I had seen this movie a while ago, and liked it well enough, though I'm not sure why I needed to see it again. But there it was, in my mail, so what the hell. There is a little interview segment in the extras here in which Liv Ullman says that just before making the film, she had told Bergman that she couldn't live with him. So one could argue that the whole movie needs to be seen through that lens. Also interesting to know is that this began as a script that ended up being split into this and Persona, and that Bergman suffered a nervous breakdown during the writing of that script.
The movie begins with a title informing us that the artist Johan Berg vanished after a certain time on this island, and left me (the filmmaker?) his diary and the testimony of his wife, Alma, which this movie was made from. We then have the credits, during which we hear the sounds of filmmakers preparing to shoot, ending with "Quiet... rolling... camera... and begin." Alma then comes out and addresses the camera directly, not saying much but that they came out to this island and gradually her husband became more and more distant, and finally vanished. We then flash back to their arrival.
They have come to this remote island off the coast of Sweden, move into this charming cottage and set up their household. Johan shows her drawings he has made of the different demons that appear to him--theoretically he was coming to the island to escape them--which take the form of various people, for example a woman who wears a hat, but when she removes it, her face comes with it. We don't actually see the drawings. One day Johan is walking home when a man in a dark suit and glasses begins walking along with him, talking his ear off. The guy seems to be an art critic Johan knew. Abruptly Johan slaps him and walks away. We have little vignettes of his life with Alma, which are often wordless and fade out, such as Alma running up to Johan upon his return home, happy to see him, but finding him depressed and withdrawn. One day Alma is outside when suddenly there's an old woman in white near her, who tells her the location of Johan's diary, and tells her to read it.
She does, and reads of people following him around the island all the time. One day people appear and invite them to dinner at the castle of Baron Von Merking, on the other side of the island. They go, and meet a cast of characters who are quite lively and full of laughter, but all of it has a sinister and surreal edge. There are two women, both of them creepily seductive to Johan, and one of them says she has Johan's portrait of his former lover, Veronica Vogler, in her room. She tells Alma "I've bought a considerable piece of your husband." It's clear there's lots of undermining of Alma in this continual bringing up of his past romance, and she grows more concerned as she sees her husband drifting away from her. On the way home Alma confesses that she's read his diary and is worried, but he is already too distant from her for it to register. Soon after Johan is working when a young boy is messing with his art materials, and they have a long physical struggle. We see a woman in the water surface for a moment, then slowly slip back under.
SPOILERS > > >
The couple is at home, which is increasingly silent and strained, when there's a knock at the door. Alma says she locked it and checked it three times. Nevertheless the art critic guy walks in and invites them once more to dinner. He also places a gun on the table. Johan picks it up, aims at Alma, and fires.
Johan goes to dinner. They say they didn't invite him, but Veronica is there, in another room, and he should go see her. We learn that Veronica was married to someone else when Johan had an affair with her. They were found out and it briefly became a public scandal, and we can piece together that she is now dead. One of the older women is creepily seductive to Johan, and he has to fight her off. She then removes her hat, crinkles up her face like a dry onion skin, and plops her eyeballs into a glass. This is all accomplished with simple but potent effects--we see her pulling the eyeballs out of a mask, tearing tiny strands of glue.
Johan is finally shown to Veronica. The guy leading him tells Johan that he is now her lover, but he will swallow it and let Johan see her. He then walks, weeping, back toward a wall, up it, and walks cringing along the ceiling. Johan walks into a room containing a coffin draped with a white sheet. Then it is Veronica lying on a table, and she wakes and embraces him. We hear laughter and see the whole demon family watching, cackling. Johan says the limit has been transgressed, then speaks for a while without any sound.
We return to Alma speaking to the camera. She has numerous times pondered how married couples begin to look alike, which we also understand to be her ability to see the demons he has been seeing. She wonders if she couldn't protect Johan because she loved him too much--or too little. She begins a sentence, and the movie fades out and ends before she finishes it.
< < < SPOILERS END
It's a good, somber and unnerving movie about a man being lost to the demons in his mind, and his wife watching helplessly as he draws away, unable to reach him. It has numerous ideas and images that don't make sense on the surface, but have an uncanny quality that makes them highly suggestive and evocative of emotional states, and make sense that way. We stay in Johan's perspective as he encounters people that aren't real, and the movie successfully walks the line between showing us what he is experiencing, while also pulling for him to snap out of it and return to reality. It becomes effectively scary not only for its cheap but effective horror images, but as we begin to realize he might end up hurting his wife through confusion about his delusions. Not to mention that it is gorgeous to look at and has numerous arresting images that will evoke similar feelings in you: people you have to socialize with but that kind of creep you out, feeling as though your past can't be left behind and will come to attack you, that your home can be invaded, and that a retreat into solitude would not be the best thing for you, but actually case your ruin. Many of us have had these feelings, and that's what makes this movie effective and unnerving for the audience, and doesn't allow the distance of just watching some separate man's story.
So if you'd like an artsy horror film that is a deep, dark exploration of the demons plaguing an artistic mind, this is a good one that will bring up a lot of evocative themes, and let them retain their power by not providing and pat resolution or answers of any kind.
Yes, if you like evocative, artful horror.