Written & Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Hour of the Wolf, like most of Bergman’s work, is supremely difficult to parse, but that’s a great part of its allure. That’s not to say, of course, that the film is difficult for difficulty’s sake—that would be rubbish. Bergman’s most homologous equivalent in the current cinema, I would say, is David Lynch, as both filmmakers, at their best, directly affect the viewer’s subconscious, creating films that are confounding yet viscerally and primally affecting. The challenging nature of Hour of the Wolf doesn’t dampen the intensity of the experience; one need not speak French, as Leonard Cohen once remarked, to appreciate Edith Piaf.
Johan (Max von Sydow), an artist, moves to a remote island with his wife, Alma (Liv Ullman), in tow, where they briefly enjoy a blithe existence, conveyed in a series of short, idyllic episodes. This happy life, however, is almost immediately interrupted by Johan’s descent into madness. He shows Alma a series of drawings of various demonic ghostmonsters, the description of each more horrifying than the last, though we are never afforded the opportunity to see any of Johan’s sketches for ourselves. This is commonly referred to as "Bergman’s only horror film"; at first I thought, “how do you figure? Maybe for lack of a better term.” But the film’s second half, delineated by putting the film’s title back up on the screen (oh Bergman), soon corrected my haughty attitude. Bergman is careful not to give too much, or anything really, away too soon. The horror slowly builds, including a wrestling scene between von Sydow and a small boy that is downright bizarre—mysterious, senseless and terrifying—leading ultimately to a genuinely frightening third act.
Johan and Alma are invited by the island’s owner to have dinner with he and his aristocratic retinue. They all profess to be avid admirers of Johan’s art, but slyly make embarrassing allusions to a former affair of his. There seems to be here a comment on the nature of art and the artist, and their relationship to real human relationships. At the time of filming, Ullman was carrying Bergman’s baby, but refused to move to Sweden to live with him. He asked her to please at least come and make this movie, which she did; in this context, I think the film can be understood as a very personal apology from Bergman to his female star for his artistic eccentricities; the fixated but unspecific nature of Johan’s compulsive obsessions manifests itself externally as both art and demons, and both threaten to undermine his marriage and his life. Art and life (love) are irreconcilable, as for Bergman the former has no practical purpose in the latter. (It’s ironic, then, that filming the movie brought Bergman and Ullman back together.)
Near the film’s end, Johan is poised to make love to the object of his affections, an animate corpse (his Lenore, as suggested by a frequently reappearing raven), when a crowd of spectators begin to wildly laugh at him. With von Sydow in make-up and a lothario’s robe, the scene suggests the humiliation and absurdity of emotional artistic expression. Hour of the Wolf is the story of a troubled marriage and a journey through the mind of a disturbed artist, but at its core is a parade of effective images and captivating sequences. During the film I felt I hadn’t been too frightened, but once it was over, while walking from the living room to my bedroom in my darkened apartment I was overcome by the sensation that someone was following me. Suffice it to say, I slept with a nightlight on. Like Johan, I couldn’t sleep due to an overpowering fear—but a fear of what?