Friday, November 3, 2017

Neglected Gem # 109: Hunger (1966)

Per Oscarsson in Hunger (1966)

Per Oscarsson has mostly been forgotten now, but in the sixties and seventies he was considered one of the great Swedish actors of his generation. Stage-trained (he was a notable Hamlet), he had a strongly theatrical presence on camera, and a daring style that was grounded in psychological realism but stretched imaginatively beyond it. In Jan Troell’s The New Land he had a striking presence in the small role of the minister who joins the community of the Swedish settlers in Minnesota, bringing comfort and relief to the devout Kristina (Liv Ullmann), who has suffered from the lack of a spiritual adviser since emigrating with her husband Karl-Oscar (Max von Sydow). Sam Peckinpah employed him in the part of the itinerant handyman in his 1966 TV adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine, where his jangling, inwardly focused performance was on par with the brilliant ones given by Jason Robards and Olivia De Havilland as his farm-owning employers. Oscarsson died in 2010; his last appearances were as Holger Palmgren in the Swedish film and TV versions of the Stieg Larsson thrillers.

At the height of his career, in 1966, he won both the Cannes Festival and National Society of Film Critics awards for playing Pontus, the protagonist of Hunger. The movie is a kind of Scandinavian smorgasbord: the great 1890 novel that furnished the material was by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, the director, Henning Carlsen, was Danish, and Oscarsson was a Swede. Hamsun’s volume is a breathtakingly intense and personal account of a few days in the life of a penniless writer. Pontus leaves his lodgings because he can’t pay his rent and bargains with a landlady in an even drearier boardinghouse; he writes an article for a local newspaper and hangs around the office anxiously awaiting the judgment of the editor and the few kroner the piece will bring; he tries to pawn a few goods. What he can’t abandon is his pride, which provokes him to adopt a grandiloquent manner and play (unconvincingly) the role of a careless man about town and generous patron of street beggars he views as much more harried than himself. The novel is Dostoevskian in its relentless presentation of psychological detail and in the drawing of Pontus himself, who is simultaneously heart-rending and insufferable. Carlsen brings it to life with amazing fidelity and clarity. Stylistically it’s a mix of social realism and expressionism (with one staggering surrealist sequence, in which Pontus dreams of challenging a dog for a bone), though Carlsen shies away from the usual expressionist devices – shadows, canted angles, superimposition. When hunger dissipates the hero, he literally can’t see straight, and the images become misted with white. (The beautiful DVD transfer by New Yorker Video showcases Henning Kristiansen’s luminous cinematography; the sequences that are neither expressionistic nor surrealistic suggest exquisite Impressionist canvases.)

Bespectacled, with a slight, pale beard, holding himself very straight (which emphasizes his gauntness), walking with exaggerated purpose, as if he were constantly on the way to an important rendezvous, Oscarsson gives a performance that’s jagged with temperament. He’s a little like Lars Hanson in the late silents he starred in with Lillian Gish for his fellow Swedish émigré Victor Sjöstrom, The Scarlet Letter and The Wind, and occasionally the eruptive power of his acting is reminiscent of Emil Jannings in Murnau’s The Last Laugh, but he has a cerebral quality that’s all his own. And comparisons to silent-movie performances, of course, don’t get at what he’s able to do with the heightened self-awareness of his line readings. In one extraordinary scene he asks a butcher for a bone, allegedly for his dog, and chews it himself in a corner, but he can’t digest the spare morsels of meat and spits them up, collapsing in desperate tears. In another, he tries to hawk his buttons, and when the pawnbroker refuses to take them Pontus calls him “God’s pack-mule,” callously denying him a few more hours’ existence. Then there’s a sequence in which he strikes up a conversation with an old man on a park bench, inventing a relationship with the wealthy father of a young woman (Gunnel Lindblom) he’s become fascinated with after seeing her in the street with her sister; suddenly he turns combative and turns on the old man, berating him for calling Pontus a liar (which the old man hasn’t done), projecting his revulsion at his own fantasies onto his innocent listener. The title of the movie seems to reflect sexual hunger, too: he has a flirtation with this woman, whom he calls Ylajali, but it ends badly.

Only a Scandinavian filmmaker could have made this movie, but Carlsen’s approach is different from Bergman’s or that of his own countryman Dreyer: it’s simultaneously more literary and more lyrical. The movie is one of a kind.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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