Hour of the Wolf

Hour of the Wolf ★★★★½

If The Touch was the closest Bergman came to making a soap opera, Hour of the Wolf perhaps represents his one real foray into horror.

There are undeniably many elements of the genre at play here, but it would be reductive to simply reel off tropes. I'd been expecting maximum darkness, knowing it was about a man's mental breakdown and journey into insanity, but I wasn't prepared for just how weird this film was! From the moment a mysterious old woman appears to Alma Borg outside their island hut to tell her about her husband's diary, in a satchel under their bed, you know something very strange is beginning to happen. It's not just what she says, but the way she says it; her words half drowned out by the roar of ocean. You get the feeling the ground is opening up beneath your feet... and this rabbit hole goes deep.

From this point on, reality and fantasy and different characters' individual perceptions merge in a fluid, dreamlike, surreal stream of consciousness. You could strive to read it as a linear narrative of mental collapse but I don't think that would do it justice. It's a film that appeals to the senses as much as the intellect. It didn't surprise me at all to read that this is one of David Lynch's favourite films - it's not hard to see how it's influenced him, not just in the way it's driven by a dream logic, but also in the characters that inhabit this dark world. The peripheral characters, who may or may not be figments of Johan's damaged psyche, are all just off in some way. The first dinner appointment at Baron von Merkens's castle reminded me of nothing so much as the party scene from Lost Highway; the incredibly strange and aloof Baron is surrounded with a menagerie of even stranger friends.

Despite its overt weirdness though, I didn't find this as emotionally draining as some Bergman films I've seen like Autumn Sonata, say; an emotional maelstrom that leaves you on the floor. Because of its dreamlike quality, this is a different kind of experience altogether. It's a film that transports you to another place, but also maybe one that reflects on the art of story-telling as much as the particular story it has to tell. The opening credits, with sound of scenery being shifted, actors directed, cameras primed to roll, foregrounds the artifice of the process; the formidable impresario, Lindhorst, directing his miniature people on a tiny set, is Bergman's alter ego. There's also something strange about the way Alma bookends the film, looking directly into the camera. It's tempting to take her story at face value, because she seems so sincere, but the clues are there all along that she may be the most unreliable of narrators. Who, if anyone, is telling the truth in this? Does it really matter? There's a suggestion that it wasn't just Johan who lost his mind but that they both went mad together, in that darkest hour before dawn.

As well as having dramatic scenes that will stay with me for a long time - the baron walking the walls, the flurry of wings in a gloomy corridor, the killing of the boy, real or imagined, following Johan into the forest - Sven Nykvist's black and white cinematography is beautiful. The precise chiaroscuro lighting, and steady camera work invites you into a world of dark ethereal wonder, the spirit of the Gothic writ large. Enigmatic, weird and wonderful; I have a feeling that much like Lynch's most Delphic offerings, this one is going to richly reward repeat viewings, even if it never fully gives up its mystery.

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