown on screen. Dani was experiencing the worst kind of sadness — the kind that I had learned to live with and tried to stave off with meds or any other therapist-approved form of distraction. It was the blank stare of someone so fed up with struggling that she gave in to her own vulnerability. Dani’s face in that scene was the face of someone that succumbed to depression.
Before COVID-19 disrupted everything, I was at that point where I really began to rely on myself to survive in the world. At 25, I’ve already had three therapists, countless prescriptions for antidepressants, a unit I shared with three roommates, and a soul-crushing job I only took for stability. I had few friends, no social life to speak of, and endless problems with relationships (in all sense of the word). I barely talked to my conservative parents because I was afraid of losing my family if they learned about how different I wanted my life to be compared to theirs.
I had no choice but to face my own sadness, emotional trauma, and frustration over the systems in place when COVID-19 happened. It felt like the end of the world, and there was nowhere to go with all the coffee shops, bookstores, bars, and any other place of escape closed down. In normal circumstances, I would just walk out the door and wallow in my sadness to see if it would go away once I went elsewhere. But now, there was nothing else to do but stare blankly the way Dani did when she lay in bed, tired and silently grieving.
As someone who grew up reserved and constantly feeling out of place, I found myself regretting the fact that I always hesitated to find the brightness behind the cynicism of the world at large. In a way, I was looking for my own Hårga — a place that would make me believe that it’s not too late to live and make the most of whatever good is left in the world.
When Dani arrived at the Hårga’s commune in Hälsingland, Sweden, there was a sense of warmth and welcome. And yet, it was evident that she was still struggling to heal from her accumulated trauma. She constantly isolated herself when she felt strong emotions and tried to present a veneer of normalcy. When she defended herself from Christian, she reverted to guilt and chose the need to please and placate over her own well-being.
It’s these on-screen breakdowns that made me realize how many times I chose to keep my mouth shut and look stoic so I wouldn’t ruin the mood with my sadness. I felt the way Dani needed to tell herself over and over again that she’s fine while failing to hide the fact that she’s bursting at the seams. This Dani, the Dani struggling in the daylight to find somewhere to hide from herself, struck something deep within me. I went back to being that silent little girl who drifts off to someplace as if she could run away from her feelings by breaking away from everybody else.
When I re-watched Midsommar by myself one weekend, I felt my anxieties wrap their sharp tendrils around my neck, especially now that I am in the first serious relationship of my life. I was afraid of my vulnerability being exploited, but mostly I was afraid of pushing my boyfriend away if I failed to judge the rationality of my feelings. At one point in the film, Dani asked, “I lean on him constantly for support. Like, what if I have overwhelmed him, and he thinks that I just have too much baggage?” Four months into the relationship, I still don’t know the answer to that.
Simplistic as it may sound, Midsommar taught me that we have our own capacities to let go of what hurts us. And when we’re finally free from the pain, there’s a sense of all-encompassing lightness. Midsommar is not about the debate of whether Dani’s — and the Hårga’s — actions at the end of the film were justifiable. Midsommar is about unapologetically embracing vulnerability and choosing to take control knowing that the world has so much to offer.
Especially as a woman, I learned from Midsommar that it’s possible for me to be empowered at my weakest — that regaining control can also mean giving in to the softness of the flowers and sunlight. The Hårga’s celebration of nature served as a reminder that there’s nothing wrong with giving in to the rawness of human emotions from time to time; that it’s possible to be feel empowered simply by being aware of our faulty brain chemistries and intense feelings that we fear will just push everyone away.
The barn-burning climax didn’t have to mean the total loss of self that Dani arguably experienced at the end of the film, but rather the signal fire that reminded us to free ourselves from the pain and just live. It didn’t have to be the harbinger of complete healing, but rather the celebratory bonfire of a renewed sense of life or even a funeral pyre for the shackles of trauma.
I felt bad for Dani because she had to resort to being completely broken to find contentment but at the same time, I was happy for her because she finally found a place that never made her feel unimportant. She was no longer the perennial fish out of water. Her enigmatic smile at the end reminds me of what Sylvia Plath once wrote before her untimely death: “Perhaps someday the revelation will burst in upon me and I will see the other side of this monumental grotesque joke. And then I’ll laugh. And then I’ll know what life is.”
Despite the hell we experienced in 2020, we also saw people fight back in efforts to cling to any semblance of hope. That’s enough reason for me to keep living. Or rather, choose to live this time. I keep telling myself that when all this is over and the vaccines have made life a little easier, I’ll no longer give in to wallowing. This time, I’ll be kinder to myself. I’ll teach my brain that not everything is out to get me. I’ll let myself feel alive. I don’t care if I have to scream, cry, shout, or dance to get there. I have to do what I can to stop myself from feeling like I’m dying all the time.
In the scene where Dani was declared May Queen, she asks one of the high-ranking elders if Christian can come with her for the crowning rituals. “The queen must ride alone,” the elder replied. After all that Dani has been through, she finds peace with the Hårga. She just needed to look inside her to see that she has always been a queen all along. Others can help, especially the ones that can make us feel held, but queens ride this journey alone.
And, like Dani, I finally know that I have the capacity to survive the fire and the end of the world.
This opinion piece is a guest post. United By Pop welcomes guest posts of all kinds from its readers and followers. If you’re interested in seeing your own words published here, please find more information on our submissions process here.