2020s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Historical

The Northman (2022)

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Director: Robert Eggers
Screenwriters: Robert Eggers, Sigurjón Birgir ‘Sjón’ Sigurðsson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Emulation and synthesis are eternal processes in art as young talents arise and pick and choose touchstones and heroes and try to find new ways of appealing to audiences. Since the millennium’s turn we’ve seen many a new talent positioning themselves, or being positioned by studios and the media, as cinema’s next Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lynch, Cronenberg, Kubrick, Malick, or Woody Allen. More intriguingly if not always satisfyingly, in the past few years a fresh cadre of filmmakers has tried to blend styles in moviemaking once thought irreconcilable, mating art house, independent film, and Hollywood hit inflections in novel fashions, each commenting on the others. But the spark of real creativity that turns such busy remixing into authentic original art, on whatever level, is something much more rarefied. Native New Yorker Robert Eggers emerged with a bang in 2015 with The Witch, a Horror movie that proved a substantial box office success on a modest budget, made an instant star out of lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, and Eggers, in his attempts to mate art house movie-style textures, the simultaneously vivid and dreamlike approach of directors like Werner Herzog and Lynch, to a period tale of supernatural menace broadly conforming to the Horror genre, announced he belonged to the gathering wave of directors similarly trying to fuse aesthetic modes and genre presumptions once thought irreconcilable, and in particular a specific wing of this tendency labelled “Elevated Horror.” The main connection of many of the Elevated Horror directors lay in their efforts at quoting classic Horror movie imagery and metaphorical potential but atomising them in a narrative sense, trying to evoke states of dread and fragmenting psychological states.

That said, Elevated Horror very quickly became a set of cliché stylistic gestures, and what was often greeted as groundbreaking in the movement was, to anyone with a strong grounding in the genre as it was in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, rather old-hat. But Eggers also evinced a strong visual imagination and a fascination with surrealism-touched imagery in common with other directors like Ben Wheatley, Peter Strickland, Panos Cosmatos, and David Lowery, filmmakers who, whatever their individual qualities, certainly all seem to share a desire to annex the stature once by filmmakers like Herzog or Kubrick, and reinvest some of the stylistic freedom and atavistic power to cinema that inflected periods in the medium’s history as in the heyday of German Expressionism and late 1960s psychedelia, at a time when both mainstream models and independent alternatives are all but exhausted of personality and visual imagination and potency. The Witch, a film that was certainly exceedingly well-made and impressively styled, nonetheless wielded a contrived brand of onerousness too many seem to automatically accept as artistry, and strikes me as fussy, over-managed, and dead to the touch. I hesitate to say that stylistic instability is, far from a failure in moviemaking, is the essential source of art in the medium, and excessive control is its slow death. But I still often feel it’s true. Eggers’ second film, The Lighthouse (2019), highlighted both his specific strengths, expertly exploiting strong acting performances in depicting a crisis of besieged personality, and his potentially aggravating weaknesses, as he wrapped the central character tale in imagery and Horror movie teases that refused to resolve into much more than student film showboating, an extended stab at trying to have your art house cake and eat your genre film too.

Nonetheless Eggers seemed like a director of promise who could be forgiven the contemporary critical tendency to latch on to the new voice as the greatest thing ever. The Northman sees Eggers taking a leap most of his contemporaries have been unwilling or unable to execute so far, in making a big movie – the budget of The Northman is somewhere in the $70-$90 million range – and trying to bend the mindset of the mass audience to bold and challenging vision, much as, say, Kubrick managed with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The Northman is also a Viking movie, a perennially popular movie subgenre stretching back through the likes of Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), Roger Corman’s The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958), Mario Bava’s oddball Norse Westerns Erik the Conqueror (1961) and Knives of the Avenger (1966), Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships (1965), Robert Stevenson’s The Island At The Top of The World (1974), Charles B. Pierce’s The Norseman (1978), John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999), and, for some actual Scandinavian input, Nils Gaup’s Pathfinder (1988) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2010). One could even stretch this to include works like John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, being as they are film drawing heavily on Norse myth for their more overtly fantasy settings.

More recently all things Viking have been hugely popularised by TV shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom, and now also permeate music genres and subcultures. Those include, rather controversially, sectors of the far right and white supremacists, which has some basis in the idiotic cultural theories and ideals of the Nazis. I suspect the greater part of their penchant for the imagery Norse culture and mythology is essentially the same as everyone else’s at the bottom of all: it’s really cool. The Viking mystique is at once deeply alien and peculiarly familiar, violent and menacing and contemptuous of the more pastoral visions of medieval Europe and the evolving structure of its power and institutions, but also reflects a folk culture defined by powerfully appealing things like camaraderie, macho virility, and rowdy boozing in the mead hall. That Eggers wants to examine the charisma of the old Norse culture more incisively, unsentimentally, and palpably than many such precursors is signalled not just in the sturm-und-drang he invests in his movie’s look and sound, but in the material he takes on to give his project form. The Northman adapts the Danish folkloric tale of Amleth, which William Shakespeare annexed for Hamlet. The Northman isn’t the first film to bypass Shakespeare for the source stories: Gabriel Axel’s Prince of Jutland (1998) also took them on, although, despite featuring a notable cast including Gabriel Byrne and Christian Bale, it didn’t make a cultural ripple.

