Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - The Virgin Spring (#22)

The Favorites - The Virgin Spring (#22)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Virgin Spring (1960/Sweden/dir. Ingmar Bergman) appeared at #22 on my original list.

What it is • Based on a famous folk ballad, The Virgin Spring may be Bergman's least complicated film about faith: without getting too specific, a Christian noble (Max von Sydow) experiences tragedy, repents after a violent reaction, and experiences a miracle. Viewed this way, it may not be surprising that Bergman was dissatisfied with the movie. While impressed by the naturalistic sun-dappled photography of characters moving through forests (this was one of his earliest ventures with cameraman Sven Nykvist, maybe his closest collaborator behind the camera) he felt his own direction of the action was too derivative. But The Virgin Spring is also one of Bergman's most unflinching explorations of depraved humanity. Despite the simplicity of its storytelling, the emotions run deep. Grief, guilt, lust, resentment, all coalesce in the (double - maybe triple) destruction of innocence, centered on one of the most brutal rape scenes of its time. This resulted in frequent censorship (including one court case between Janus Films and the town of Ft. Worth, Texas, which Ft. Worth won) and later inspired Wes Craven's revenge horror film Last House on the Left. The scene is not particularly graphic. It is psychologically rather than physically raw, terrifying because it depicts the utter helplessness of the victim. Whether or not you agree with The Virgin Spring's view of justice, vengeance, atonement, and divine will, whether you see said view as ambiguous (Bergman introduces an element of rival paganism into the mix, which - as I recall - suggests a struggle of forces rather than a world simply dominated by God's authority), the film's stark content will force you to draw your own conclusions.

Why I like it •
Ingmar Bergman is not a filmmaker I zero in on as much as others, but he is well-represented when I make lists like this. In fact he is the most well-represented director on this particular list, with four films. I've probably seen more movies by him than anyone else; shortly after he died in 2007, I conducted a chronological survey of all the work I could find, watching well over thirty, maybe forty, films in the space of a few months (and there were still a bunch I couldn't get to!). That's a lot to choose from, and yet my top pick is this movie, not one of his own favorites, praised by critics but seldom to the degree of The Seventh Seal, Persona, Cries and Whispers, or a dozen others, even a bit unusual in its style. Bergman himself called The Virgin Spring "a lousy imitation of Kurosawa," and while I admire that Japanese director greatly, he's never been one of my all-time favorites (as I semi-joked in my capsule for the original list, this is "my favorite Kurosawa"). However, as I watched Bergman's skill and sensitivity slowly evolve over his first twenty films, it was hard for me not to see The Virgin Spring as a sort of culmination, even following the 1957 triumph of the masterful Seventh Seal and the excellent, if somewhat flawed, Wild Strawberries. From its opening frames, leading into an extended sequence anchored by the pregnant servant girl Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom in an earthy performance, one of her best), the film is saturated with a mastery of cinema's audiovisual qualities. I love the "talkiness" of Bergman's films - their frank willingness to explicitly hash out ideas and feelings - but there is something deeply powerful about The Virgin Spring's ability to tell a story mostly through action, articulating the characters through movement rather than dialogue. I also value The Virgin Spring because, much like Twin Peaks, it is bold enough to identify with the victim of sexual violence rather than simply the perpetrators or witnesses. The film has plenty of empathy (which is not to say sympathy) to go around, especially for two observers who are both horrified and implicated in the act. But the scene is anchored by a subjectivity belonging to the victim. This is a profoundly uncomfortable position to place viewers in, feeling like a violation of some unspoken contract - as it should. That's one reason the later, climactic violence is shown to be unsatisfying; it can only compound (not undo) the tragedy. Despite serving as a template for revenge thrillers, The Virgin Spring has much more on its mind than the fleeting, imagined satisfaction of an eye for an eye.

More from me • I praised the film's form in an IMDb comment nine years ago (collected for this blog a few years later). A clip is featured at 1:42 in "Sixties Rising", a chapter in my video clip series "32 Days of Movies".

How you can see it • The Virgin Spring streams on Hulu and has been uploaded to YouTube.

What do you think? • Does the film seem out of step, in a good or bad way, with the rest of Bergman's work? How does The Last House on the Left compare? Do you "believe" the film's ending, or does it ring false?

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