Monday, June 10, 2019

Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen)

Bergman on the set with actress Liv Ullmann

HOUR OF THE WOLF (Vargtimmen)                     A-                   
Sweden  (90 mi)  1968 d:  Ingmar Bergman

The hour of the wolf is the hour between night and dawn.  It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are most real.  It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their greatest dread, when ghosts and demons are most powerful.  The hour of the wolf is also the hour when most people are born.

An intensely personal fantasy taking place in a land of twilight, like the netherworld of Dreyer’s VAMPYR (1932), this film exists in the sleeplessness of night, becoming the personification of anxiety and anguish, featuring a tortured artist tormented by darkly disturbing visions of a host of demons that are symbolic representations of his own disintegrating mental state, revealing a thin line between dreams and reality, plagued by irrational fears, where the hour of the wolf is that time in the morning just before the sun rises, between 3 am and 5 am, the hour most people die, and the hour most people are born, also the hour most are subjected to their own personal nightmares.  In this case, the story is taken from the personal diary of a painter, Max von Sydow as Johan Borg (an alter-ego of the director), who is undergoing a strange psychological transformation, obsessed by delusions that visit him in the darkest hours of the night, resembling vampires sucking the life blood right out of him, leaving him a weakened shell of his former self.  On vacation at their remote island cottage on Baltrum along with his pregnant wife Alma, Liv Ullmann (pregnant in real-life with the director’s child), he slips further and further away from her despite her devoted attention and loving care, married for seven years but carrying their first child, haunted by visions of man-eating men, insects, necrophilia, homosexuality, and other ghouls and demons from his imagination, where not only his art suffers, but he descends into a madness from which he never recovers, eventually disappearing without a trace, leaving behind a diary that reveals cryptic insight into the nature of his psychic anguish, offering clues of what may have driven him over the edge.  Bearing a relation to his previous film Persona (1966), almost like an extension, both remind us we’re watching a film, with one starting with a film projector while this film opens with the sound of Bergman’s voice giving instructions to his crew on the set.  At the center of Persona is an actress avoiding her role as a wife and mother, withdrawing into herself, refusing to speak for months on end, where her personality fuses with Alma, her nurse, merging the two women into one, while this film also features an artist struggling with his own personal demons, losing grasp of reality, where his phantasmagorical hallucinations eventually take over, with his naively devoted wife unable to help, yet identifying so strongly with him that she starts to see his demons as well.  Alma represents stability and purity, containing “whole thoughts and feelings,” according to Johan, a cleansing force and birth mother capable of giving life, yet she is largely ignored by her husband, typifying Bergman’s pessimistic views on marriage in the late 60’s.  Providing a light to the surrounding darkness, what she embodies is what the demons are out to destroy.  Creating the illusion of a real story, the film is based upon Johan’s secret diary, yet seen through the eyes of his wife who opens and closes the film speaking directly to the camera, as though telling the story in a quasi-documentary, almost entirely told in flashback, with the title appearing midway through the film, which comes to an abrupt end, apparently suggesting the last written page of the diary, which never really ends, it just stops.

Ingmar Bergman: His Life and Films  by Jerry Vermilye (193 pages), 2002 (pdf), quote by Tom Milne from Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1968, or a review seen in its entirety here:  Vargtimmen (pdf)

This is a brilliant Gothic fantasy in which Bergman keeps his hero’s obsession under perfect control as it grows like a cancer from the menacing calm of the opening, through the whispered fears of the night, to the full-blooded terrors of the end:  nowhere else has he so displayed and dominated his taste for the flamboyant techniques of expressionism, surrealism, and Gothic horror.  At the same time, the film is much more:  seen in relation to Persona, it is the submerged half of the iceberg, an attempt to portray the state of mind which made Elisabeth Vogler in Persona retreat into despairing silence.

