Tuesday, 26 June 2012

#5: Hour of the Wolf

Dir.: Ingmar Bergman
Sweden 1968

Oh dear. I appear to have neglected this little blog-hole for a few months. It wasn’t an accident, I didn’t forget the password or anything; it was studious avoidance. I had a lot of second-year university stuff going on and I barely made it through with acceptable marks, so suffice to say the last thing I wanted to do on my off-time was sit down to a clicking-and-wheezingly overheated laptop for another round of wretched analysis, even if it’s of the extra-curricular sort and therefore doesn’t oblige me to shoehorn in words like ‘discourse’ and ‘hybridise’ just to prove to some utterly self-interested academic that we’re definitely reading from the same hymn sheet, yeah? Because, of course, we’re not. I spent weeks indulging forlorn fantasies of a time in the not-too-distant Summer when I could sit down and write about something purely for the enjoyment of it, and I suppose that time is now. 

I’ve seen quite a few movies since my last post back in February, but not nearly enough. They’ve been stockpiling away on my external hard drive this whole time. By God, there’s almost 350 of them: whole chunks of the filmographies of Renoir, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Wilder, Buñuel, Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Almodóvar; big daunting epics like Marketa Lazarová and Profound Desires of the Gods; even the impassible monoliths of Peter WatkinsLa Commune (Paris, 1871), Tarr’s Sátántangó, Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 – Noli Me Tangere and Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (just who exactly am I kidding with those last two?). A lot of absurdly demanding viewing there, and I’m sure I’ll die before I see them all – I’m predicting an early demise, you see. Aside from back-to-back viewings of a few Jia Zhangke movies for a symposium at my University (of Sussex), I thought I’d take it easy with some shorter running times. No shame in that, is there? After all, the quarrelsome game-changing film critic Pauline Kael’s apparent favourite movie is only 37 minutes long. (Watch it, by the way – it’s fucking beautiful.) And luckily, most of the films of Swedish master Ingmar Bergman clock in around the 90 minute mark. So a Bergman it is today then. 

Hour of the Wolf is, apparently, his only out-and-out ‘horror’ film, but a quick glance at the IMDb page reveals that Bergman’s late-1960s period also included the psychological merger/breakdown drama Persona and a made-for-TV movie involving dangerous ritual sexuality called The Rite, so it’s clear that he was at least comfortable with the kind of themes that, in another director’s hands, might lead quite naturally to a classic horror genre piece. I’ve seen neither Persona nor The Rite, so I can’t be of much help there – in fact I might as well come clean now and say that Hour of the Wolf is only the third Bergman movie I’ve watched. The others are the acknowledged classics Wild Strawberries and Through a Glass Darkly; both are visually stunning, emotionally fraught, eyebrow-raising and jaw-dropping in their own mournful and tragic and slightly tense way. Hour of the Wolf was made over a decade after the director’s ‘golden year’ (1957, when both Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal were released) and in that time Bergman had clearly been nudging at the boundaries of psychological cinematic provocation: the truly surprising incestuous content of 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly is no less envelope-pushing than the pure horror of Psycho or even Robert Mitchum’s sleazy paedophilic turn in Cape Fear. While there is no one specific theme in Wolf that might count as ‘adult’ content to quite the same level, the film is undoubtedly revelling in the freedoms afforded to it by that decade’s broken taboos. The result is twofold – firstly, it works on its own as a piece of unsettling hallucinatory psychological horror, and secondly, it reveals how close Bergman had actually been to that style over the preceding decade. It might well be thought of as ‘the only Bergman horror movie’, but it’s hardly much of a diversion. To my eyes, it seems like he only needed to darken the tone and the rest of his style almost realigns itself to match – the existential ruminations and remote windswept settings remain, and Sven Nykvist’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography picks out the pain and dread of the protagonists in close up as well as it does the lines of mania and dark purpose in the demonic Baron von Merkens and his constant houseguests. There is also the cast of regular Bergman players – Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin – that make the film feel properly canonical, as well as the very familiar theme of an artist going through a personal crisis.