Amleth’s story might be sourced in lost bardic poems and sagas from Norse culture, but no extant version comes to us earlier than the versions found in two 12th century texts, by the historian Saxo Grammaticus, who included it in his Gesta Danorum, and another, slightly different version in the Chronicon Lethrense. Both versions contain scenes familiar from Hamlet, like the crafty protagonist rewriting an execution order carried by two guardians during a voyage to Britain. Eggers and his coscreenwriter, the Icelandic poet and musician Sjón, by contrast only utilise the loosest outline of the tale, as if trying to peel away the layers down to some presumed origin point as a Viking campfire tale, a myth of bare-boned moral reckoning emerging out of a wild and savage time and culture. This also gives him leave to work in a myriad of harvested movie likenesses. Nonetheless, the basic story is hazily recognisable. Young prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) is overjoyed when his father, the king of the island of Hrafnsey, Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns from war, badly injured and weary. He’s reunited with Amleth, his wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and resolves to initiate Amleth into the mystical secrets of being king in a rite overseen by Heimir (Willem Dafoe), who is also the Fool in Aurvandill’s court and under the guise of lampooning suggests Gudrún is sleeping around. As father and son walk together, Aurvandill is struck with arrows by a hidden sniper, and Fjölnir and henchmen surround him and slay him, even as Aurvandill curses his brother.

The henchmen chase Amleth through the woods, but he manages to cut off the nose of the one who catches him, and he glimpses his mother being carried away by Fjölnir. Amleth reaches the beach and rows away from Hrafnsey, vowing revenge. “Years later,” as a title card puts it, Amleth, now grown into the hirsute beefcake bodaciousness of Alexander Skarsgård, has become a mercenary berserker in a band of marauders who attack a village in Rus’, slaying many and taking others for slaves. When he hears that some slaves are going to be shipped to Fjölnir, who has since been dispossessed of Hrafnsey and has relocated to Iceland with what’s left of his clan, Amleth slips aboard the ship transporting the slaves and pretends to be one of them: one of the Rus’ prisoners, Olga of the Birch Forest (Taylor-Joy), sees him come aboard and becomes his helpmate, chiefly because she also intends escape: “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” she comments, “I have the cunning to break their minds.” Brought to the homestead of Fjölnir and Gudrun, who now have a son together, Gunnar (Elliott Rose), as well as Fjölnir’s snooty adult son Thorir (Gustav Lindh), Amleth believes his mother feigns affection for Fjölnir to protect Gunnar. He and other slaves are pressed into playing knattleikr, a brutal field sport, during a celebratory meeting of clans in the district, and when Gunnar gets too excited and invades the pitch he is knocked down by a hulking rival player (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), who then in turn is beaten to a pulp by Amleth, a sign that Amleth feels some familial attachment to his half-brother. This thorny situation demands Amleth chart a careful path to his retribution, but also earns him a level of privilege amongst the slaves, including being allowed to marry Olga.

From its earliest frames The Northman declares its ambitions with volume, as Eggers’ camera swoops over long ships sailing towards the Hrafnsey coast with the booming, drum-and-dissonance-laden scoring of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough immediately establishing a mood of strange, jagged grandeur, and scarcely lets it up for the next two-and-a-bit-hours (the quality of superficial weirdness is as prized by the current crop of would-be film artists and cineastes as much as it was in pop music in the early ‘90s). One distinct facet of The Northman, and the one that Eggers seems most intent on putting across to make this something more than just your average muscleman revenge movie, lies in the way Eggers tries to anatomise Viking culture, to force the audience to share the viewpoint of these almost primeval people who peek over the edge of civilisation before burning it down. In this regard The Northman reminded me less of all those other Viking movies than it did of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s versions of Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), and Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and Sayat Nova (1968), with their usage of relic narratives less to tell their stories than to recreate the societies in their customs and philosophies and the forgotten cultural precepts lurking behind the plotlines.

