flowers in midsommar

“Poppies bleed petals of sheer excess. You and I, this sweet battle ground.” – Janet Fitch, White Oleander 

Whether they’re in full bloom or slowly wilting, petals delicately falling to the floor like abandoned dreams, flowers can represent an array of emotions. It is customary to give flowers to loved ones during times of celebration and remorse. Their striking beauty and distinctive aromas provide a quick comfort, while some possess noxious traits that can elicit hallucinogenic, painful, or even fatal outcomes.

Ari Aster’s sophomore feature, Midsommar, utilizes flora to enhance the film’s visual and thematic use of juxtaposition. Light and dark. Foreign and familiar. Freedom and codependency. Safe and dangerous. The presence and use of flowers are reflective of both life and death while a young woman navigates through her grief in the sun-kissed fields of Sweden. Spoilers for Midsommar ahead.

Midsommar alludes to a traditional Swedish festival originally practiced as a pagan holiday that commemorates the arrival of summer and the longest day of the year.  While there is some religious significance behind the holiday, the festival is mostly about nature and the coming of light. A giant maypole decorated in flowers is erected for ceremonial purposes; attendees dance and play games around the towering structure. Wildflowers are at their peak bloom during this time of year and many adorn the village’s homes with greenery for good luck or are made into flower crowns as a symbol for rebirth, fertility, and the prospect of courtship. These are the anchors that writer/director Ari Aster employs to harness the emotional gravity of his latest horror film. 

Reluctant to express her true emotions to her long-time boyfriend, Dani (Florence Pugh) has no choice but to lean on her partner after she experiences a devastating family tragedy. Cradling Dani as she is doubled-over and wailing his arms, Christian (Jack Reynor) stares blankly into the night, frozen in his unrequited love and terrified with the realization that he is trapped in his obligatory role as Dani’s sole support system. The color yellow is quickly linked to Dani’s traumatic experiences. The floral wallpaper in her childhood home and bed sheet that encases the bodies of her departed parents are both a dark mustard hue.

This has an eerie familiarity to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story about a woman who is encouraged to act in certain ways by her controlling husband in order to aid her depression and borderline hysteria. Gilman’s story involved the specific societal roles attributed to women and often highlighted issues such as a lack of social life outside of the home, along with the oppressive forces of the patriarchy. Additionally, the stereotypes of women’s mental health and diagnoses of depression yielded absurd “cures” which fit the framework of a male gaze through gaslighting and oppression. These are all themes that are relevant through Dani’s journey of grief as Christian downplays her trauma while his friends help deceive her and cover for Christian’s poor actions. This occurs while Dani attempts to be the “cool girl” who doesn’t want to intrude on anyone’s good time by concealing the reality of her pain from the loss of her family as well as the slow deterioration of her romantic relationship. 

Once Dani embarks on the trip to Sweden, the film’s cinematography begins to reflect emotional realizations that Dani has frequently suppressed. Upon entering the secluded community of Hårga, bright yellow buttercups greet her along with delusively kind smiles. In floriography (the language of flowers or cryptological communication through the arrangement of flowers), buttercups are associated with riches. While Dani has experienced severe trauma and loss, the path to her enlightenment and ultimate salvation is guided by flora. Throughout the film, flowers are used to usher both Dani and Christian into their fates.

One of the Swedish Midsummer traditions consists of picking seven flowers and placing them under one’s pillow at night. Young women believe if they do this, their future husband will be revealed to them in their dreams. Dani picks flowers backwards and hands them to Christian. “These are for you” she lovingly states as if she wants to stay together, continuously putting in more effort than her aloof boyfriend. However, as the film progresses, Dani begins to pay closer attention to Christian’s minimal attempts to salvage their relationship. He forgets her birthday; he doesn’t know exactly how long they have been dating; and he focuses on his thesis more than Dani’s breakdowns or successes once she wins the title of May Queen. The more Dani acknowledges Christian’s selfishness and narcissism, the presence of flora amplifies in the film. 