With a fickle public staying away in droves, playing to largely empty theaters, though reportedly highly influential to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017), the film was originally scripted in 1964 under the title The Cannibals, but was set aside during Bergman’s lengthy hospital confinement that led him to direct Persona, believing this film would be too expensive to make, later revising his script, making a more low budget project that serves as a companion piece to Persona.  Despite this connection, the film is also viewed as the first of a Fårö Island Trilogy starring the same featured actors of von Sydow and Ullmann in a series of three films accentuating isolation, not only from the mainland but also from each other, with both actors finding it easy to work together, coming from similar backgrounds, foregoing rehearsals or director instructions, with Bergman giving them the leeway to establish their own characters.  Though Ullmann was pregnant with Bergman’s child, she was not yet ready to commit to living with him on Fårö island, instead moving back to Norway, but when he sent her the revised script featuring a pregnant woman she agreed to make the film, realizing Bergman was the haunted character possessed by anguish while she was away, where he claimed “the demons would come to me and wake me up, and they would stand there and talk to me,” remaining together after the birth of their daughter Linn, which occurred prior to the completion of the film, using pillows on her stomach for those final few shots.  Bergman is rarely thought of as a genre filmmaker, yet this film is full of macabre apparitions fraught with horror, mixing German Expressionist and Surrealist imagery with black comedy, so outrageous that it’s amusing, shot by Sven Nyqvist, not afraid to shock audiences, with strong suggestions of Dreyer’s VAMPYR (1932), beginning with the arrival to the island by boat, where you’d have to go back to The Magician (Ansiktet) (1958) to find similar roots in Bergman films, with von Sydow again playing a fallen artist suffering the sins of humiliation, or before that Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton) (1953) when decrepit circus owner Åke Grönberg is thoroughly disgraced and utterly humiliated in public, growing suicidal in response, tormented by enormous shame, but this film pits Borg against conjured up Satanic forces of evil all conspiring against him, where except for Alma and the boatman transporting them to the island, all characters seen are figments of his imagination, initially drawn in his sketchpad before taking on more ominous implications.  In an attempt to save him, Alma begins reading his diary (instructed by an apparition), becoming jealous of an alluring former mistress, Veronica Vogler, delightfully played by Ingrid Thulin, who she discovers is also on the island.  When they are invited to a nearby castle for dinner, at the request of the owner Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson), with a sarcastic wife constantly making sexual innuendos, a salaciously oversexed mother, a brooding homosexual brother, and a few odd misfits, including a dizzying circular pan around the dinner table, with Borg drinking excessively, the pressures on the painter become unbearable, building into neverending moments of hysteria with exaggerated faces and laughter, including a puppet show from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which features a tiny man instead of a puppet singing Tamino’s aria “Eternal night, when will you vanish?”! YouTube (4:58) from an opera that reveals a world inhabited by mythological spirits and magical spells, with Alma representing Tamino’s lost love Pamina, a perfectly idealized union of man and woman, eventually taking Borg into their bedroom which prominently features one of his paintings of Veronica Vogler, all taunting him mercilessly, delving into his love life and personal affairs, showing no signs whatsoever of discretion, turning into an over-the-top, Fellini-like spectacle of the freakish and grotesque.

On the lonely walk back across a rocky landscape to their cabin, with the sun hovering over the sea, Alma pleads with her husband to no avail, fearing she is losing him, promising to be there for him, his last link to sanity, but he ignores her and walks away, yet she stays up all night with him, alternately grieving and comforting him, listening to horrid stories of his youth, which includes being locked in a closet shared by a mysterious little man that gnaws off children’s toes, a laceratingly real event that scared the living bejeezus out of him as a small child.  He then launches into a personal confession about the death of a boy (more likely his son morphing into a demon) that is revealed in a dream, shot in a bleached-out, ultra-white light, much like the eerie opening flashback of Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton), as the painter is fishing along the rocks of the shore, shirtless, while another young boy, also shirtless, stands behind him, peering suspiciously into his boots.  Out of nowhere, the child bites him on the foot before climbing on his back trying to strangle him, but the painter rams him into the rocks to break his grip, then beats him to death with a rock before throwing him into the sea, his body resting just below the surface, where violence and nefarious behavior lurk in the human consciousness.  Alma, of course, is horrified by what she hears, unable to comprehend what to do.  When yet another mysterious invitation comes for a party, with Veronica Vogler among the guests, a pistol is placed on the table, supposedly offering protection against small animals, yet this simple act creates panic and dread, as nothing good can come out of this.  When Borg maniacally orders Alma to step out the door, he fires shots in her direction, running to castle alone, finding himself lost within its Gothic interiors, where immediately there is a hallucinatory texture to the film, a shadow world infested by birds that will peck your eyes out, with von Merkens walking on the ceiling, where an old woman peels off her face, with marvelously spooky electronic music written by Lars Johan Werle (composing the music in Persona as well), creating DRACULA (1931) overtones that are remarkably oppressive, where actor Georg Rydeberg is meant to resemble Bela Lugosi, aided by the absurdly exaggerated family on the island that assaults him with ravenous, carnivorous, flesh-eating requests for more salacious details, reminding him of his scandalous affair as if it was yesterday, continually elevating its importance, then decorating him in foppish make-up and a silk robe for his rendezvous with Veronica, finding her lying naked under a sheet like a corpse in a morgue, resorting the necrophilia to wake the dead, but she latches onto him in a frenzy of kisses, devouring him while cackling with laughter, exalting in his shame, especially when he realizes all the demons and vampires are in the room watching his every move, laughing hysterically as she smears the make-up on his face, leaving him thoroughly disgraced and humiliated, disappearing into a swampy muck afterwards, pursued by the pecking birds, perhaps unable to finally escape from their hold on him.  Bergman has created a carnivalesque three-ring circus of phantoms and demons, continually questioning Borg’s sanity and visionary world of horrors, forcing the audience to decide whether the artist possesses or is possessed by his demonic creations, using dreams under the surface that rise to the surface, where eventually the artist can’t distinguish between reality and hallucinations, surrendering to the all-enveloping darkness, finally disappearing from the world altogether.     

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