One of the problems facing any filmmaker who wants to use the medium seriously is that the heavier the material, the likelier it is to be greeted with raspberries by audiences comfortable only with formulaic entertainment. Critics used to support serious effort, but long ago sold out to popular cultural expectations. Now any film that requires the slightest thought from the viewer or which fails to parrot currently correct political attitudes is doomed to neglect or derision.
The triumph of trash has been particularly burdensome for the reputations of filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman who have been almost synonymous with the now outré belief that film is an art. An uneven film like Hour of the Wolf makes that burden even heavier, since its relentless gloom feels familiar to the point of banality.
In Wolf, Bergman gives us painter Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), isolated with his wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) on a small island, hoping to overcome an artistic crisis. The island is owned by an impoverished baron (Erland Josephson). After initially leaving the couple alone, the baron invites the Borgs to what proves to be another of the dreariest of 1960s European art film clichés, the decadent party, attended by his twisted friends and relations. All deserve Borg’s description as “cannibals.” Before long, their spider-like seductions send him over the edge, although in true art film expectation, Borg’s precise fate is uncertain.
Artistic crisis, borderline psychosis and emotional parasitism are not exactly light or sparkling topics. In Wolf none are handled with much depth or originality, giving philistines ample reason to sneer. Ironically, lovers of trash capable of overcoming their reverse snobbery could enjoy Wolf if they wanted because it is effectively, if unintentionally, a horror film. There are no vampires or zombies, just depraved Europeans out for a good time, but the results are harrowing, striking, in a nasty, Expressionist kind-of way and full of the jolts that make horror entertaining.
Bergman, often dismissed as more literary artist than “real” filmmaker, proves once again that he had considerable technical flair. A lengthy flashback or fantasy (it is unclear which) about the murder of a boy is almost a textbook example of how to use technical means to make a moment stand out, for example. And the climactic nightmare is a convincing evocation of the aimless, deadpan distortions typical of a dream as Borg sleepwalks through ever more charged encounters with the baron’s coterie.
It may seem perverse to point out the dime store frissons in something that aspires to high art, but it is nonetheless a reasonable description of Wolf’s best moments. Viewed in terms of its lofty ambitions, it is a humorless, pretentious failure. (Are artists really this miserable?) Aspirations forgotten or ignored, however, Wolf can be very enjoyable. It is hardly one of Bergman’s greatest films, but to suggest it is worthless because it misses lofty goals itself misses a lot.