Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ingmar Bergman's "The Hour of the Wolf" (about damn time)

[8/12/14 Update: I used to use quotation marks around film titles, and it'll take a long while for me to correct them all. I just fixed the horrible spacing problems in this review and the now-dead video links, but that's all for now...]

Ingmar Bergman's "The Hour of the Wolf" is an uncontested classic. Writing a simple review is impossible. Since I have no desire to be repetitious (or a bore), I give you a brief review, then something like a stripped-down essay.

This movie is about a woman whose husband disappeared. She doesn't claim to know what's become of him. She only recounts the story of what happened to them. You have to be in the right frame of mind for this slow, talky-yet-quiet, and rather absurdist piece. These points aside, I was impressed as almost every minute of the flick is terribly eerie. It looks gorgeous, and has a lot to say (figuratively).

A frighteningly-young Max Von Sydow is the great painter Johan, an artist of some reknown. He takes his pregnant wife out to a small house on a remote island for some solitude and a chance to refresh themselves. He will paint, she will care for him, and they will love each other.

But their stay is not very relaxing. Before the story even begins, some of the locals have been a problem - Johan punched one of them. And his observations of them sound odd, as if Johan were insane or surrounded by unnatural creatures. The movie follows the couple as they grow acquainted with their neighbors, as the artist's personality collapses, and as the couple becomes fractured. As I said, you'll need patience and the right frame of mind to enjoy this, yet its creepiness is quite effective. It's also very human, but in a disturbing way.

Just watch that trailer - this is an absurdist freak-fest. To be honest, it's a bad trailer; between the voiceover's bad monotone and the painful tuneless sound playing throughout, I wouldn't watch this movie. Maybe this was the effect Bergman was going for...

Here now, a quasi-essay - or rather, my thoughts - best read if you don't care about spoilers or have seen the film already. I've only skimmed through a dozen reviews of the movie, and my thoughts (by pure fortunate coincidence)address issues no one wrote about...

Corruption of the Artist

We quickly see that these island locals are not European oakies, but well-dressed folks with education and "good breeding." As one of them makes a basic dinner invitation, the audience learns that everything does not gibe with expectations. The unsettling little man (clearly one of the titular wolves) flatters Johan heavily and encourages him to better know his neighbors, who all admire him.

When Johan and Alma dine with the inhabitants, the flattery is intense, and Johan is sucked in all the deeper. In between bouts of boorishness and inconsiderateness, the locals tell Johan what a lovely artist he is and how great his works are. They grill him on his accomplishments. They also dig into his personal entanglements - specifically, a scandalous affair that was well-publicized.

Their words aren't true protestations of love and affection, rather efforts to entwine themselves into Johan's life, efforts to get past his defenses. The residents want to exploit his weaknesses, and we never really learn why. Perhaps, they'll claim him for themselves; to carry him off the way a wolf does an errant sheep.

All of this interaction speaks strongly of the relationship between artist and audience. They know about him, but don't really know him. They want something beyond his public work, and don't care if they get it in a good or a bad way. They will approach him when they want to; not at a public event, when he's prepared to meet the faces of strangers, but in a moment of willful solitude. They will take what they can get from him, even when he's at the brink of psychological collapse.

Perhaps these vile locals represent the general relationship between artist and audience. Perhaps Bergman feels that the audience will suck every ounce of blood right out of the artist - for no other purpose than their own brief entertainment and crude gratification. Bergman could easily be stating that the best thing for artists' sanity is to keep away from his admirers.

Or perhaps the audience always serves to ruin the artist's work, in a slight variation of metaphysics: they don't change things by observing them, but through actively interfering with them. To my mind, thoughts on these lines could easily pass through the brain of Ingar Bergman - a legendary director (long before his death) operating in a small pond, with many aspects of his personal life flush in the public eye.

Separation of Couples by Others

My certainty that the island natives are, in fact, the "wolves" of the title has some basis. Like wolves, they separate their prey from the flock before consuming them. The island's high-born bastards spend much of the film doing precisely that.

Once they set their sights on Johan, they swarm the pair. They circle 'round them, pair off with one or the other. They ask many questions that are deeply personal - some are the kinds of questions that make people reflective and unsteady. As often as they bother the couple, it's consistent that one will corner the wife while another talks to the husband.

Their main method of driving them apart is talking about the infamous love affair Johan had before he met Alma. They ask about what happened and when he last saw his lover. On surface, these words are simply the crass remarks of idiots - but they cut Johan and Alma to the core. Thoughts of that lost lover also serve as the carrot they hold over Johan - they offer him the chance to see that woman. These obsessive thoughts pull him away from his wife, the only person that can reinforce his stability.

All couples are, ultimately, insular entities. When two people truly love each other, the situation becomes that of two against the world. When one loses their way, the other can help them "find their center." When one is weak, the other's strength can support the both of them. People outside the couple may be friendly - they might even be well-intentioned - but they are extraneous.


As such, a strong outside influence is more likely to be destructive than anything else. This is especially true when the outside influence values one half of the couple over the other. As Johan listens more and more to the strangers around him, his thoughts stray from his wife. The island folk don't care if he's unhealthy, violent, or crazy.

And as Johan slips farther away from her, his physical and mental health deteriorate. At the beginning of the movie (after the story), Alma sits at a bench. She's strong and healthy, but she doesn't seem happy. And for some reason, she's remained on the island that claimed her husband. When two people are truly a couple, breaking them apart is the same as fracturing each individual.


Everything about that island's "wolves" reeks of old-world decadence. It's seen in fancy clothes and vulgar speech, an empty mansion that offers a delicious banquet, and social tales with little wit or heartfelt entertainment. Couples use polite words to undercut each other at a dinner table, portraying dreadful manners despite being sophisticated-enough for the proudest company. And this is how they act towards the artist that they are openly courting.