Applying this approach to The Northman, stripping away the psychological qualities of modern drama and instead immersing itself in the way such things were conveyed and explored in myth, in symbols and archetypes, is a potentially very interesting one, particularly given that Hamlet is one vital source point for modern psychological drama. To radically deconstruct a couple of millennia of western art is certainly no small project. Rather than adapting Amleth’s story straight from the original sources The Northman harvests ideas and images from a variety of classical myths – Eggers and Sjon introduce hints of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, The Odyssey, Beowulf, Medea, and more. Less elevated influences are apparent too: Amleth’s habit of repeating his to-do list of revenging recalls that of Arya Stark in the novel and TV series Game of Thrones, whilst at time I suspected Eggers was somewhat desperate to play Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” but couldn’t as it has recently been profaned by use in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). The Northman also reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) as an odd and fulminating blend of a specific personal lexicon of images and concepts with the blankness of mythical metaphor and the pressures of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Eggers also follows David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) in applying a similarly self-conscious style to illustrating an almost equally archaic but very different tale. If The Northman is a much less insufferable a film than The Green Knight, it’s because at least it seems to know what it wants to say about the artefact it tackles, and adds up to more than a succession of stylistic gestures. On the other hand, it lacks the kind of grand synthesising reach of parable Aronofsky achieved. Where he linked the ancient and futuristic and ages of human development with his approach to Flood tale, Eggers is stuck fetishising rites that at times look like a really far-out men’s encounter group session.

Eggers dedicates himself to portraying the hallucinatory religion and ritual that pervades Amleth’s life and world and strongly suggesting an intended dialectic. Early in the film he dedicates a lengthy sequence to depicting the Aurvandill and Heimir inducting Amleth into a mystic union where they bring him through a process of mimicking and animal and making music with his body – burps and farts – before he then ascends to the status of man and then leaves his body. This ritual cements Amleth’s love for his father in terms both physical and spiritual. It’s echoed later when the priest of the berserkers (Magne Osnes), who took Amleth under his wing, leads the rampaging band in a dehumanising rite. Other visions are proffered as portals of understanding for his psychological functions. This is particularly notable when, sent by a He-witch (not to be mistaken for a Manwich; anyway he’s played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) to claim Draugr, a magical sword, from its owner known as the Mound Dweller, an undead being who resides on a throne in a buried barrow: Amleth battles the Mound Dweller when he comes to life for the sword, and finally bests him, only for the camera to return to Amleth standing before the dead man and simply pluck it from his hands, the battle we saw representative of Amleth gathering to courage to risk the taboo and take the weapon. Whether Eggers really nails what he’s aiming for is another thing entirely.

One problem is how he purveys it, with some special effects visions of Valkyries and the mystical family tree that bears forth its progeny living and passed like so many apples, that sway towards the CGI generic in execution, and spoil the integrity of physical solidity he pursues elsewhere. But the feeling of jammed gears also stems fromt he way Eggers approaches the story. Eggers and Sjon try to situate the tale in an overtly realistic and fetishistically authentic depiction of his world, but then lace it was aspects of magic and irrationalism, full of wise seers and preternatural animals. One can see the intellectual project Eggers tries to articulate, but then won’t stick to. He strips away all hint of depth from Amleth and then tries to reinvest it as the story unfolds. Eggers justifies this in part through Amleth’s single-minded project and his berserker schooling, which is depicted in a scene early in the film as he and other warriors whip themselves up in ritual manner to become animal beings who unleash bloody mayhem on the Rus’: Amleth is so dead-eyed a being in this state he doesn’t notice when he fellows seal the village children up in a hall and set it on fire, a casual act of genocidal contempt for anyone weak enough to fall prey to the Viking marauders. By contrast his journey of bloody revenge is an act of a civilised and rational man, insofar as it involves honouring bonds of identity and some basic code of ethics. This leads Amleth to experience a prototypical tragic experience, as seeking revenge commits him to acts that seem self-defeating.

Eggers takes definite risks with this film. Several people walked out of the film during the screening I attended during interludes of violence and overt weirdness, which, whilst perhaps not great for the movie’s bottom line, is a sign that whatever else you can say about it, The Northman is not yet another toothless mass media product. Eggers’ view of the Vikings is hardly exalting: he portrays this world as squalid and replete with brutality and oppression, and leaves you with the impression no sane person would want to live in such a world. The Northman serves the cult of the Viking with a hot dose of undiluted junk. Eggers tries with all his might to force the viewer into the atavistic zone he describes, to enter into a world where codes of speech and behaviour obey their own, peculiar, ritualistic rhythm. Trouble is, Eggers’ manner of doing so courts ridiculousness and a brand of stilted ye-olde-isms and rejected Death Metal lyrics that lack a compensating poetic quality, offering a parade of rasping-voiced men who say things like “I will meet you at the Gates of Hell!” and “Furnish this fierce heart and slayer of men with a drink that I might drink to him!” with a straight face. Eggers and Sjón pull off an interesting flourish however as Gudrun speaks consistently in a more elegant and sophisticated manner than those around her, even employing quasi-Shakespearean metre and metaphor on occasions (“Let my words be the whetstone for your mighty rage.”), befitting her status as a former slave stolen another culture as well as a power behind thrones.

