Thursday, August 4, 2011

Psychosis

Film: Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

As I looked through the list of films still to watch, it occurred to me that there are a number of directors I have either ignored or virtually ignored. Ingmar Bergman is one of those directors. He’s got 10 films on the list, one of the very small list of directors in the double digits, and yet I’ve watched only two. Tonight was time to remedy that by sitting through Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf). I don’t really know why I decided on Bergman specifically, except that I’ve just sort of avoided him so far. Of course, the same is true of Robert Altman, whose six films remain unwatched. However, in the case of Altman, it’s because he often seems to confuse me or put me to sleep.

Thought by many to be Bergman’s descent into the horror genre (or for those of us who are horror fans, Bergman’s rise into horror), this film is also very much a companion piece to Persona, as it touches on some of the same general themes. And it is a horror piece, even if it’s not what you might expect from something called a horror movie. This is an existential horror movie, one that works on the psychological instead of the jump scare. The horror doesn’t come from monsters or machete-wielding guys jumping out of the shadows, but the fear of the past, the fear of memory, and the fear of guilt.

The film begins with a voiceover from Bergman telling us that the film is based on the diary of an artist named Johan Borg, who disappeared without a trace. His wife speaks to us well, telling us that she doesn’t know what has happened, and that she will soon give birth. It is she who gave the journal to Bergman. In some ways, at least obliquely, this film is the parent of The Blair Witch Project.

Johan Borg (Bergman mainstay and muse Max von Sydow) is an artist who is troubled by his past. His wife, Alma (Bergman’s other muse Liv Ullman), attempts to be sympathetic to him and be there for him. It becomes evident early on that Johan has some things going on mentally. He’s started to see people in the area around him and his wife as something akin to demons. An old woman with an enormous hat, for instance, removes her face along with her hat according to Johan. He’s given nicknames to the people who appear to be plaguing him—Carnivore, Bird-Man, Schoolmaster, etc. The hardest time of the day for him is the time between midnight and dawn, the eponymous hour of the wolf when, according to Johan, most people die and are born.

During these nighttime hours, Johan talks to Alma, telling her about his past and things that he remains guilt-stricken over. Slowly, both Alma and the audience realize that the demons that Johan is seeing are shades of these past guilts and terrors—he is being plagued by his own past, although that doesn’t mean that the demons aren’t real. Since Borg is a well-known painter, he and his wife are invited to the castle of the man who owns the island they are on for a dinner. What proceeds is a surreal dinner filled with the same sort of demons and temptations that have attacked Borg since, evidently, before the beginning of the film.

Ullman and von Sydow constantly look out of place in this film, nowhere more than at the horrific dinner at the castle. This is naturally intentional—the fact that they are constantly uncomfortable makes us uncomfortable as well. The film attempts (and succeeds) in putting the audience off balance and keeping the audience off balance for as much as possible. So, as much as it is the natural parent of Blair Witch, it is similarly at least a paternal uncle of a film like Jacob’s Ladder. Ullman in particular looks as if she is constantly on the verge of running away. The fact that she looks like she’s about 12 does nothing but enhance this effect.

Vargtimmen is exactly the sort of horror film that I favor. Oh, I don’t mind a bit of gore now and then when it makes sense in the film, but I’m not a big fan of splatter for the sake of splatter. Vargtimmen doesn’t go anywhere near that sort of gratuitous violence, but tries (and succeeds) is creating a world that is just skewed enough from the normal to be become terribly disturbing and frightening because of its surface normalcy and subcutaneous evil and weirdness. It’s damn weird, but it hits every twisted, strange, horrible note perfectly. We don’t even get a title card until the movie is more than half over—almost as if the first half of the film is nothing but set up for the true horror and psychological evil that comes at the end.

I don’t want this to sound like there aren’t moments of true shock in the film, because there are. There are some moments that are truly awful and horrific, and yet filmed with a disturbing clarity and beauty. It’s truly masterful when a director can make something so terrible to witness something riveting to watch at the same time. I see pieces of other films here--Blair Witch in the sense that it plays like a found story, Jacob’s Ladder in how it plays as a mental drama, Eyes Wide Shut for its blatant voyeuristic sexuality, Repulsion for its slow descent into madness. The fact that it predates all of these except Repulsion only indicates that even Kubrick borrowed from Bergman. That this reminds me of later films only indicates that I saw those first.

So far, it’s my favorite Bergman. I realize that doesn’t say a whole lot, but this is a film I plan on watching again, because I can only imagine that it gets better with additional viewings. It’s not really nightmare fuel, but it certainly has the ability to haunt one’s thoughts for some time after viewing, which may be the most complimentary thing I can say about any film.

Why to watch Vargtimmen: Bergman + horror.
Why not to watch: Blair Witch plus Jacob’s Ladder plus Repulsion plus Eyes Wide Shut equals a big ol’ WTF.

2 comments:

  1. Existential horror movie is a good description.

    I'm a big Bergman fan which may explain why I don't get invited to many parties.

    I'd recommend moving Bergman's Shame up your list. It's a good companion piece to Hour of the Wolf.

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  2. Yeah, I sometimes have to psych myself up for Bergman. I have a tendency to think that I like Bergman better when filtered through Woody Allen.

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