5/14/12

Mental Health Awareness Month: Hour of the Wolf (1968)

When Ryne from The Moon is a Dead World asked for folks to participate in Viewer Vomit for this month, I had no idea what movie he was going to choose. In a stroke of good fortune, well, fortune, he picked Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 film Hour of the Wolf. It’s honestly not a movie I would pick to watch on my own, but the themes of madness fit perfectly into Mental Health Awareness Month. My knowledge of Ingmar Bergman begins and ends with The Seventh Seal, and I hadn't watched that in over 20 years. And, yes, before you do the math, that means I watched it to try and get more out of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. So I won’t claim or act like I’m an expert on the Swedish director or this type of art house fare. Frankly, it’s not really to my taste, but from what I‘ve read, Hour of the Wolf is the closest Bergman ever got to making a horror film. (I suppose chess playing with an embodiment of Death doesn’t count.) There’s no doubt that there is a lot of horrific ideals to be found in Hour of the Wolf, but there was a different kind of terror in store for me.


Johan (Max von Sydow) is a reclusive, agoraphobic artist who lives with his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) on a small island. Over the years, he has become more reclusive, but now he begins to suffer from insomnia. As he and his wife stay up through the night, they keep especially wary of the point right between the dark and dawn where the spirit world is the closest. Johan refers to this time as the Hour of the Wolf. As he stays awake longer, he begins to recall mad tales. He believes people are stalking him, and complicating matters the aristocracy from the other side of the island begin poking around. They invite Johan and Alma for dinners where they lavish the artist with praise, but it leads Johan on a hallucinogenic journey where he is humiliated in front of the party. The artist’s tenuous grip on reality completely erodes leading the viewer to wonder how much of his tale existed only in his mind.

Hour of the Wolf begins with a statement from the director that the film is based on Johan’s diary and the recollections of Alma. While the credits play and this statement roll, the sounds of Bergman setting up his first scene run. This sets Hour of the Wolf on two tracks from the start. It claims to be reality, but it also underscores the fact that it is a movie, and thus not tied to the limitations of reality, from the first frame. This intrinsic doubt instills the viewer with a mistrust of Johan’s story from the start, but, due to the powerhouse performance by screen legend Max von Sydow the character seems capable of what he claims to have done. Sure, when he recalls a former girlfriend appearing to him I had my doubts, but when he said he killed a child and threw him in the ocean, I completely bought it. Hour of the Wolf portrays the decent into madness as not only decline of character, but also as a viewing experience.

Now that I sound like I’m lauding Bergman, let me say something that might be cinematic suicide, Hour of the Wolf is really, really hard going. I’ve known I had to watch this movie for three weeks. It took me one week to muster up the courage to watch the thing, then after two false starts over a week, it took me almost three days to finish watching a ninety minute movie. The problem was not that it was in another language or the way it was shot. In fact, I thought the cinematography by Sven Nykvist, who would go on to shoot Star 80, Chaplin, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, was what gave Hour of the Wolf it’s greatest strength. Instead, I found the movie guilty of something I have often found in art films. I found it essentially too wordy with too much of the film’s inner life being laid out. While certainly there were stylistic choices that spoke to Johan’s madness, but they were dwarfed by the speeches he delivers. In space where his paranoia (which is ultimately kind of founded) could have been explored in his actions, Bergman chose to have von Sydow speak about his problems rather than show them. So many art house films have a difficulty with being heavy handed, and Bergman took that route as well spoon feeding the audience to follow an already easy line. It makes for boring viewing, and I’ll admit that even when watching it in chunks, the only thing that kept my mind from wandering was the need to read the next subtitle.

Von Sydow and Ullmann both deliver wonderful performances, but I think Ullmann is the real star here. While much of the film’s running time is spent focuses on von Sydow’s Johan gnashing his teeth against the unknown, Ullmann’s Alma gives a quieter understated turn, and, as the film shows us in the beginning, she survives Johan somehow. This is, after all, reportedly partially culled from her character’s recollection. How Johan’s madness effects Alma is essential, if not more important, than the man’s own degrading psyche. Ingrid Thulin played the object of Johan’s hallucinatory obsessions, Veronica, and her performance, dreamlike in quality but with nightmares hanging close to her, is the only member of the supporting players who made an impression. Her portions of Hour of the Wolf were what I wanted more of in the film. The rest of the castle dwelling aristocrats kind of bled together in a satirical grand guignol of the decadent rich.

While I would be completely thrilled to participate in The Moon is a Dead World’s Viewer Vomit again because it did get me outside of my comfort zone, I’m going to hope that the next choice isn’t another of Bergman’s greatest hits. While I can surely respect the man for all the art he gave to cinema, I can also be honest enough to admit that it’s really not my bag. So my rating on this one is kind of mixed. I took a couple days and stepped back from what was originally an arduous experience. From an artistic standpoint, I still think it fails by telling more than it shows. As a movie, Hour of the Wolf is a slow and steady build that leads into some hallucinatory imagery. The real test for me though is what the film is like as a viewing experience, and that’s where it really came up short for me. I’ve seen more interesting films cover the same ground (even in the same style) with better results, but I can also see the through line from a film like Kubrick’s The Shining to Hour of the Wolf. While Bergman’s film certainly didn’t make me howl, it did give me hours to think it over.

Bugg Rating

1 comment:

  1. My problem with watching Bergman's films is that all his groundbreaking techniques - obviously he's one of the 20th century's greatest filmmakers - have been copied, stolen, and/or watered down to the point that today, they're boring cliches. I found HOUR OF THE WOLF almost a parody of the arthouse film - and of course, it's not a parody at all. And I *do* like a lot of arthouse movies! But Bergman's always been tough going for me.

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