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.”
- Sigma III Corp.
- 112 min
- Henning Carlsen
- Henning Carlsen, Peter Seeberg
- Per Oscarsson, Gunnel Lindblom, Osvald Helmuth, Sigrid Horne-Rasmussen, Birgitte Federspiel, Knud Rex, Hans W. Petersen, Hans W. Petersen, Henri Kolstad, Roy Bjørnstad
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