Throughout, Eggers exhibits cinematic traditions he’s eager to annex. There are repeated nods to Conan The Barbarian, particularly in Fjölnir’s attack on Aurvanduill, and later when Amleth battles the Mound Dweller, which takes the scene in the Milius film where Conan discovers the Atlantean sword a few steps further. The sequence of the berserker attack on the Rus’ village is staged in a series of fluid tracking shots and culminates in a long single shot that variably does artful tracking and then pivots from a fixed position, whilst pseudo-objectively capturing acts of carnage and chaos, in a technically impressive but arch imitation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s shooting style on Andrei Rublev (1966). Vignettes like Amleth encountering a Rus’ shamanka (played, in a most inevitable in-joke, by Icelandic singer Björk) wearing funny stuff on her head echo Pasolini and Paradjanov in portraying pagan creeds. Hell, the climax, which situates the final battle of revengers in the midst of flowing lava with the seething magma mimicking the protean moment for civilisation as well as two warring psyches and bodies, directly mimics Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). There’s nothing wrong with homage and magpie borrowing in filmmaking, but like many younger directors of the moment, Eggers’ mix-and-match approach struck me as if he seems to be seeking a fast track to being hailed as a great artist, when the actual meat of the film is prosaic and straightforward, the human-level gestures by and large blunt and obvious, and the images have a contrived quality, so desperate to knock your socks off and yet so often arriving as lumps of conceptual show-off.

Eggers’ Tarkovsky-quoting tracking shots, for instance, don’t wield the same immersive feeling of being a wandering tourist in another world the Russian master achieved, but rather simply feel strenuous in technique and distancing from the horror it portrays rather than making it more immediate. His desire for flamboyance sometimes even hurts the story he’s trying to tell, like the long, mobile take of young Amleth sneaking about wearing a purloined robe amidst slain bodies of his father’s loyalists and glimpsing Fjölnir carrying his mother. Amleth then steals away in full view, rather bewilderingly paid no heed at all by Fjölnir’s men. It’s clumsy staging purely because Eggers doesn’t want to cut yet. Elsewhere Eggers’ barrage of surrealist visions occasionally made me feel like I was watching an especially long music video. The Northman is also one of the most stringently humourless films I’ve ever watched, perhaps out of fear even the most casual gag or moment of ordinary human interaction will spoil the desired credulity for this stylised world, and disrupt the texture Eggers labours to weave. I could have some sympathy there, but even the less heaviosity-charged interludes are encaged by style, as when Amleth and Olga meet to bump uglies in the forest in good pagan fashion, filmed with a kind of iconic import and inescapable aesthetic that chokes off any depiction of real sexual ferocity and feel for the strange catharsis of two fearsome personalities meeting in a place of tenderness.

Amleth begins terrorising Fjölnir and clan by chopping up some of the guards and also two priests of Freyr, acts of violence that seem present mostly because it’s been a few minutes since we had some baroque violence and so Eggers can work through his obsession with imagery of mangled flesh. One of the few sequences that effectively varies the onslaught of ostentatious style is an interlude depicting a mating rite for the younger Vikings, a male and female pair of singers performing for the gyrating lovers. Just for a moment a different sensibility gleams out of the muck. Eggers makes a point that this world is cruel and rough, and otherwise evokes virtually nothing but cruelty and roughness. Still, Eggers attempts through Amleth’s journey to chart the one real force that counteracts such barbarity, the bonds of family and lovers, but even these gets seriously stress-tested. Most broadly, The Northman can be described as a critique on the classic revenge tale, substituting Hamlet’s careful, intellectualised ethical contemplations for Amleth’s more visceral confrontations with the ironies of his quest. Self-professed critiques on revenge tales are pretty common these days, and, again, something of a short-cut to being taken seriously. Most classical revenge tales end nonetheless with varying forms of self-defeating mayhem unleashed.

Eggers’ main twist on this most ancient and hallowed realm of cliché is to essentially present everyone in the film as standing at some point on the timeline of a revenge path because everyone has some spur to seek payback and play such games, because everyone is aggrieved in an endless chain of power. Whilst the film is officially bracketed by the course of Amleth’s, it is also revealed that we’re in the end game of Gudrun’s and see other revenges launched and delivered or deflected. Amleth’s “heart of cold iron” and washboard stomach, honed in his years as a mindless berserker, give him the tools to pursue his end, but they have simultaneously retarded aspects of personality that need reawakening. In a pre-modern world like the one Eggers tries to portray matters of justice, like every other human value, has no greater muscle or strength in the world than the individual human holding them, and the radial of their connections to others, family first and foremost, then whatever can be called their community. Fjölnir’s act of treachery towards his brother is, in a manner never really fleshed out, partly inspired by a general feeling that Aurvandill has failed as a king, but this in turn leads to Fjölnir being labelled “The Brotherless” and tossed out of his kingdom by another, greater king.