Max von Sydow plays the artist Johan in perfect sympathy with Bergman’s sense of pace and his by-then established commitment to using geographic isolation to reflect and influence mental isolation. Johan has retreated with his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullman) to a cottage on a rocky, wind-buffeted island, ostensibly for artistic reasons – he’s going through a period of stifled creativity, and the couple appear to be relying on sales of his paintings as their only source of income. Their home life is no romantic idyll, however, as the increasingly dour and disturbed Johan complains of being pestered by the island’s other inhabitants, and the viewer quickly suspects that these meetings might be outright delusions. Johan spends the days wandering around the island, attempting to paint but always at the mercy of these strange meetings – fending off the enthusiastic therapist Mr Heerbrand, or succumbing to the temptation of his ex-lover Veronica (Ingrid Thulin), both of whom approach him unbidden upon the craggy ridges and slopes. How ‘real’ these people are is not Bergman’s concern in Hour of the Wolf: they’re ‘real’ if they have an effect, and their capacity for tormenting him is very real. This is where Wolf diverges most crucially from classic horror tropes, both before the film was made and after (as I’m not attempting to set it in a chronology). Horror films will commonly establish their own principles early on as to where the fear that is to be engendered has its source – for instance, is it a fear of the supernatural, as in ghost stories? Or a fear of the mythical, as in monster stories? The ‘logic’ of ghosts in genre stories works differently from the ‘logic’ of monsters, but there is usually some adherence to the pattern of one character ‘witnessing’ something and attempting to persuade others around them that there’s definitely a threat. Cue scepticism, liberal amounts of fate-tempting, numerous reveals of the too-late or just-in-time varieties, and there’s your horror film. But what Bergman’s movie has, and in this he shares the curious achievements of plenty of off-the-wall exploitation/horror/giallo features of the 1960s onward, is a disregard for the ‘burden of proof’ dynamic that horror’s most famous and most conservative movies accept as a matter of course. One of the most creatively liberating results of the advent of ‘psychological’ horror is that it can incorporate traditional elements of supernatural, mythical and of course even ‘realistic’ horror (i.e. the threat is a murderer and he’s a real human being) and deploy it almost as iconography, as symbol, and so it has all the cultural import of reliably scary figures and tropes but doesn’t have to follow their exact rules. Dracula can come out in daylight, Polanski can have depraved hands clawing through the walls in Repulsion, Darren Aronofsky can plunge a perfectly serviceable feelgood ballet-dancing success story deep into mindfuck territory and totally get away with it. Likewise, there is no questioning Johan about these encounters that are very probably in his head; instead Alma is just doleful and wounded, knowing that no matter how much she loves her husband he is undoubtedly very troubled indeed. He is absent, withdrawn, and they both seem so doomed that the film doesn’t bother setting up the possibility of an escape or solution. Everything that’s spoken by Alma or Johan could potentially be the key to unravelling the mystery of just exactly what happens in Hour of the Wolf, or perhaps nothing could. It’s not a spoiler to mention that one exchange between the couple, concerning Alma’s idea of a soulmate-ish psychological empathy between two people who love each other, recurs at the film’s close to suggest that the ‘realness’ of the apparitions is a moot point. This is, crucially, because Alma begins to see them too. 

Hour of the Wolf is really about Alma and not Johan. She introduces the story direct to camera, and performs a sort of coda similarly, in retrospect. The audience’s struggle to understand Johan is her struggle, and her devotion to him is sad while somehow inevitable. It’s clear she has lost him at some point in the story that is about to unfold, and so from the very beginning the tone is tragic. Both Ullman’s in-character introduction and the sound recording of Bergman directing the construction of his own set that runs during the opening credits are conscious metafictional gestures, but strangely they don’t really amount to much. A quick search on that bastion of unassailable truth we all know as Wikipedia reveals that Bergman added these elements to counterbalance his own self-consciousness at the personal content of the film, as a way of flagging up the story as a construction, an invention. But he really needn’t have – as I mentioned before, the artist-in-crisis theme is well-explored in many of his films, and without the director’s somewhat nervous reaction to whatever he felt he was exposing too nakedly in Hour of the Wolf we would surely still be guessing now – by virtue of the ultimately unknowable, that perpetual motion device sustaining all great Art Arguments – which movie was truly Bergman’s ‘most personal’. But that’s not to say this one is; it’s just one of a few whose ‘constructed’ nature he has decided to flag most prominently. Who knows why he balked? Perhaps it’s been set down somewhere in print that I’ve yet to find. In fact, as I can only guess at the sheer size of the world’s Bergman scholarship, I’d say it must be. 

I’ll go on as if it’s still a mystery. Perhaps the exact content of Johan’s fears – the Bird Man; the old lady who, when she removes her hat, also removes the rest of her face – match Bergman’s down to the last detail. The chain of grotesque, macabre transformations and impossibilities that occur as Johan returns to the Baron’s house to reunite with Veronica is the stuff straight out of vivid nightmares, and this makes up arguably the film’s most striking sequence. Another candidate is a flashback, confessed by Johan to Alma in a climax of despair and guilt, in which the artist is suddenly provoked into fatally attacking a small boy who bothers him by the rocky water’s edge. It’s actually shot very differently from the rest of the film; it’s washed-out by sunlight, the camera spins queasily, the editing is like an experimental 16mm short. It’s an extremely effective few minutes, and even more so because it remains unresolved – like the other encounters earlier in the film, we’ve no idea if Johan really killed a boy. But he is weighed down as if he had, and this newly sunken depth proves to be the breaking point in their marriage. Johan attempts to force his loving wife off the island after this, and the Baron’s house beckons.

I’ll not attempt a full synopsis here; the film is too abstract for such formalities. It wouldn’t reveal anything or pique the interest of those who haven’t seen it. I try to avoid spoilers, as I’m always unsure exactly who I’m writing these entries for, but in this case the screencaps themselves could count as spoilers. Some of the shots in Hour of the Wolf are so breathtakingly beautiful, intimate and demented that you’d be better off going in totally cold – at least then you’ll not be waiting for the onscreen arrival of whichever startling image may have drawn you in. I suppose the safest way to end this entry now is to revert to the standard Unsequence Cinema question of how to recommend the movie. Well, if you’re familiar with Bergman already then you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into: his style is singular and this work is a particularly stripped-down and unreal variation upon that theme. It is properly dark and puzzling, even alarming towards the end. If you don’t know Bergman but you’re interested in seeing how an arthouse luminary might tackle a horror movie both feet first, set aside 90 minutes on a wet weeknight. The experience may prove to be memorable.

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