The Hour of The Wolf

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE HOUR OF THE WOLF

7/10

Vargtimmen : Sweden 1968 : Ingmar Bergman : 89mins

Nearly all reviews of The Hour of the Wolf give a strangely misleading indication of the film’s emphasis. The standard synopsis generally runs along the lines of “tormented artist Johan Borg (Max Von Sydow) declines into madness on a remote island.” This isn’t necessarily inaccurate, but it isn’t what Hour of the Wolf is really about – Borg isn’t even the main character. The film begins and ends with straight-to-camera monologues from his wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann), and she is the real focus – the script, as the opening titles inform us, is supposedly constructed from Borg’s diaries, and Alma’s memories.

Just as Bergman is careful never to show us Borg’s canvases, our only access to his ‘dagbok’ is filtered through their reader, Alma, who visualises the surreal episodes which make up a large proportion of The Hour of the Wolf‘s running time. So whatever we know of Borg comes through or from Alma (the name means “soul”). The film is partly a portrait of Borg, partly a chronicle of a marriage in crisis, and, even more so, a portrait of Alma – this much can be said with a reasonable degree of certainty. All else is speculation – because The Hour of the Wolf only makes sense on a psychological level. The ‘reality’ underpinning its enigmatic events is a matter of subjective interpretation – it’s entirely possible, for example, to even interpret Borg as a projected figment of Alma’s imagination.

Apart from the opening and closing monologues, everything we see and hear hovers between phantom zones of memory, dream, fantasy and psychosis. Borg and Alma pay two visits to a mysterious castle on another part of their island, where they meet the local count and his circle of sinister cronies – in stylised sequences, the aristos loom in nightmarish close-up, archly addressing the camera like the decadent denizens of 8 – Fellini’s own bewildering, monochrome journey into the artistic subconscious. Bergman’s film is more satisfying, however: a dazzlingly weird, visually enticing, hallucinatory experience: “the most beautiful, unsettling music” indeed.

10th November, 2002
(seen on video, 9th November)

by Neil Young