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Oscar Horrors: 'The Virgin Spring'

Oscar Horrors continues with Beau and his favorite filmmaker.

HERE LIES... Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for 1960.

I'm not going to beat around the bush here. Let's just get right to it. Ingmar Bergman is my favorite filmmaker of all time. He's self-indulgent, woefully meandering, and I love him for it. I first watched The Seventh Seal when I was all of eighteen, and the imagery and gallows humor wowed me. I pursued the rest of his respective oeuvre like a feverish animal, devouring early works and late masterpieces with the rabid enthusiasm of a junkie who just discovered Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg on the same day.

That being said, The Virgin Spring was a strange one for me. A meditation on the convoluted, considerable blindness of faith at odds with the cold, ruthless foundation of nature by way of a virginal sacrifice? Oh no, Ingmar, no. Don't worry about imbuing levity here dude, we cool.

While all of his films have resonated since first viewing, The Virgin Spring was peculiar for the fact that you sensed he wasn't entirely being himself... 


Which can, don't get me wrong, make for a remarkable filmgoing experience. I think watching Spielberg dig deep within to find his inner Kubrick made A.I. one of the best things he's ever done. But this was Bergman trying not to be Bergman, at least in the directorial sense, and his innate tendencies pouring over into the process made for a film I admire and love for that fact alone. The artist wrestling himself. Fewer things are more relatable and universal.

Bergman even went on record as saying that what he was trying to do with The Virgin Spring was make it almost Kurosawaesque. By this time, the famed Japanese director had already made himself known with his master works including Ikiru, Rashomon, Seven Samurai and the revisionist Macbeth fabel Throne of Blood. Bergman, the reigning brooder of the cineaste crowd, must have felt unremarkable in comparison. One has to admire Kurosawa's technical prowess, even if the films don't necessarily register. He had an innate sense of how to structure and juxtapose action with inaction, which is probably why he did Shakespeare so well. (Why no Hamlet, though?)


In lensing the film, Bergman called on who would thereafter be his most frequent collaborator, Sven Nykvist, to shoot the film. And it shows. While The Seventh Seal is still the most iconic of all Bergman's pictures, The Virgin Spring is more menacing in its composure, all at once more sedate and predatory. Sunlight of all things becomes alien, contorted, malleable to the whims of nature and its necessary evils. The climactic rape scene (which classifies this as a merciless albeit unconventional horror) was so explicit for its time that Fort Worth, Texas voted to ban the film from reaching its screens altogether. It also provided a reference point and a jumping off for Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, which begat a whole other wide array of torture films. (Is Bergman then as responsible as anyone for the torture porn that slithered its way into multiplexes in the mid-to-late aughts?)

That might be stretching, but it is worth considering. 

Bergman's take on Psycho. Courtesy of Criterion Corner.

Especially in light of criticisms Bergman levied at Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, a film more forthcoming in its penchant for violence as the crux of the narrative. The Virgin Spring, like Psycho, exists precisely because of this horrific display of cruelty. With the assist of his go-to repertoire of actors (Gunnel Lindblom, Max Von Sydow, etc.) Bergman's fable about the arrogance of faith in eternal combat with nature works specifically because of this conflict of ideas. The Kurosawa touches are readily apparent, (explicitly in the scene involving Lindblom and the old man on the bridge), and if anything, I'd say they reinforced Bergman's fingerprints on film rather than alter them. By moving away, by playing with the craft and the medium he'd come to master, Bergman was able to continue pursuing his own demons at a reckless pace from a different angle.

He was no longer limited to his own perceptions. He had a broader view of himself. And himself in it all.


You can follow Beau McCoy (hee!) on Twitter @davidparnassus. He promises he won't file a restraining order if you're pretty. You can also do him a SOLID and check out his first play, Video Joint, about a video store in the nineties. He's pretty proud of it. You'll wish it was yours. Available on iBooks and Kindle and in paperback at Amazon.com.

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Reader Comments (6)

Kurosawa DID do Hamlet (sort of) in The Bad Sleep Well

October 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDieter R.

Dear Beau,

I have seen this Bergman's masterpiece lately and I was completely captured by its beauty and cruelty, like you wisely point out in your text. Congratulations, great writing.

Marcelo - Brazil.

October 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo

This particular post keeps eating my comment. *sniffle* but I love the inclusion of Psycho -- so often, once we get past the first flush of a film in theaters (i'm talking any year, even the last few) we forget the context, or the cinematic landscape if you will, that it premiered in.

There's no chance I'll ever see the horror films this one inspired but I will definitely see this (i know i know. i haven't. it's one of the Bergmans I still have to get to.)

October 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

For Bergman mystery and suspence, I would suggest "The Magician," a creepy frightening film that had a wonderful Criterion release recently.

October 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

I've heard The Bad Sleep Well thing before, but Hamlet feels more like a jumping off point in that case than anything.. The Lion King has more in common with Hamlet than The Bad Sleep Well.

October 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

I love the idea that Bergman is at least partially responsible for the torture porn epidemic. I'd like to think that he would laugh at that, in a meaningful way.

I also love that Craven took this very Swedish, very arty drama about faith and turned it into a very American, very pulpy B-movie revenge fantasy.

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny
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