Monday, April 20, 2009

Virgin Spring (1960)

Please note that I will spoil the shit out of this movie, so if you haven't seen it, and intend to, please read this after you watch it.

I expected this to be one of those Swedish exploitation films from the 60s that I'd been hearing so much about since this was the inspiration for Last House on the Left, Chaos, and the Last House on the Left remake (which I still haven't seen). What we have here is an honest to god real film, a beautiful mediation on the nature of evil, violence, guilt and various other shit like that. Also, religion I think. I don't know, I'm not the typical audience for these type of pictures. You know, ones that make you think. Those other films I mentioned used this film as a jumping off point so that they could include some exploitative elements, things like oral castration, axe murders, forced urination, vaginal stabbing, and even more things like head microwaving, which I guess was in the LHOTL remake since I saw it in the trailer. I'm not sure though since, like I said, I haven't seen it. In those pictures, there's a rape followed by revenge. The difference between Virgin Spring and those other, mostly shitty, movies is that in Virgin Spring we are not really satisfied with the revenge and I think that's the way it's supposed to be. Also, in that piece of shit movie Chaos, I believe the director went so far as to show his version of Krug getting away with it. Virgin Spring is a picture where we don't root for the father to avenge his daughter's rape and murder. I mean, not really.

Well, here is, like I said earlier, a real god damned film. Completely inappropriate to be written up on this blog. First of all, it's based on a 13th century ballad. Second of all, it's directed by some Swede named Ingmar Bergman. I am somewhat ashamed to say that this was the first picture I've seen from this guy, but am now certain it won't be the last. It's filmed in crisp black and white with little to no score except for the natural sounds from the forest and the farm. It features great performances all around, especially Max Von Sydow as Tore and Gunnel Lindblom as Ingeri. I'll go so far as to say that this is probably the most important film reviewed here since Starship Troopers 2.

The film portrays a family living on a farm in the mountains. The father (Von Sydow) and the mother (Birgitta Valberg) live with their daughter and several farmhands, including Ingeri, a savage woman apparently found and taken in by the Von Sydow clan. Ingeri, now pregnant is a bitter woman who seems to loathe the pretty daughter, Karin. She prays to Odin for something sinister to happen as she churns butter and prepares the milk for supper. Odin is a pagan god, so I found the clash of religions (the old vs the new) to be pretty interesting, especially in light of the events that later take place. The story is a simple one. Karin, as the virgin child, is appointed to bring candles to the church (tradition dictates it must be a virgin). Her mother sends Ingeri along. They depart on horseback through the forest, as the church is apparently miles away. Along the journey, Ingeri stays behind at a sort of way-station while Karin continues ahead. Ingeri, is eventually chased away by a deranged caretaker and forced to follow Karin on foot, sensing she is in danger. Karin encounters three mountain herders on the way and offers to share her lunch with them. They repay her kindness with rape and follow that up with a side of murder (highly inappropriate wording!) as Ingeri finally catches up and watches helplessly. Anyway, these mountain herders (one's just a small child - no he didn't participate in the rape or murder) make their way to Karin's farm. They are offered shelter in exchange for chores. Eventually, they make the mistake of offering some of Karin's things to her parents as a memento and she, and her husband, put two and two together rather quickly.

This is a heartbreaking picture. The relationships are set up beautifully between Karin and her parents. The scene where her mother helps her get dressed on that fateful morning. Her father, questioning why his girl would sleep past sunrise. We wonder how far his anger will go, but then when he sees Karin that morning he picks her up in his arms and begins to laugh. It's a pretty happy household is what I'm tryin to say. Karin is a typical teenager; loves to sleep, infatuated with boys and fashion. She's blonde, beautiful, completely innocent, naive. Ingeri is her polar opposite; Dark skinned, dark hair, cynical, angry, prone to worshipping dead gods, not at all virginal (based on her large belly). I liked her immediately.

The filmmaking is pretty masterful, I should say. The lunch scene with the three herdsmen (including the child) starts off playful. There's laughter and food. Karin doesn't believe them capable of doing her harm because she doesn't believe in evil, has never encountered it which of course makes the eventual rape all the more horrifying. Bergman doesn't cut away. It's not exploitative. This is not a sleazy skin flick. It also doesn't leave much to the viewer's imagination, either. We know what's going on here. The camera is set up behind some branches and the audience becomes like a voyeur. Helpless to stop it. After it's over, the two men don't look very happy with themselves. Karin quietly gets up and begins to walk away, gently sobbing. One of the men whacks her over the head with a large stick. She looks at her tormentors once and then collapses, dead. At this point, Bergman does something interesting. He sets up the camera from an even farther distance, almost in the trees. We watch the two men struggle to pull off Karin's clothes. In a strange way, this scene is almost as bad as the rape and murder. We just watched it happen, helplessly, and now we're forced to watch the robbing of her corpse. For, what we later learn is, a little monetary gain. In one of the picture's more powerful moments, the young boy grabs some soil and sprinkles it over her body, ashamed of what he was too small to stop. Ingeri, from a distance, like us, was also a helpless witness.

