The climax of Ari Aster’s Midsommar is undeniably shocking, but also an experience that may be cushioned for particularly observant viewers by clues seeded throughout the film. The Hårga people communicate what is about to unfold via a series of paintings that preserve the traditions they’re carrying out.
“All of the events seen throughout the film have happened many times before — at least every 90 years — and the murals are the Hårga’s way of documenting this since none of the participants can be a part of this twice (because no-one can be older than 72),” said production designer Henrik Svensson, in an exclusive deep dive for Polygon. “These murals are like a cartoon version of the script, twisted as we imagined time would do to these rituals.”
Below are seven exclusive images from the film, all done by artist Ragnar Persson, in collaboration with Svensson and graphic designer Nille Svensson, with explanations from Henrik as to what’s being depicted in them. Some will be obvious to those who’ve seen the film; others may come as something of a surprise, as not all of the rituals shown actually make it on screen.
[Ed. note: Spoilers for Midsommar follow.]
The first painting depicts the maypole dancing competition that Dani (Florence Pugh) eventually wins to become May Queen, though there’s a little more depth hidden in the parting clouds, and the floral patterns on the women’s dresses.
“They are taming the elements, the weather, and the overall conditions to assure good crops and a healthy life with their dance,” Svensson explained, in line with the May Queen’s supposed duty to renew the community’s fertility and usher in good fortunes. The clouds, however, also indicate at attempt to “‘bring all light,’ in a traditional biblical pre-hälsinge mural way, to the ritual, to focus on the action.”
As for their clothing, Svensson said, “The blue flowers on their backs symbolize that they have their backs towards the sky, i.e. they are ‘flying’ in the dance and looks down on Earth as observers.”
As serene as this scene seems, this painting represents one of the steps of the ättestupa ritual, in which two elders of the village sacrifice their lives by jumping from a precipice. It’s one of the more gruesome scenes in the film, though the Hårga’s attitude toward the regenerative ritual is communicated in the placid smiles of the attendant people. To them, it’s a natural part of life.
The flowers to either side of the soon-to-be sacrificed elder (as well as those protruding from the top corners of the painting), represent, “as always, fertility and regeneration.”
This painting, though not directly acted out in the film, represents a ritual preceding the ättestupa. The two figures are the two elders who will jump the next day, “running around a house blindfolded with torches.”
“If they return with the fire still burning everything will be fine [and] promising for the remainder of the year, mainly concerning their livestock,” Svensson said. “Varying sources claim in the very old days they would cut out the eyes of the round-goers, and this later evolved to simply blindfolding them. The painting has both represented, but the main takeaway here is that they are blind in the action.”
Unlike the rest of the paintings, this particular piece doesn’t actually have anything to do with the ceremonies, though the symbols are (perhaps obviously) related to the overarching themes of the film.
“The hanging beasts represent a cut-out sequence from our group’s journey to Hårga,” Svensson explained. “This is us playing the concept of a circular saga and the Hårga as ‘almighty/all-seeing.’”
The presence of the maypole symbol, meanwhile, was a way of squeezing in one of Persson’s very first ideas, turning the maypole into a sort of amulet symbol, underneath a floral arrangement in the style of “ancient Hälsinge mural art flora.”
The ritual depicted here is omitted from the film entirely, though the number of people present and the fiery motif may recall the film’s final, cathartic events. This ritual, by contrast, seems to be relatively sedate, as Svensson, explaining that the burning buoy in the center symbolized the sun, described the ritual as consisting of a single step: “Nine naked women with torches swim to the buoy and the ceremony consists, simply put, of symmetrical movement with the buoy in center.”
This painting, of course, shows the fertility ritual that Dani’s boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) becomes involved in, in one of the strangest sex scenes ever seen on-screen. The elements are fairly self-explanatory, though the figures are more clothed than they are in the film.
The symbol hanging over the gathered figures is, according to Svensson, a pattern often found in old hälsinge murals. “Through our interpretation, it stands for something more closely in line with the life cycle.”
The final painting pictures the film’s fiery ending, in which one of the sacrificed people (in this case, Christian) is placed within a bear and burned alive along with the rest of the sacrifices.
That the bear is rendered much more realistically is simply to ensure that it’s clear, as it’s important not only in the film but, as Svensson explained, in Nordic mythology overall. “As an example, the bear is considered the spirit of the ancestors, and the berserks [sic] wore bear skins to get closer to Odin,” he said.
In combination with the flowers, which symbolize fertility and regeneration throughout the series of paintings, it’s a more joyous image than the bear’s expression would suggest — just like the film’s ending, which juxtaposes horrific events with Dani’s slow realization that she may finally have found a home.