The film’s vital story and character pivot comes when Amleth finally manages to sneak into his mother’s rooms in her and Fjölnir’s homestead, believing he’s bringing her the promise of rescue and righteous revenge. But Gudrun instead explains to her son that she pressed Fjölnir to kill her husband, who took her as a slave and then to bed, and far from being her beloved progeny Amleth is the last tether to that slavery and doesn’t care if he lives or dies as the product of her body’s colonisation by a hated foe. Kidman delivers a neat lesson in star acting cunning in her role here, erupting with feral energy as the formerly idealised maternal figure of Amleth’s faith suddenly reveals herself a ruthless and equally primal character even with her greater word power. This scene hits a note of volatile and unexpected emotional perversion but also one that wreaks subtle havoc on Eggers’ theme and approach to it. Rather than taking on Hamlet’s Gertrude as a clueless, sensual thrall, he remakes Gudrun after other Shakespearean archetypes like Queen Tamora and Lady Macbeth, a cunning embodiment of will to power aimed at what engendered it, who is also, to boot, rendered a rather demonic figure, laughing mockingly and employing incestuous appeal to dazzle and disorientate her son-foe.

Trouble here is Eggers nonetheless insists on straying into the kind psychological narrative he was supposed to be avoiding: he presents in Gudrun a furious counter-avenger created by the world’s evil and paying it in kind, one who wields a knowledge of how to manipulate men to control them. Olga, meanwhile, is an earthier archetype, a witchy woman who has cunning arts of her own but uses them more precisely, driving the Vikings to crazed fits by feeding them hallucinogenic mushrooms and keeping Fjölnir from raping her by showing off her blood-smeared crotch. Eggers makes a point about differently gendered forms of payback and power-exercising in this world, the women using guile, stealth, and manipulation to achieve their ends, but just as invested in their aims. At the same time despite his hardening to an engine of insensate wrath Amleth is saved from becoming a self-satisfied princeling like Thorir. Thorir reminded me strongly of the character Senya in The Saga of the Viking Women  and Wigliff in The 13th Warrior, both similarly peevish, hysterically insecure and fey princelings trying to prove their strength in a forbiddingly patriarchal world. This indicates the thematic preoccupations of the Viking movie as a subgenre are more codified than one might expect, and more than Eggers quite realises: they’re all fascinated by definitions of masculinity and the strange weeds that grow in the family plot in the shadow of virile patriarchs.

I couldn’t help also but think back to Bava’s Knives of the Avenger, a film which similarly used a Viking-age setting to explore the moral ambiguity of revenge, masculine rage, and fatherhood, in the character of Rurik, a man who in a fit of madness after his family’s slaughter avenged himself by leading a rampage of his warriors and raped the wife of one the enemy’s leaders, and years later inadvertently becomes protector to her and her son. Most crucially, Bava, despite much smaller advantages of technical resources and budget, casually delivered the kind of complex blending of mythological starkness and dramatic complexity depicting the evolving human psyche that Eggers here labours to execute. Late in The Northman Amleth is distracted very briefly by the sight of Olga running away, giving his enemies a chance to to capture him. ‘Twas beauty killed the beast. There’s some guff about Amleth being just like his father, but I’m not sure what that means beyond the very obvious: they’re both dumb enough to be captured by Fjölnir. Anyway, here Eggers tries a pivot of perspective as Fjölnir, confronted by Thorir’s slaying by Amleth, is filled with paternal wrath, wrath Gudrun tries aim properly, whilst Amleth, when captured, manages to delay Fjölnir’s execution of him by taunting him over the whereabouts of Thorir’s heart. Cue a scene of Amleth being tortured and making an escape that nods to another evident model for Eggers, in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) (or is it A Fistful of Dollars?). Except that Amleth’s freedom comes thanks to some ravens who peck at his blood-soaked bonds – with the hint it might also be Aurvandill’s spirit animals to the rescue.

Eggers also resorts on occasion to very hoary suspense-building tricks, as when Amleth crouches out of sight behind a hut hiding from some of Fjölnir’s men only to be barked at by one of their dogs, and Amleth is only saved from discovery by that time-honoured mistake of villains not to advance one or two steps more or turn their heads slightly. The film’s last act is enabled when Amleth and Olga, after she has helped spirit him away from the homestead elect to leave Iceland to together, only for Amleth to experience a vision telling him Olga is pregnant: deciding he needs to protect his incipient brood from any chance of Fjölnir hunting for them, he leaps off the long ship, swims ashore, and starks wreaking havoc at the homestead, carving up henchmen. Amleth dealing death to the same warrior whose nose he cut off as a lad feels indicative of the film as a while – cleverly done, wince-inducing in its gory verve, and lacking any true irony or purpose. Bang, a Danish actor who has brand of dark charisma well-suited to playing superficially charming but rather seedy characters, catches the eye as Fjölnir, even if he’s not really present that much in the film.

