This story contains major plot details from both versions of “Midsommar.”
On July 3, Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” was released on 2,700 screens across the United States. The twisted modern fairy tale —an epic fable that starts with a bleak murder-suicide, and ends with a somewhat brighter one almost 147 minutes later — was an extraordinary ask for a multiplex audience, and Aster knew full well how fortunate he was that “Hereditary” had bought him another chance to sell his madness to the mainstream. Even with A24’s full support, the young filmmaker was aware that he could only push his luck so far.
On the evening of August 17, less than two months later, Aster took the stage at Film at Lincoln Center’s annual Scary Movies festival to introduce the world premiere of his 171-minute “Midsommar” director’s cut. And, in characteristic fashion, he couldn’t have been more sheepish about it, or sensitive to how the whole thing looked. “I know I seem like a self-righteous prick,” he said to the giddy sold-out crowd, at least one member of whom was decked out in an intricate “Midsommar” t-shirt.
Well, “joked” might not be the right word. People revere the ego required to make great movies, but often roll their eyes at anyone who tries to make them even greater; there’s a fine line between vision and vanity, and the public is quick to feel betrayed whenever a popular artist doesn’t treat them like a communal benefactor.
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Besides, “director’s cuts” are traditionally reserved for well-established auteurs, and tend not to see the light of day until their respective theatrical editions have long since taken all their money off the table. “Midsommar,” by contrast, is still playing in some first-run theaters. If most director’s cuts feel like alternate histories, this one might seem more like a mulligan.
But Aster wasn’t asking for a do-over. He supervised every second of the version that made its way to several thousand screens, and remains happy with the results. He should be. If “Midsommar” wasn’t a hit quite on par with “Hereditary,” this much less-accessible movie did solid business in a dismal market for original fare, and it still came off like an uncompromised work of someone who couldn’t check his swing if he tried. Fans didn’t want the film to be different; they just wanted to see more of it.
That’s exactly what Aster’s director’s cut gives them. And it truly is the director’s cut — the one that he trimmed down from his nearly four-hour assembly, and sent to A24 just a few short months before the movie was set to come out. The distributor politely “encouraged” him to keep trimming it down, at which point Aster began ritualistically sacrificing his darlings. The process may have been traumatizing for him, but — as he admitted to the Lincoln Center audience before the screening — the — the 171-minute version was “not releasable.”
Aster appears to have a very clear-eyed view of his own work, especially for someone who couldn’t be closer to it. He introduced the new cut of “Midsommar” as “the more complete version of this film,” conceding that the “theatrical cut may have better pacing, but this is the fuller picture.” And that turned out to be a spot-on summation of what he then unveiled to the crowd.
The director’s cut of “Midsommar” isn’t a radically different movie, but it’s a much richer one; some of the added moments are less vital than others, but all of them help to create a more textured experience, and — perhaps most importantly — give you the time required to fall even deeper under its harsh psychedelic spell. “If a movie is good, I want to stay in it,” Aster said before the screening. And “Midsommar” now grants you that wish. Aster’s new edit might raise some eyebrows, but this is what a director’s cut should be.
Unlike Sergio Leone with “Once Upon a Time in America,” Aster hasn’t made any major structural changes to the movie; unlike James Cameron with “The Abyss,” he hasn’t introduced a radically different ending, or provided new information that might transform the core essence of what we know about any of the major characters. With two crucial exceptions, most of the new material is sewn into pre-existing scenes. Casual fans might not be able to flag the bits they haven’t seen before, while first-time viewers would be hard-pressed to identify which parts were deemed extraneous for the theatrical cut.
This is still the story of college student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), whose long-dessicated relationship with a narcissistic anthropology grad named Christian (Jack Reynor) is disfigured into something truly grotesque after her older sister kills herself and their parents one snowy night. Dani is still so isolated by her grief that she has no choice but to be emotionally reliant upon Christian, and Christian is still so much of a coward that he’d rather string Dani along than confront that he doesn’t love her (or have any idea what he’s doing with his own life). Alone together, the two of them are still a mordantly hilarious caricature of an American mindset that says it’s better to suffer forever than die with dignity.
They still get to see how the other half lives when they join Christian’s friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) for a midsummer celebration at his ancestral Swedish commune of Hårga. Dani still becomes the May Queen. Christian is still stuffed inside a bear carcass and burned alive along with the bodies of his friends. It all still resolves on a cathartic note, as Dani’s toxic relationship goes up in flames.
Only now, those flames don’t feel quite as cleansing as they once did. Aster has said that he wanted the finale to be “exciting and kind of crowd-pleasing… and also something complicated that you’d have to contend with.” Here, that bittersweet aftertaste hits you sooner, and with a bigger shock of flavor. Christian is an even more pronounced asshole in the director’s cut, and there’s an even greater satisfaction in seeing Dani select him to be the last human sacrifice at the end of the festivities. But the Hårga culture — which offers Dani a new family, a welcoming sisterhood, and a very aggressive interpretation on the circle of life — also seems more sinister than it did before. As nice as it can be that grief is collectively dispersed across the entire Hårga community, at a certain point Dani is just trading one extreme form of codependency for another.
The first chunk of added material in the director’s cut speaks to the former kind. In the theatrical version, we don’t learn that Dani is coming on the trip to Sweden until Christian springs the news on his unsuspecting friends. Now, a lengthy scene of dialogue has been added in Dani’s living room just before the part where Dani swings by the boys’ apartment. Christian, desperate to ease his tension with Dani, accidentally invites her to come on the trip, and then plays it off as though it had been his plan all along; he claims it was going to be a romantic gesture, and that Dani just ruined her own surprise.