Everyone feels guilt in this thing. Ingeri wished Karin dead, and then it happens. Maretta (Karen's mother) was jealous of the attention Karin paid to her father. The father feels guilt for many things, not protecting Karin, and, in the film's most shocking scene, the murder of the young boy. Hell, even the two rapist-murderers were guilt ridden, though not too guilty to try selling back Karin's shawl to her own mother (they probably weren't aware she was her mother, but they'd almost have to suspect it as Karin did tell them the general vicinity of her farm). I wondered if their presenting Karin's shawl to her mother was a form of penance, an almost admission of guilt. At dinner, the young boy is unable to keep down his milk, constantly wretching it back into his bowl. The father, upon realizing the nature of his three visitors, knocks down a virginal birch tree so that he may hack off the branches to whip his back as he bathes, a sort of pre-penance for the sin he is about to commit.

Holy shit, the killing of the herdsman and the boy is not easy to watch. This is not a set piece, like the killings in those pictures this film inspired, designed to excite the viewer. The act, itself, is quick and brutal, but death comes slow. Sydow, bars them in the guest house and, while they sleep, walks in, dagger drawn. He doesn't kill them immediately however. He checks their bags, producing more items that belonged to his daughter. Then he sits upon a chair overlooking his snoring visitors, silently judging them, pronouncing sentence. This is not an entirely satisfying conclusion. We don't cheer these deaths. These were bad men, no question. It's not so much what happens to them, but what happens to this family, Sydow-his wife-hell even Ingeri, that leaves the viewer rather drained. After the two men are dispatched, the boy stands alone, frightened. He runs immediately for the arms of Maretta, who embraces him. For a moment, we think the boy is saved. He is, after all, just a child, innocent. Nope, Sydow grabs the kid and chucks him against the wall, killing him instantly. The following observation might be a bit off color but, what can I say, it was an amazing shot. I'm not sure if they got a stunt little person or used a dummy here but it looked completely real. Of course, the realism only adds to the heartbreak. On the part of the mother (over the death of a child who sought her protection), the father (who immediately regrets his action) and, of course, over the child (deprived of the chance to grow up, to evolve).

I don't know, but this Bergman fellow is the real deal. He's got some serious directing chops I think. The minimal score on this thing was a masterstroke. The performances are all good to great, extremely well written, which is something completely lost in those other pictures I keep referring to. I was incredibly moved at the end. I'm surprised more hasn't been made of this one. It's got a criterion release, but online reviews are scarce and, some, surprisingly negative. Probably, there are those out there that look at the religious aspect of the picture and immediately say "no thanks". That's something I don't really understand. If a picture works, has great characters, powerful moments, and all comes together at the end, then who cares if Sydow gets on his knees at the spot of his daughter's murder and calls out God for his inaction? Who cares that he, ultimately, doesn't disavow God ("I don't understand you and yet I ask for forgiveness") and vows to build a church at that very site or that when they lift up the body of his daughter a stream appears as if God is saying "yes, you build that church and all is forgiven"? Who really gives a shit man? I don't care if you do or don't believe in God. Either way, this is a powerful picture because it's characters do believe in God (even that pagan seductress Ingeri believes in something) and so the ending is perfect for them. Because it's perfect for them, it's perfect for us. It's a great feeling to be moved by a film.

Of course we know any religion that would cause this much guilt sucks balls. There we go, that's more like it.


elmo said...

Yo, this "real film" stinks of Carol Sheperd. Speaking of which, on to DeathRace, where the verdict as to whether or not Jason Statham is the new Van Damme comes in.

brian said...

actually, i stumbled upon this one without prodding from Carol. I've always wanted to see a Bergman film and this one, as the source for "Last House on the Left", seemed the obvious place to start.

I feel like I reviewed "Death Race"? Probably not. I thought it was much better than I thought it would be. I've actually harped Statham as the next McQueen before, probably just to myself.

Speaking of Van Damme, have you seen "JCVD" yet?

elmo said...

I haven't, but surely will.

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