At least as the film veers towards a climax Eggers ventures into morally abyssal climes as Amleth, on the hunt for Fjölnir, is attacked by his mother, and then by Gunnar who tries to defend her, and Amleth kills them both. Both acts are done in self-defence but spring directly from his resolve, having fully accepted that, if they’re not encompassed within the aegis of his nominally defensive wrath, then they must be sacrificed to it as a matter of course. Eggers captures the spectacle of violently contradictory emotional impulses as Amleth later pays homage to their bodies where Fjölnir has laid them on the volcanic ashes below the Gates of Hel – an erupting caldera – that serves as the primal temple of their mutual fury. There’s a contradiction in here that’s potentially, endlessly rich, in presenting Amleth as at once a lover and a killer, the force of destruction and the seeder of soil contained with his bulbous body, that doesn’t fully emerge, in part because by this point we’ve seen so much death a little more doesn’t make much difference. Amleth and Fjölnir’s battle amidst the lava floes, as well as the likeness I’ve mentioned, is foiled in part because it wants so desperately to finally and fully anoint the drama in a perfect mythic tableaux, two naked men waging a perfectly symmetrical war of motives and heaving abs. But, again, this tries so hard to be instantly iconic that I couldn’t give myself up to it, particularly as the glossy, digitally-enhanced look of the scene and its calculated silhouetting robbed it of the kind of concussive physical immediacy it needed. It’s hard to deny The Northman is a compelling, intermittently fearsome piece of work. But I was left with the feeling the would-be visionary’s reach still exceeds his grasp.

Standard
1960s, Russian cinema

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

Tini Zabutykh Predkiv

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Sergei Paradjanov

By Roderick Heath

From amongst his too-few crop of marvels, Sergei Paradjanov’s best-known film alongside 1968’s Sayat Nova, was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, and it was the one that made his name. Although rendered in a similar hallucinatory, totemistic, folk-myth design as Sayat Nova, Shadows is quite different in that it at least tells a concrete, discernible narrative, managing to conjure something like the immense, segmented sprawl of classical sagas in an hour and a half. Where the later film tackled the cultural landscape of Paradjanov’s native Armenia, Shadows, based on a novella by Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky, describes the culture of the Ukrainians of the Carpathian Mountains in the eighteenth century (as suggested by the flintlock pistols the men carry), but could, in truth, be of almost any time. Whilst Shadows offers up the dramatic and tragic life of Ivan (Ivan Mikolajchuk), and his Romeo-and-Juliet love affair with Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova), the story provides a mere framework for Paradjanov’s visuals fugues and ritualised evocations.

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Nothing has meaning in Paradjanov’s films unless it linked to the totality of the natural world and the chains of tradition. Shadows unfolds in a series of linked, but segmented chapters that both extend Ivanko’s story and portray the world in which he lives, a world that is elemental even in its spirituality. In the first few minutes of the film, the young Ivan (I. Dzyura) loses most of his family. Ivan is almost crushed by a tree his older brother Olexa is felling: Olexa dashes to push Ivan out of the way, and is killed himself. At the church funeral, his father Petyik Paliychuk (Aleksandr Gaj) mocks the wealthier farmer Guteniuk (A. Raydanov) who, he says, “gives money to God but fleeces the poor.” Enraged, especially when Guteniuk’s wife calls him and his wife beggars, Paliychuk pursues him outside and spits insults, until Guteniuk strikes him dead with his axe. Ivan’s mother (Nina Alisova), who’s already lost all her other children and now her husband, and thus cheated of prosperity, maintains a bitter hate of the Guteniuks, but Ivanko’s one redeeming light in life is a daughter of the hated clan, Marichka (V. Glyanko as a girl), whom he first spied at his brother’s funeral. In the melee that followed his father’s murder, he slapped her, but then chased her down and made friends; by the time he had forgotten his father, he was welded to her like steel, sharing a nature-child love, playing in the woods together without clothes.