Christian has always been a shit-eating scumbag, and this new scene cranks up the volume on his douchiness from the start. It’s the least effective of the additional footage, as it slows things down before the movie even gets to Sweden, but it’s helpful to appreciate just how unwilling Christian is to untether himself from the devastated girl he can’t wait to dump. What once almost seemed like compassion now reads like pure cowardice.
Unsurprisingly, much of the new footage is devoted to fleshing out the Hårga rituals, and the collectivist harmony that’s expressed through them. When the Americans arrive in the village, they’re treated to an eerily well-balanced group singalong (introduced through a bird’s-eye shot of the locals seated in the shape of a giant rune). There’s also a new emphasis on the eternal flame of the Hårga fire pit, which is used to cremate the bodies of the two people who jump off the ättestupa. The village finds a use for their ashes (everything has its season).
It’s one of several ways in which the director’s cut stresses the Hårga’s obsession with death, which now casts a darker shadow over the midsummer celebrations (this critic is reasonably confident the ättestupa scene now includes a gory new shot of the woman’s imploded corpse bouncing off the rock where it lands). Meanwhile, Aster satisfies anyone jonesing for more of Will Poulter’s ultra-peevish comic relief. Did the ättestupa pre-meal ritual need Poulter joking about sticking his finger up the old man’s ass? Probably not, but it plays.
Watching the director’s cut, it eventually becomes clear that several of the scenes Aster edited back in form an interconnected subplot of sorts; when he deleted one of them from the theatrical version, he had to delete them all. The first evidence of this occurs after the ättestupa, as Christian is invited to help decorate a fir tree with various pagan ornaments. Maja (Isabelle Grill), his pre-selected mate, is also there, but she’s pretty shy.
Initially, this restored moment seems to be about laying a firmer groundwork for the film’s climax, but things pivot in an ominous new direction when the same imagery resurfaces in this cut’s most significant new sequence: A night-time(!) drowning ritual on the shores of a nearby river. The Hårga gather by the water, and perform a lighthearted (if characteristically morbid) skit about making an offering to the goddess; in this case, the offering is a “brave” young boy named Bror with a very unenthusiastic mother.
Bror is dressed in the same tinselly chainmail that Christian helped out on the tree, and then prepared to be sacrificed into the water; they even force him to hold a giant stone for good measure. But the ceremony is halted at the last moment, as Bron’s bravery is deemed a sufficient gift to the goddess. Everyone laughs. Good times. No child murder tonight. But if you look closely at what Connie (Ellora Torchia) is wearing at the end of her movie when her body is wheeled into the funeral pyre, the mystery of her death can now be solved: She was drowned in Bror’s place.
Meanwhile, Dani pulls Christian aside to ask him — and I’m paraphrasing here — “what the actual fuck?!” Whereas the theatrical cut painted Dani as being more in tune with the Hårga practices, this scene reminds us that, for all of her trauma, she’s often the most grounded character in the film. She’s thoroughly creeped out by the midsummer festivities (she calls them “backwards”), and begs Christian to leave with her. But Christian — stupid, oafish Christian, who was born to be the victim of a horror movie — wants to stay; he’s finally found a work subject he’s excited about, and doesn’t need Dani anymore.
Christian insists that being welcomed into the secret rituals of the Hårga is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to which Dani replies: “Why would they trust opportunistic anthropology students!?” It’s a good point that Christian is too self-interested to hear. She asks if he doesn’t love her anymore, he makes a shitty comment about the flowers that we see Dani pick for him in both cuts, and they veer closer to breaking up than at any other time in the movie. Well, until she burns it all down, anyway. Predictably, the scene ends with Dani saying she’s sorry.
This night-time sequence accounts for somewhere between 10-15 minutes of the new footage, and Aster had little choice but to remove the entire section wholesale. On the one hand, this long patch of darkness breaks the spell of one of the brightest movies ever made. “Midsommar” lulls you into susceptibility; it’s less interested in horror than in hypnosis. Without entirely relying on easy genre tropes — and without the benefits of the Hårga’s mind-altering herbal drugs — Aster compels viewers towards a state of mind in which Christian’s death isn’t just satisfying, but also healthy. The night sequence is a splash of cold water, and risks introducing an atonal note into the long crescendo towards the finale. When Aster criticized the pacing of the director’s cut, this might have been what he meant (funny new passages about Christian and Josh’s competing theses melt seamlessly into the plot).
On the other hand, this new stress on the sadism of the Hårga rituals helps complicate the ending, and makes it harder to appreciate communal violence as a workable alternative to private trauma. Grief is a terrible burden, and no one should have to shoulder it alone. But denying the personal nature of human experience might not be the panacea that it seems in the heat of the moment. Aster hasn’t changed the part where Pelle’s brother screams after he starts burning alive, but now his anguish feels that much louder.
By troubling the water in several different ways (more of Jessika Kenny’s ominously gorgeous devotional music, lingering on Connie’s death in a way that emphasizes the Hårga’s obsession with their “pure” white bloodline, and eliminating any doubt that Pelle’s friends were always going to be sacrificed even if they behaved like saints), the director’s cut of “Midsommar” hammers home that Dani’s catharsis will be short-lived. A codependent relationship between two people is no different than a codependent relationship between 200; either you own your pain, or your pain owns you.
Then again, where does she go from here? When the smoke clears and Dani comes down from her high, will the May Queen find that her grief is still there, buried under several fresh layers of surreal new trauma. The director’s cut of “Midsommar” invites you to interrogate Dani’s fate with a new degree of skepticism, and it’s a darker, more urgent movie as a result. Nevertheless, Aster was right when he said this is a film that you have to give yourself to and live with. And the longer you stay in Hårga, the harder it is to leave.
The director’s cut of “Midsommar” premiered at Film at Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies XII. A24 has yet to announce any further plans for this edition of the film.