A portrait of the artist as starving | The Velvet Café

svältAn aspiring writer is wandering the streets of Oslo in the 1890s – homeless and starving, too proud to accept any help offered to him. Under the influence of starvation he does random things, sometimes carelessly giving away the little money he happens to get, sometimes telling people off for no good reason. Some acts are desperate, as when he’s chewing on bones intended for dogs. Whenever he encounters a cop he’ll ask him what time it is. Occasionally we see him hallucinating. Apparently there are other options for him available that could bring him out of his misery, but he doesn’t use them. It’s almost as if he’s making an art form out of his suffering.

The Scandinavian movie Hunger from 1966, based on a famous novel by Knut Hamsun, hasn’t got much of a plot. It’s more of a painting, displaying an existential condition, a state of mind.

I watched it a few days ago at my local film club, which is running a theme this autumn in celebration of the Swedish actor Per Oscarsson, recently dead in a tragic fire. In Hunger he’s playing the main character Pontus. It’s probably the best role Oscarsson ever did and he was awarded the prize as best actor at the Cannes festival the year it came out.

He’s portraying a man who has reached the end of everything, balancing on the verge of death. The performance is spot on and made me associate to David Thewlis in Mike Leigh’s movie Naked. Like Thewlis, Oscarsson isn’t putting on the role as a costume. He’s transforming into it, using something that’s hidden inside him. It’s as if this role was especially written for him.

Of course Pontus isn’t anywhere near as unsympathetic as Johnny in Naked. While he’s quite unpleasant from time to time, delirious of starvation and underlying mental illness, a kind of person I probably would avoid if I met him in the street, we also get to see that he doesn’t lack conscience. He even appears to be goodhearted at times. Even when he’s bad, he never turns violent and abusive. The one who suffers most by his irrational behavior is he, himself.

While he is approaching women with difficulties, more or less stalking a woman and making up a name for her, the idea to rape her never would cross his mind

However – for all the differences there is something that unites Johnny and Pontus. They’re smart, verbal and have something forceful about them; they’re cousins in their nakedness, randomness, desperation and existential angst.

Is this movie any good?

It’s hard to tell. It depends on what you want. While I’d hesitate to call it entertaining or enjoyable, it’s a solid piece of art. If you’re comfortable with black and white movies with subtitles and don’t care that much if there’s a solid plot running from point A to B, I’d definitely recommend it.

It’s available on DVD and the extras include a discussion with the author Paul Auster, who apparently also is a fan of the novel and the film.

Hunger (Sult, Henning Carlsen, DE/NO/SW 1966) My rating: 4/5

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