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When the pair grows into young adults, they’re still perfectly in love. But Ivan’s mother’s resentments against the Guteniuks have not faded, so their love can still only manifest beyond the boundaries of the town, in the woods and fields. Ivan goes to earn some money as a shepherd in the mountain pastures above the town. One night, when the land is wreathed in a thick fog and the shepherds work to keep their flocks together, Marichka wanders out into the forest, drawn by the light of a strange star. She comes across a lost black lamb on a steep ledge, and, trying to rescue it, plummets to her death in the surging river below. Ivan joins search parties looking for her and comes across her beached, frigid body. He spends the next few years in a state of unproductive grief, increasingly tattered and slovenly, his looks lost behind a beard and filth. He slowly returns to a normal life helping the local church, and especially when he encounters Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva), a young woman with an estate; they share a charged moment when he shoes her horse and she laps up the sight of him. They are soon married, but the past and the future for these two soon prove sadly tangled.

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Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is an immersive experience in the best sense, demanding a reorientation of narrative priorities and outlook, but rewarding that attention with a vigorous sprawl of fantastic images and vividly envisioned metaphors. Many filmmakers, especially more contemporary ones, would try to capture a sense of the historic and the alien through a kind of minimalist preciousness, but that was as alien to the madly inventive Paradjanov as blockbuster action. He created images with physical force and expressive enthusiasm, with some visions, like his grand crane shots plunging through forests and swinging over gorges, that seem to defy all physics of film photography. It’s hard then to write about the electric quality of such images as Ivan and Marichka embracing in the woods as a sun shower pelts them with glittering bolts of rain, as if the very elements are blessing them.

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The spiritual is innately physical here, and the film’s soul, like that of the society it portrays, is Christianised, but often still reflexively pagan, even pantheistic. This contradiction is lessened in an environment where nature is all-powerful. Emblems of religion and spirituality are hewn out of the raw materials provided by nature, wood and stone, and the vagaries of the elemental world are cruel and haphazard. “Beggars like them shouldn’t be allowed in here!” the Guteniuk matriarch screams in the church as the Paliychuks mock them, and the church, linchpin of social ritual in the mountain villages, fades into unimportance as magic and misfortune become governing lights: the narrative of Shadows seems to move further back into the mystic past rather than forward with the world, as characters, stripped of what they want, choose deeper, darker alternatives. Marichka’s death, not even halfway through the film, is a truly shocking one that leaves both Ivan and the story in tatters, and picking up the pieces becomes the most arduous of processes. Paradjanov here uses the most effective and simple of devices, bleaching all the colour out of the film, snatches of gossip on the soundtrack charting the village’s reactions to his ruined state as he goes through his labours and bathing with a dissociated disinterest.

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Paradjanov’s animated, often first-person camera constantly invokes the experiential, sensual world, tethered to the corporeal and yet charged with spirits unseen and lurking: from Ivanko’s father being bashed on the head by Guteniuk, blood running down over the lens, or the camera seeming to fall with the tree that crushes Olexa, to the whirling camera in the very final scene, life is a disorientating cascade for Ivan. In the most intricately orchestrated sequence, when Marichka is lost and drowns, and as Ivan and the villagers search for her, a hand-held camera chases Ivan and others through the gloom of morning, faces and bodies appearing out of the fog, tumbling down slopes, torches burning in the haze. When Ivan eventually boards a great raft with others to ride down the river in search, Paradjanov’s camera flies overhead in a stunning crane shot, as the vessel emerges from the murk and disappears again like a momentarily substantive dream. Clear geography and visual order are blurred, even as the setting is explored in the most atmospheric of fashions, so that one practically feels Ivan’s adrenalin-stoked, frantic leap to action, resolving finally in a slightly askew shot as Ivan sits on a stone in silent grief, with only the lower half of Marichka’s beached body in the frame. His energetic search, the whole logic of his life, the giddy rush of adolescent love, and the bounty of nature, come to an abrupt, sickened, motiveless halt.

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In the second half, Ivan’s marriage to Palagna seems motivated entirely by mutual attraction, and their union, which sees a ceremonial yoke placed over their shoulder whilst they’re blindfolded, a revivifying one for Ivan. On their wedding night, Ivan strips Palagna bare and tears off the last item—a bead necklace, which shatters in his grasp—leaving her breathlessly, silently expectant, and rigidly cautious: a scene that’s teeth-grindingly erotic even as Paradjanov cleverly avoids nudity. Their marriage soon proves to be a haunted disaster, for though they labour prosperously together in the fields, Marichka, desperate for Ivan’s physical love, finds him increasingly unresponsive, and in their first Christmas together, Ivan is struck by the sight of a deer grazing near Marichka’s grave as one did just after she was buried. Both husband and wife begin attempting to commune with the spirit world, unable to face the one immediately in front of them, the sterility of which is confirmed in a wide shot of the couple eating their Christmas feast in silence. Ivan makes offerings of food to attract spirits, and Marichka seems finally to appear to him, gazing forlornly through the window, but Palagna doesn’t see her and pins up a curtain. Later, Palagna strips off her clothes and walks into the night to play shamanka, begging the spirits to make Ivan love her and give her a child.