The prime aspects of decadence are: corruption, decay, and artificiality (but here's a dictionary definition, and a wiki reference to the artistic movement). Whether it's bleached hair or false kindness, this grand decadent sentiment permeates the film.

As seen in their manners, speech, and aims, the island folk are as corrupt as possible. They treat two good people with nothing but cruelty, invective, and hollow flattery. They are not simply corrupt themselves, but have a corrupting influence on the people around them. One look at the effect they have on Johan makes the point quite clear.

Corruption, in turn, can be both a cause and an effect of decay. The decay is seen in the status of the locals' ancestral mansion. It's seen in all the little flaws of its occupants. And it's clearer still in one of their biggest violations - that of the duty between host and guest.

Being a host can be a thankless and tiresome task. You must see to your guests needs, even if they're a bit excessive. In Europe especially, there was a traditional belief that a guest must always be safe in your home - they could insult or antagonize you, safe in the knowledge that harming them would be dishonorable. And if people outside your home tried to harm your guest, you had to protect the person in your house as if they were your own family.

At gatherings, hosts are obligated to spend at least a little time talking to every person in their home - this holds whether they're drunk or annoying, whether they're invited or accompanying a welcome invitee. You must see to your guests' needs, or make sure that others see to them, and you must referree the brashest visitors and the dumbest arguments. For my part, when I'm at the party of someone I really like, I make sure that I cause the least amount of hassle for my host, and reduce their workload as much as I can.

But the hosts in "THotW" fail these precepts in every possible way. They certainly dole out the food and drink, yet they're callous towards, if not wilfully hostile to, the feelings of the people they invite into their home. Who the hell asks someone about past lovers in front of their spouse? Who has followup questions about that, and brings the topic up repeatedly?

Worst still, the island residents are not simply seeking company for conversation or experience - they are trying to take something from their invitees. Perhaps they're supernatural and want Johan's soul. Perhaps they're human and want complete emotional control over this famous artist. Perhaps one of them desires him and seeks to divide him from his wife.

In any case, the natives want things from them that are hard to replace, and damaging to lose. They are, simply, the worst-case scenario hosts. They will fill you full of drink, then rob you and cripple you forever. It's all the worse because what they harm is psychological, not physical. This breakdown in basic mores is a clear sign of the decay endemic to decadence.

Most startling in this film is the sheer scale of artificiality on display. For one thing, "bird-faced man" entertains the company with a marionette play. He stages a small performance of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," fake little figures dancing at his fingertips and speaking to his audience in a voice that isn't his. But that's appropriate, since the story isn't his, nor is the inspiration for it. At most, he can claim that the message he seeks to impress is his own; yet that message itself has only a nefarious intent - helping to break his guileless guests.

After things have reached a fever pitch and Johan is truly trapped in their web, the artificiality reaches its zenith. With reignited memories of his obsessive and destructive relationship, Johan is driven to the wolves' domain by the promise of seeing his old flame again. Like the devil itself, they hook him and then make him wait; he can't see, touch, or have her without their permission.

First, they tell him that he looks too old, and should see her when he looks like a youth again. They apply powder to his face, then rouge to his cheeks. As they start to slather a ridiculous red color to his lips, it's clear that they are not only seeking to control him, but to remake him in the way that they want. This false "young man" has a crimson cast to his lips that bears no connection to the look of a male.

Having painted him like a clown - or a fool - they lead him into the room where he can finally be reacquainted with this woman. And she herself seems articifial, barely speaking - like a hollow shell that reacts to his desire. The place in which they meet is a small stage!

He greets his old lover, kisses her, takes off her clothes. He lays her down - caressing her bare breast in front of the monsters that have perverted his vacation, his relationship, and his mind.

What kind of natural reunion occurs under these circumstances? What kind of man goes a-courting with drag queen-esque makeup? And what pair of lovers realize their passion in front of a group of loud jeering asses? The wolves have set him on their stage with their makeup and made him perform for them. Although Johan's declining mental state makes him miss the warning signs, I never forgot that he's manipulated into seeking an old love that can't mix with his present life. It is a level of fakery that rises to super-decadence.

And yet, "THotW" is incredibly artificial from the get-go. The film opens with credits and a black screen. But there's sound in the darkness; you hear stage workers hammering in nails. You listen to the film crew in the process of creating this story, and even the voice of the director as calls out commands to them. What can be more artificial - to a movie, to an audience - than that? Isn't Bergman putting on his own marionette play, like the "bird man" on the island?

This false aspect even continues after the black-screen opening. The woman playing Alma, in character, approaches the camera and talks as if relaying memoirs to a friend. She starts to talk about the story, and soon the camera transitions into it. The same actress is still playing Alma, but she looks no younger. And as the movie progresses, we see many things from the perspective of Johan - things that Alma could never have learned. How artificial is that?...

These are my thoughts and impressions concerning "The Hour of the Wolf." It is only the second Bergman film that I've seen. Both were (at least a bit) uncomfortable and very intense at times. I avoided Bergman because I'd only heard of autobiographical stories of middle-aged spouses who can't stand each other. A little research, and the access provided by Netflix, helped me further my education in movies.

Bergman rises to the highest quality that motion pictures can aspire to - being as thought-provoking and inspiring as the most provocative novel. The other great aspiration, of course, is to be quality entertainment - and "Airplane," "Aliens," and "Big Trouble in Little China" all do that. I've enjoyed my share of both sides. And it's a pleasure to see some of Sweden's biggest contribution to the intellectual side of things.

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