Monday 15 June 2009

Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann

Given that Ingmar Bergman directed the film that The Last House on the Left was based on, it may seem surprising to find that this, his only horror film, isn't it. This is a gothic horror story in which the lead character, played by Max von Sydow, is loosely based on the director himself. In fact there are a lot of connections to Bergman's real life and I wonder what he was trying to say by putting himself and his life into the film. Then again this film asks a lot of questions.

Von Sydow is a painter by the name of Johan Borg, who lives on the Frisian island of Baltrum with his pregnant wife Alma, played by Liv Ullmann. In real life, Liv Ullmann was pregnant with Bergman's child at this point and they lived on the Baltic island of Fårö, where this film was shot. At times Johan and Alma appear blissfully happy in their life together on this remote and windy island, at others they appear strained and uncommunicative. And at the beginning of the film we're told that he's mysteriously disappeared and that his diary and her testimony are the basis of the film.

This prompts a whole slew of questions about what we actually see, because whatever we see we see from Alma's perspective. It begins simply with everyday things like Alma sitting in the sun and Johan talking her through a set of sketches he's made of characters he saw in the village. But then one of them, an old woman, appears to her outside their house asking her to persuade him not to tear them up and to read his diary. This she does and we're treated to glimpses of who Johan may really be or what Alma reads into the words what he is.

A woman in white walks down the beach to Johan and shows him the bruise on her breast. Apparently he's a rough lover. A psychiatrist runs to keep up with him while striding over the hills and Johan knocks him down, bloodying his nose. He gets invited to dinner at the castle, where the owners of the island live. This evening brings together all these strands and in the hands of Bergman's regular cinematographer Sven Nykvist becomes a masterpiece of theatre, even before the strange puppet show starts.

It's surreal and freaky and the film continues down that road. Johan and Alma sit up all night with a gun on the table. The psychiatrist just walks in on them in their own house at eight in the morning. We learn more of Johan's obsession with the woman in white, Veronica Vogler by name. And we're treated to a bizarre and soundless confession that seems to be of Johan killing his son; soundless as in without sound effects not silent, as it has a freaky soundtrack. And throughout all this, Alma becomes more and more unhinged by the story and Johan, far quieter and more subtle in his madness, still seems to be wandering through a nightmare.

'Nightmare' is the appropriate word for this, all the way down to people walking on the ceiling and ripping off their own faces. Aided to no small degree by Nykvist's awesome choreography and camerawork, we completely lose track of what is real and what is illusion, and if it's illusion, whose illusion it is. Are we watching Johan plunging headlong into insanity through his obsession with Veronica Vogler? Or are we seeing Alma covering her tracks by conjuring stories from the seeds in her husband's diary? There are many hints that speak to Alma becoming Johan in one way or another.

And at the end of the day we really don't know because this is an Ingmar Bergman movie and Bergman is not a filmmaker to give us easy answers. These aren't even the only options either, as there are plenty of layers to be sifted through. I'm sure a couple more viewings may bring clearer insight but no film that ends literally mid sentence is ever intended to be transparent and this one is presumably meant to resonate. I can't imagine anyone watching this film for the first time and proclaiming a great classic, but I can't imagine anyone not wanting to watch it again. I get the feeling that as the structure of the film becomes more familiar, the better the whole thing gets.

It can't hurt that Max von Sydow ends up looking more and more like John Malkovich and Erland Josephson as Baron von Merkens, the owner of the island, has more than a little Bela Lugosi to his performance. Apparently Josephson was a rather magnetic soul as Liv Ullmann has said that she was the only one of Bergman's leading ladies not to have fallen in love with him. This cast are fascinating to watch, even the actors I haven't seen before, having presumably been picked for their faces as much as their talent. This is a visually stunning mind opener. I'll be thinking about it for some time.

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