For any film set mainly in one location, the physical environment takes on particular significance, and Midsommar (2019) is a perfect example of the setting playing a crucial role in the story. Like Dani and her group, the audience are thrust into the world of the Hårga, searching for clues in the surroundings to make sense of what is happening during the increasingly sinister festivities. The world of the Hårga has been meticulously constructed by the filmmakers, and is rich in symbolism – everything from the shape and color of the buildings to the placement of furniture designed to tell us about the culture and history of this society, and their intentions towards the visitors.
Somewhat jarringly for a film called Midsommar, the opening scenes show wintry landscapes of snow-covered trees and houses. This first act cuts between Dani in her apartment, becoming increasingly worried about the ominous message from her sister, and the horrific events unfolding at her parents’ house. After Dani hears about the death of her family, we see Christian attempting to comfort a sobbing Dani in a dimly-lit room, the camera zooms in on the window above them, as the opening credits begin and the title “Midsommar” appears incongruously over the shot of the night sky and snow falling. These scenes take place entirely at night, providing a sharp contrast to the unrelenting sunshine that will form the backdrop for the majority of the film. This initial association of winter and darkness with Dani‘s grief suggests that she sees the Swedish trip as an opportunity for escape from this pain, by entering an environment far removed from the cold and darkness she associates with her loss.
As Dani, Christian and his friends Josh, Mark and Pelle make the journey to Sweden, there are a number of unusual cuts and camera effects, which give a sense that all is not quite right with the place they are travelling to. After Pelle offers his condolences to Dani at the students’ flat she runs to the bathroom, and as an overhead shot shows her going through the door, there is a sudden match cut to Dani in the bathroom of the plane. In the director’s cut there are similar jumps in time during the car journey to Hälsingland, again as the camera is focusing on Dani, highlighting her disorientation. As the group drive into Hälsingland, they pass beneath a banner welcoming visitors to the region, and the camera turns upside down, suggesting that there is something amiss with the place itself, and that the welcome is not all that it seems.
Before going to the village itself, the group stops off at a field where they meet Pelle‘s friend Ingemar, who has brought visitors of his own – Connie and Simon. They decide to take mushrooms (although Dani is at first reluctant), and settle down to take in their surroundings. Mark points out the strangeness of the continuing daylight, asking anxiously, “What time is it?” Pelle seek to reassure him, saying “it’s fine… it’s Sweden”, and encouraging the Americans to feel “the energy coming up from the earth”. Dani starts to hallucinate, seeing the grass growing into and through her hands. She becomes distressed and leaves the group, eventually running into the trees and passing out. On awakening, she is also confused by the constant daylight, asking if it’s tomorrow already. This early scene establishes the importance of the natural environment, its connection to the Hårga and its power to affect and disorient the outsiders.
The Hårga are shown to be closely aligned with nature, their rituals involving natural materials like the constantly burning flame, the sacred ancestral tree, flower crowns and the greenery-covered maypole. The lush, verdant scenery surrounding the village seems itself to be a living entity – Pelle mentions the “trees breathing”, and director Ari Aster uses special effects to show actual movement in the landscape. The tree-covered mountains in the background subtly undulate, the flowers on Dani‘s May Queen crown gently expand and contract as if breathing themselves, and she again sees the grass growing through her just before beginning the ritual dance competition. These movements are especially pronounced in the scenes where the characters take the psychedelic substances that are used as part of the Hårga rituals, and show that the result of taking these is a sense of assimilation with the natural world. Production designer Henrik Svensson notes the importance of the flora: “greenery is often taken for granted — put some bushes in the background or whatever — but this film really stood and fell with greenery.”
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“A great deal of behind-the-scenes work went into putting details into the environment that suggest a rich history […]”
The ättestupa scene visually demonstrates the innate connection between the Hårga and the land – in their all-white clothing, they almost entirely blend into the scenery of the chalk cliffs, in contrast to the visitors, who stand out against the uniform crowd. As the film progresses, however, the outsiders too become forcibly engulfed by the natural world. The ritual murders of the visitors involves their bodies being either consumed or invaded by nature, as we see when they are brought to the sun temple in the final scenes. Josh has been buried in earth, Mark‘s body stuffed with straw, Simon has his eyes replaced with flowers, Connie is covered with branches and immersed in the river, and Christian is sewn into the body of a bear. Dani‘s physical self is also gradually taken over by nature, albeit less violently – she is dressed in a Hårga outfit and flower crown for the dancing, garlanded with more elaborate floral decorations when she wins, and for the burning of the fire temple is placed within a huge mass of flowers that completely covers her body, with almost all signs of her individual self masked.
For Midsommar, the filmmakers had to create a fictional community that had a sense of its own history, culture and customs. As we see the Hårga through the eyes of Dani and her group, who are given only selected, surface-level information about the community by Pelle and the other villagers, much of what the audience gets to know about Hårga society has to be gleaned from the physical surroundings. A great deal of behind-the-scenes work went into putting details into the environment that suggest a rich history, with the intention of creating “credibility and coherency in the production on a subtle but crucial level.” We first see the village as the outsiders enter through the impressive sun gate, an eye-like wooden structure that symbolically divides the community from the rest of the world, suggesting that the group have entered an entirely different world, with its own unfamiliar laws and customs. The buildings that make up the village are large and separated from each other, each having its own particular purpose, and are clearly designed for communal living. As concept artist Ragnar Persson comments: “Every house was supposed to have different feelings.”