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Paradjanov’s psychology, symbolism, and sorcery come together now, as Palagna is approached by the local magician, Yura (Spartak Bagashvili), stricken with fascination for this transgressive woman who, like himself, is obeisant to older gods. Yura is glimpsed, in the film’s second brilliantly orchestrated sequence, working magic to turn away a destructive storm by enchanting a pair of horses he then rides out into the fields to create a counteractive wind. Exhausted, he falls to the ground, and when Palagna approaches to congratulate him, he begs her to come soothe him. A tree close by explodes in flames as the pair screw on the ground: an image conjoining Yura’s mastery of magical power and his masculine force, as he gives Palagna, who’s been associated visually with dead and barren trees, the orgasm she hasn’t been getting from Ivan. Yura, although not pretty like Ivan, draws all the potency of the physical and spiritual worlds into his frame, and he soon proves the most fearsome of cuckold-makers.

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This cruel ménage soon enough comes to a head when Palagna and Ivan go to a tavern and sit at the same table as Yura, and Palagna, when her husband’s not looking, cuddles up to the magus. A friend tells her off, and Ivan fronts up to Yura, but the sorcerer strikes Ivan with a hex. Ivan reels outside, dazed and shattered, and glimpses Yura and Palagna, having clearly claimed each other’s affections. He wanders off through felled woodland, the smoking, severed stumps of what had once been forest perfectly reflecting his now-denuded existence and wasted psyche. As he drinks from a spring, he glimpses Marichka’s spirit, and chases her into the forest, both of them strangely greyed and deathly-looking; when Marichka finally reaches out to touch Ivan, he dies with a scream.

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The stinging paradox of this plot—that fulsome, seemingly naturally imbued love isn’t strong enough to hold off a chain of destructive events and the inevitable process of decay, and yet imbues these paltry lives with legendary greatness—defies potential sentimentality, even if the finale’s suggestion that Ivan and Marichka are reunited on another plane isn’t so far from, say, Titanic (1997). That they could only find their fulfillment as shades tied to the forest is a fine and fair solution to the impossibility of their lives and also to the violent brevity of this way of life, and yet it is certainly death, whilst in the film’s very final scene Ivan’s fellow villagers get on with life, turning his wake into a rollicking party. Ivan essentially dies in the same way as his own father, though Yura does not strike Ivan with his axe, instead merely slamming it on the table to work his hex. The reduction of Ivan’s life story to that of an unlucky fool who dies a cuckold after a bar fight seems to contrast the charged atmosphere of mystical meaning, but the immediate and the spiritual are still bound together here, for Ivan’s final failures are offenses to nature as well as mankind. The tree that is Palagna, the living essence, is something Ivan fails to bring to fruit, chasing instead the wispy remnant of eternal, sterile love into the forest.

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Throughout the film, events and motives are tangential, especially emotion, extreme passions driving events on with organic but illogical force: Ivan’s father denouncing Guteniuk to expel his grief over Olexa; Ivan slapping Marichka to punish her for her father’s violence and then forgetting his father when being with Marichka; Ivan marrying Palagna to forget Marichka, whom he loses in a totally capricious accident; Palagna’s acts to make Ivan want her putting her in Yura’s orbit and then forgetting her husband. Even the accidents and idiocies of this world are inspired by some other, possibly noble, cause. There’s a coarse, realistic kind of psychology here, where people sublimate one need into another, and small twists of circumstance throw lives entirely off course. Tribal microeconomics are also described with terse import, as the prosperity of the Paliychuks is degraded as their labouring menfolk have been steadily decimated (Mother Paliychuk recites the names of her many lost sons and her husband) and the Guteniuks’ rapacity contrasted, an imbalance with long-reaching, murderous consequences. Ivan is the victim of a world out of equilibrium before he even arrives in it. What holds that world together is communal ritual, the reflexes of which are a refrain of the film’s texture: from Paliychuk’s funeral marchers, tramping in single file across the snow-caked land, to the villagers dancing in a long line, Marichka and other adolescent girls arrayed with sprigs in their hands in the church, blessed in their youthful fertility, and the curious binding motif of Ivan and Palagna’s wedding: universal customs described in specific terms, of course.

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The faces and bodies of Paradjanov’s actors are more important than traditional acting abilities; Bagashvili’s fearsome visage suggests a human intermediary with Noh masks. The earthy realism of the cast is so convincing, it’s hard not to believe they weren’t simply recorded for documentary purposes. Which is, of course, very difficult acting, and Bestayeva is particularly compelling, with her blend of desirous disappointment and dismissive pith, snapping with force at Yura when he comes upon her making her naked invocations, “What’s wrong with you? Never seen a woman before?” The achievement of the film is to make the historic and the alien seem as vivid as the life around you, and though Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a more conventional film than Sayat Nova, it is certainly no lesser.

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