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The horrifying ‘Midsommar’ is a breakup movie, according to director Ari Aster

Florence Pugh, left, and Jack Reynor as Dani and Christian in "Midsommar." (Gabor Kotschy/A24)

Warning: This story contains spoilers for “Midsommar.”

“Midsommar” is not for the fainthearted. With its disquieting philosophies and relentless gore, the recent release might just outdo director Ari Aster’s last freaky thriller, the indie sensation “Hereditary,” in eliciting audible reactions from its audiences. This is the sort of movie people watch from between their fingers. It’s the sort that led someone to leave the theater halfway through while uttering the words, “My God, I can’t take this anymore.”

But at first blush, Aster would describe “Midsommar” differently. He firmly considers this to be a breakup movie and, as he recently told The Washington Post, “more of a fairy tale than a horror film.”

His fairy tale leans more Brothers Grimm than Walt Disney, to put it lightly. The couple in peril consists of our heroine, Dani (Florence Pugh), an American graduate student reeling from the sudden death of her family, and Christian (Jack Reynor), the aloof boyfriend who had been on the verge of dumping her. They travel to the Swedish countryside with a trio of Christian’s buddies, one of whom was raised in a commune there and another of whom is looking to include said commune’s folksy midsummer celebration in his thesis.

If a single trip to Ikea can end a disintegrating relationship, imagine how much damage an ocean-crossing trip to an isolated Swedish village could do. There’s an obvious disconnect between Dani and Christian, a palpable awkwardness as he tries to console her after her family tragedy. While Christian’s friends aren’t great — one of them equates Dani’s need for emotional support with abuse — Aster, who wrote the film in the aftermath of his own breakup, is careful not to villainize Christian right off the bat.

“I felt like Dani at the time of writing it, but I definitely have been on both sides of that dynamic,” Aster says. “I’ve been in relationships where I feel that I care a lot more than the partner, and I’m clinging to something and don’t want to let go of something even after it stops working. And then I’ve been in the place of wanting to leave and being either afraid to leave because I’m worrying about regretting it, or because I don’t want to hurt the other person. So you sort of just stay in that limbo.”

The celebration turns out to be more disturbing than the community’s light linens, flower crowns and recreational drug-taking would suggest. Tapestries and wall paintings hint at the unusual rituals that await the visitors: a love tonic made with pubic hair and menstrual blood, a large bear that will presumably be let out of its cage. The Americans, along with a visiting British couple, are horrified by the sight of an elderly couple jumping off a cliff to their deaths, only to be told that it’s a ritual called Attestupa, a predestined end to the life cycle.

Attestupa also marks the beginning of Dani’s and Christian’s fates diverging. The British visitors, who decide to leave the commune after witnessing the deaths, serve as a foil to the American couple. They lean on each other for support, whereas when Dani, already grieving, turns to Christian for help processing, he couldn’t be more of a limp noodle. His Swedish friend later asks Dani: “Do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?” Her expression alone is enough of an answer.

This is an Ari Aster movie, remember, so the British visitors don’t actually get to leave. Their bodies are instead sacrificed for Midsommar ceremonies, as are those of Christian’s American friends. By the time it gets down to Dani, who is crowned the all-powerful May Queen after enduring a maypole-centric dance ritual, and Christian, on whom a Swedish girl sets her sights, his fate becomes clear. (But, just in case, it is further solidified when Dani catches him cheating on her with that girl in the film’s already infamous sex scene.)

“In this film, Dani is the protagonist and Christian is, for all intents and purposes, a foil,” Aster says. “I wanted him to be somebody that people could relate to . . . but in the context of this film, he is the antagonist and, ultimately, an obstacle to Dani as far as, you know, achieving what she needs and finding any sort of peace.”

It could be because of the drugs, but Dani eventually finds her peace as the May Queen when, given a choice between Christian and someone else, she decides to sacrifice her ex-boyfriend in the celebration’s final ceremony. He is stitched into a bear carcass and burned to a crisp; a small smile grows on her face as she watches. The Swedish commune has become the source of support Christian could never provide. They feel like home to her. (Despite the murders, Aster says that he “tried to not only make this community a band of mustache-twirling kooks, but to actually have them tied to something beautiful.”)

Might this be one of the most horrifying breakup movies to ever exist? Yes, absolutely. But Aster lets viewers interpret the ending for themselves, and the sense of recognition some audience members probably felt while watching Dani and Christian linger in their unhealthy relationship is arguably just as scary. Maybe this fairy tale doesn’t have the unhappiest ending, after all.