The visitors are first shown into the large dorm room which is covered, cathedral-like, in murals. The visitors gaze in wonder at these, saying they are “like scripture” and “like another world”. These paintings depict Hårga rituals, many of which feature violence or bloody sacrifice, and although the characters have no way of knowing how literal these representations are, they add a distinct sense of foreboding. As production designer Henrik Svensson says, “I wanted to make a beautiful and fascinating space that, after a while in it, would make you go: ‘Wait a minute… What the hell is this?’” This structure is deliberately oversized, a “pumped up, fascist architecture-style”, suggesting that behind the welcoming facade, there is a desire on the part of the Hårga to demonstrate their power.
The most striking building is the triangular fire temple, whose purpose remains unknown to both the audience and the visiting characters until the close of the film. When asked about it, Pelle enigmatically says that it’s “like a sacred temple, but no-one’s allowed in there”. The colors of the temple – yellow, with blue-painted inner doors – are the same as the Swedish flag, and was an intentional reference on the part of the designers, a comment on “how wrong nationalism is.” This colour scheme occurs multiple times throughout the film, for instance on Dani‘s parents’ bedding, and the clothes she sees them wearing in her dream. These colors always have ominous associations in Midsommar, as Henrik Svensson says, “the yellow and the blue our signs of death”.
“A common theme of folk horror is the tension created by the uncertainty of how welcome outsiders are in a closed-off community, and this is certainly a major theme in Midsommar, demonstrated by the different levels of access to spaces granted to Dani, Christian and his friends.”
The architecture and the style of decoration were modelled on real Swedish buildings –“actual traditions in Hälsingland, but on steroids.” Art director Nille Svensson explains that basing the murals on the “national treasure” of Hälsingland decorative paintings and the use of runes is a deliberate reference and critique of historical and contemporary Swedish nationalism: the idea of “adhering to an idea of the ‘glorious’ Swedish past” being shared by “the current rise of far-right movements in Sweden” and the “fascist-nationalist reasoning” of the Hårga, as they seek to either assimilate or murder those visiting them. The runes themselves were developed from the dances created for the film by choreographer Anna Vnuk – Nille Svensson says that “there were some interesting arm movements that looked a bit like calligraphy, so we used that to develop the alphabet system”. This runic alphabet is ever-present in the design of the village – carved into the stones at the top of the cliff, embroidered on clothing, in the wall paintings and even in the layout of the tables at which the Hårga and their guests eat.
A common theme of folk horror is the tension created by the uncertainty of how welcome outsiders are in a closed-off community, and this is certainly a major theme in Midsommar, demonstrated by the different levels of access to spaces granted to Dani, Christian and his friends. All are invited into the dorm, but at the same time it is an intimidating space, with no privacy and some disturbingly violent wall art. Josh is allowed into the archive building to see the sacred texts only after Pelle‘s persuasion of the elders, and it is his later trespass here that leads to his murder. The archive room itself is a forbidding space – sparse and painted entirely in black. The huge bookshelves lining the walls show that the Hårga society has existed for a very long time, this unbroken history suggesting rigid adherence to tradition.
Dani and Christian are the only members of the group actively invited into others spaces, but their experiences are very different. Dani is shown into the kitchen to help with food preparation, where she is given an apron, complimented and made to feel welcome. Christian, in contrast, is almost ordered to village elder Siv’s house, where he hunches uncomfortably on a chair that looks too small for him, as Siv informs him that he has been chosen to mate with Maja, one of the Hårga women. As the Hårga bring Dani further into their fold, they exclude Christian, and everywhere becomes hostile to him. When he flees, naked and panicked, after the sex ritual with Maja, runs to seek refuge in various buildings, but instead discovers the bodies of his friends, and is eventually trapped and paralysed by the villagers.
Many of the events of Midsommar are foreshadowed though visual elements of the production and set design. The very first shot of the film is a picture by artist Mu Pan which depicts most of the plot of the film – the death of Dani’s family, Pelle leading the visitors to Hälsingland, the ättestupa ritual and the May Queen dance. We see a similar pictorial story as the visitors are being shown around the village – a tapestry in the foreground of a shot depicts a woman casting a love spell over a man by placing a rune under his bed and spiking his meal with menstrual blood and pubic hair, which Maja later does to Christian. Towards the end of the film, as Christian waits for Siv in her house, he is sat facing a mural of a burning bear, which is very soon to become his own fate.
“[Ari] Aster and his production team subvert the notion of daylight equalling safety, showing the horrors of the Hårga in bright, unrelenting sunshine to be plainly seen.”
There are subtler moments of foreshadowing at the start of the film – Dani is associated early on with visuals later linked to the Hårga, hinting that she will eventually become part of that community. In her parents’ house there is a photo of her on a side table which is surrounded by flowers, mirroring her later role as May Queen. In her own apartment there is a large painting of a girl in a crown and a brown bear, representing the eventual fates of herself and Christian. Many of the murals in the Hårga buildings show future events of the film, and as Nille Svensson has said, these are not just cinematic Easter eggs, but a core part of the fictional community’s beliefs: the images are “prophetic…for the Hårgas, history and future are the same. Their culture is cyclical.”
The dense, rich production design of Midsommar adds a huge amount to the understanding and enjoyment of the film, and there are many aspects which can only be fully appreciated on rewatching the film for a second, third (or even fourth) time. Aster and his production team subvert the notion of daylight equalling safety, showing the horrors of the Hårga in bright, unrelenting sunshine to be plainly seen. The exquisitely designed Hårga buildings and the intoxicating summery beauty of the natural landscape in Midsommar belie the malice just below the surface – as Henrik Svensson puts it: “I loved the idea of having traditionally ‘beautiful’ aesthetics represent darkness — such is the case with lush summer blossom.”
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