From Strindberg to von Trier, there has always been a distinctively pokerfaced humor streak running through Scandinavian dourness, keeping it perpetually on the brink of absurdism. Hunger, Henning Carlsen’s version of Knut Hamsun’s novel, plays out accordingly as harrowing tragedy of disintegration and grim comedy of intransigence. The two dueling impulses are loaded onto the shoulders of the protagonist, Pontus (Per Oscarsson), who over the course of the tormented narrative becomes a sly literalization of the starving-artist concept. His gaunt figure is first spotted leaning against the rail of a bridge, scribbling what might be a grand literary work or merely a written version of the schizoid eruptions plaguing him; a writer wandering the streets of 1890 Oslo while physically and mentally wasting away, he’s a bespectacled totem of existential mulishness, refusing to let go of his pride even as it eats at the walls of his stomach. The plump sausages and slabs of beef on display at the grocer’s window tease him, but Pontus remains distressingly faithful to the absurd image he’s drawn for himself: Kicked out of his room, he demands fancy wrapping for his mangy blanket, his sole possession; shrugging off a charity meal, he pawns his waistcoat so he can drop a coin into a startled beggar’s palm. The film’s sudden, darting zooms emerge as visualizations of the snaps and twitches in the character’s knotted psyche, but Carlsen’s handling is not heightened enough for the ironies and horrors of the plot; ticking clocks and overexposed hallucinations are dutifully trotted out, yet the squalor is regularly softened by conceptual tastefulness. That Hunger nevertheless remains a scarring experience is in no small amount due to Per Oscarsson’s justly celebrated performance, a fearless portrayal of concentrated intensity that erases any boundaries between the physical and the mental and, in a superb scene addressing his unattainable muse (Gunnel Lindblom), illuminates the aching folly of artistic pride: “One doesn’t have to be mad just because one is sensitive.”
A sharper image than we’ve come to expect from New Yorker Films (a new, "director-supervised video digital transfer" is cited in the liner notes); the contrast between the harsh chiaroscuro of the character’s reality and the overexposed brightness of his hallucinations is palpably felt. The sound is a bit on the timid side, but serviceable throughout.
The director recalls Hunger in an exhaustive interview, providing details about his first brush with Hamsun’s novel (through his book-binding father) and the project’s Scandinavian production, with plenty of deserved love to Per Oscarsson, who got the role after Carlsen’s original choice was scooped by Ingmar Bergman. In the other feature, from 2002, author Paul Auster settles at the Oslo cinemateque for a (mostly reverential, mostly one-sided) conversation with Hamsun’s granddaughter Regina, with Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Beckett predictably evoked over their chat. Also included are stills and a Henning filmography.
A full banquet of Scandinavian angst.