Modernism's paradox, faced head on: "The mirror has been shattered. What do the splinters reflect?" Meta-chatter reverberates over stark credits, "Action" comes from the unseen Ingmar Bergman; it opens on a gray view, Liv Ullmann stepping out of a cabin to face the lenses, as befits a tale that is told. The disintegration of the artistic mind is a visualization of the wife’s diaries, shot through in high-contrast flashes of Borges, Tod Browning, Val Lewton and many others. The boat bringing Max von Sydow and Ullmann to the island pulls heavily into a rocky shore, stacks of wooden frames are unloaded: The sketcher grows anxious when his work doesn’t go well, "it had not gone well for some time," the wife says. The title refers to the hour when people die and are born and nightmares materialize, time for the insomniac von Sydow to flex his morbidity by staring gloomily at his watch in a joke taken verbatim from Bande à Part to bring down the full weight of the long take ("These seconds... You see how long they last?") Bergman shakes his head and intuitive horrors cascade out, all he has to do is collect image after fulminating image -- a young boy (from Persona?) is squashed with a stone for his insinuating presence, the Baron (Erland Josephson) invites the couple to Kafka’s castle, where The Magic Flute is performed in a puppet theater with a tiny actor and the muse (Ingrid Thulin) lies naked under a sheet, revived to cackle at the artiste, lipsticked and powdered. When the old devil (Naima Wifstrand) takes off her visage along with her hat, is the vision von Sydow’s, Ullmann’s, or Bergman’s? The answer, on par with 2001 and Mulholland Dr., comes via the Bird Man (Bertil Andenberg), sprouting wings amid Poe’s fluttering ravens: "You see what you want to see." With Gertrud Fridh, and Georg Rydeberg. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce