The Virgin Spring
C’mon, everybody knows this movie is based on the 13th-century Swedish ballad, ‘Töre’s Daughter at Vänge’. No? You didn’t? Well, this particular song (with lines like: “For thy kinsmen care not we/ We’ll kill them all as well as thee.”) was a childhood favorite of director Ingmar Bergman, who commissioned writer Ulla Isaksson to novelize the ballad and then help adapt it into a screenplay.
Set during the beginning stages of Swedish Christianity, the story follows the bright, sunny, eponymous virgin Karin, daughter of the wealthy Töre, as she heads off through the foreboding woods to church. Karin is initially joined by her foster sister Ingeri (the dark, moody avatar of the old paganism, in contrast to Karin’s smug Christian purity), but carries on into the wood alone after Ingeri is upset by a premonition. As we should all know, bad things happen when sunshiny Medieval maidens head into the woods unaccompanied, and so it goes with Karin, who is soon raped and murdered by some wandering goat herders. Having clearly never seen an episode of Law and Order, the herders proceed to Töre’s compound and — wait for it — attempt to sell Karin’s pilfered clothes back to her mother. Bad move. Töre figures it out, locks the herdsmen in the banquet hall, grabs the butcher’s knife and takes his violent revenge. While The Virgin Spring has often been characterized as a Medieval morality play on the big screen, it actually goes far deeper than Old Testament moral calculus. Foreshadowing his so-called Chamber Films of the 1960s and 70s, Bergman sketches in some very 20th-century character details, expanding one-dimensional archetypes into three-dimensional human beings.
Where to begin… How about Ang Lee’s impassioned love letter to Bergman, in which he describes the tremendous impact of seeing The Virgin Spring as a young film student in Taiwan? Then there’s the full, 1975 lecture (audio only) given by Bergman at the AFI, which reveals an artist at the height of his passion and in command of a deep cinematic intelligence. But pay close attention to something Bergman says during the lecture (I paraphrase), “I’m amazed when people ask about the deeper meaning of my movies, or try to assign to them a deeper meaning. I’m just trying to tell a story.” You know who didn’t pay any attention to that? Bergman scholar Birgitta Steene, whose commentary is reminiscent of the kind of prattling, film school orotundity that drives people into engineering. N.B. If you haven’t seen this film already, avoid the special features until after you’ve watched the movie. Just trust me.
Apparently those Nouvelle Vague punks jumped all over The Virgin Spring, claiming it revealed Bergman as a bourgeois fraud. Sadly though, he took their reactionary carping to heart and subsequently disavowed the film. They’re all wrong. It’s a great movie.
We’re almost caught up: this handsome edition of Jia Zhangke’s most recent effort makes it three of four films by China’s best new director in a couple decades available on Region One discs.
While Jia’s first three features tracked Chinese youth trapped in provincial dead-ends, his first state-sanctioned movie transports them to Beijing’s World Park, an Epcot-esque theme park whose landmark replicas (the Great Pyramids, Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc.) represent the simultaneous promise and tease of the new globalism: “See the world without ever leaving Beijing.” It’s probably because of the oeuvre-defining metaphor of World Park that Jia, never particularly subtle with his thematic concerns, bogs his 139-minute opus down in redundant subplots and diminishing-return cutaways to the (tantalizingly fake) Eiffel Tower. Fortunately, The World also represents significant stylistic advances: the increasing flamboyance of his characteristic long takes is underlined with a propulsive techno score, and animated text-message sequences illustrate the potential for new modes of connection.
U.S. and Canadian trailers (the latter interspersed with commentary from Chicago Reader critic and vocal World advocate Jonathan Rosenbaum), and production photos; the booklet features director’s notes and a character cheat sheet.
Still waiting on a U.S. DVD release of Xiao Wu, Jia’s first (and best) film — who’s stepping up?
The Brown Bunny
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment