Sometimes broadly categorised as a horror film, Hour of the Wolf (1966) is in fact one of director Ingmar Bergman's most potent and interesting examinations of the artistic psyche, with all of the usual psychological elements and interpretations that such a subject can present. The film was initially devised alongside the more widely acknowledged masterpiece Persona (1966) as a secondary element of that film's already complicated narrative design. Along the way, Bergman presumably decided that the intense psycho-sexual relationship between patient and nurse presented by Persona was strong enough to survive on its own, so, took out the broader aspects of artistic breakdown, ego, guilt and paranoia, and created this particular film around them.
The presentation of the story begins well enough; with the characters retreating to a small island off the Swedish coast and living out a quaint and idyllic honeymoon period of love and creativity. However, right away we see Bergman presenting the audience with a series of questions; questions that suggest certain unspoken elements of this couple and their shared past, with the major question being along the lines of why would these particular characters, loving and charming as they seem, want to remove themselves so completely from the outside world? Are they hiding from something? Perhaps so, and you could certainly draw parallels here with the central themes of Bergman's later, oddly inter-linked character studies Shame (1968) and A Passion (1969), in which characters haunted by the past and at odds with society retreat from certain events and further into themselves. As with those particular films, the characters of Hour of the Wolf find that the solitude they so dearly sought bring out the very demons that their escape was attempting to exorcise, creating in the process a hellish, psychological landscape where they find themselves repeating the same actions, events and mistakes, as if existing within some tortured loop.
As the film progresses, Johan and Alma, the couple at the centre of this claustrophobic drama, realise that they are not alone on the island; with the local inhabitants coming to represent the frightening, unseen abstractions presented in the artist's work. Again, we are being asked a series of questions all pointing back to the character of Johan Borg and his relationship, not only with Alma, but with the inhabitants of the island and the mysterious cipher Veronica Vogler, who will reappear towards the end of the film. The horror aspect is not only psychological, which is of course fairly common for Bergman's work, particularly of this era, but also surprisingly physical; manifested in the old dark house and bizarre characters that come to populate the island and take an interest in Johan and his heavily pregnant wife.
You could argue that the film is somewhat muddled or small in scale compared to many of Bergman's other films from this era, in particular, the aforementioned Persona, as well Shame and A Passion, which are both equally as great. Even Bergman himself admits in his memoirs that the perspective of the film was never fully developed, despite his best efforts to correct the problems in post-production; something that no doubt led to the awkward, though never less than interesting creation of the confessional framing device. Here, Bergman to some extent pre-dates a film like The Blair Witch Project (1999) by some forty or so years by creating a work that claims to be based on a true story - in this instance, the psychological breakdown and disappearance of an artist, as documented by his own wife and diary entries - despite clearly being a work of fiction. From this the film becomes weighted from the perspective of Alma, the wife of the artist, who discusses her husband's final days with an unseen film crew.
Once we cut back into the real story and begin to unravel the central mystery of Johan Borg and the terrible demons that plague him, the perspective of the narrative switches once again, this time becoming entirely focused on the man; presenting us with his own fragmented memories, dreams and nightmares. This, for me, is a much more interesting angle to follow, despite misgivings from the filmmaker himself. Though some viewers have obviously found this device problematic, or even potentially distracting, the use of this continual juxtaposition of the character's central viewpoints works in favour of the drama, fragmenting the notions of fact and fiction even further and creating a really subtle shading of Borg's complex personality. You could also say that with this particular style of structure, Bergman is obscuring - perhaps accidentally - the true fate of Borg's character so that we, the audience, are never fully aware of what exactly is going on. We can make assumption of course, and draw conclusions from the snippets of information being offered to us by the characters and by Bergman himself, but the film ultimately closes with as many questions as it does suitable answers.
The imagery of Hour of the Wolf is very much in keeping with the imagery of Persona, though perhaps lacking the Brechtian sense of narrative deconstruction and cinematic self-reference in favour of the abstract, absurd and the morbidly surreal. As other reviewers have suggested, there is a touch of the Hammer House of Horror evident here, especially in the later scenes which take place in the old, Gothic mansion and some of the more outré images of psychological torment. However, the film never crosses over, remaining true to Bergman's personal style and preoccupation with character examination and self-analysis against a landscape of pure, existentialist dread.
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