Roses are laid upon the ground guiding Christian to have an absurdly deviant sexual encounter with one of the young women of Hårga, while Dani completes May Queen duties adorned in an elaborate floral crown and a carriage covered in flowers and ivy. While roses symbolize love, the act Christian completes is catastrophically damaging to Dani and meant to serve a specific purpose within the community. However, it’s this betrayal that secures Dani’s rock bottom state and allows her to not only see Christian for who he truly is, but also to embrace the community members of Hårga who surround her with empathy in her guttural screams and flowing tears – an emotional validation and cradle Dani has longed for from the beginning.

Throughout their time in Sweden, entheogens are freely served with sadistic sweetness meant to suppress inhibition and restraint. Similar methods of utilizing flora to enhance control have been used in Rosemary’s Baby though the witches’ gift of Tannis Root, a fictional fungus considered to have special powers to serve Satan during rituals. There is a familiar theme of control and chaos that pervades Midsommarpresenting itself through Dani’s grieving process, romantic revelations, and the community’s rituals. She continuously suppresses her emotions for the sake of others, instead opting to break down in the bathroom or retreat to the forest to scream in her solitude. Christian tries to gaslight both Dani and his colleagues for his thesis while the community has their own clandestine plans.

Control over love and death prevails with ritualistic sexual encounters for reproduction as well as a suicide ritual known as Ättestupa, in which elders gladly fall to their death at the age of 72. Entheogens are utilized before the elders kill themselves, which is not an uncommon practice in real life. For example, Jimson Weed (or “Devil’s Snare”) contains toxic, hallucinogenic properties which has been used by various cultures throughout history. In Haiti, Jimson Weed was commonly used for voodoo practices and referenced in author Wade Davis’ book The Serpent and the Rainbow

Other plants used as a reference for the film community’s dangerously deviant spiritual and medical approach to flora include Brugmansia and Hogweed. Commonly known as “angel trumpets,” Brugmansia contains medicinal properties which can be applied transdermally to treat such ailments as arthritis, dermatitis, and rheumatism as an anti-inflammatory. Hogweed, on the other hand, produces a toxic sap that can cause painful blisters, burns, and even blindness. On the spiritual side, production designer Henrik Svensson referenced traditional use of flora in several ways. For example, warden trees are utilized to predict weather as well as ward off evil and disease. The concept of handling nature was surrounded by sets of rules as seen with the Hårgans. Some traditions in Sweden require harvesting using only the left hand in southern wind with a decreasing moon. Additionally, there’s a belief that if one cuts a fern by the root, then the letters of your future lover will appear in the cut. Regarding love divination, Sedum Telephium (sometimes called Midsummer Men) is known for getting people to fall in love with you. 

Midsommar May Queen Dani

Another prominent yellow flower used within Dani’s costume design is St. John’s Wort, a plant commonly used to alleviate depression, anxiety, and insomnia – all issues Dani regularly battles. During the time she assumes her position of authority as May Queen, Dani is adorned in an elaborate dress made of flowers that completely engulf her. It is a visual representation of her blossoming into the person she’s longed to be among her newfound community, who now assumes the role of the family she had lost. It’s a moment of symbiosis between Dani and mother nature: she is able to breathe life into a world otherwise surrounded by death, and her separation from Christian allows her to blossom in every sense of the word, until she ultimately becomes one with nature.

Henrik Svensson mentioned the inspiration for Dani’s dress was rooted in pre-Raphaelite era artwork, like John Everett Millais’ “Opheli” as well as “The Four Seasons” by Belgian symbolist Léon Frédéric. The presence of wildflowers from the Swedish mid-north in Dani’s dress are a combination of bluebells (symbolizing everlasting love), cornflowers (traditionally worn by men in love and represents unreturned love), and forget-me-nots (representative of true love). The mix of yellow, blue, red, pink, and green flowers are symbolic of a controlled chaos in which Dani ultimately asserts dominance over herself and her surroundings. She no longer sacrifices herself for the love of others, but instead embraces a newfound love for herself.

Like the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Dani rises above her lover’s ill intentions. From an uncontrollable despair and pattern of codependency, Dani smiles subtly at the end of the film as she embraces her new life blooming all around her while her past burns to the ground in a symbolic yellow pyramid-shaped temple. It is a cathartic moment as Dani welcomes a new identity born from death, paradoxically providing her the strength she needed to grow and, like the flowers that surround her, truly flourish.

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