Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Virgin Spring (1960): Arthouse does rape-revenge

The Virgin Spring (1960)
aka Jungfrukallen
dir: Ingmar Bergman

Throughout this website already, I have been cataloging the varieties of the rape-revenge genre. The movies have had different purposes: a feminist take (Descent), a desire for female agency (I Spit On Your Grave), a genderqueer primal scream (Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives), a sociopolitical teardown (The Woman), or completely exploitative desires (Thriller: A Cruel Picture). For the majority of these movies, the final goal of the film is to get to the revenge, and because rape is such a violating act, the victim is exonerated from any vengeful act they participate in, regardless of depravity of the vengeance. Descent is the obvious exception, in that Maya eventually realizes that her revenge is not as satisfying as she wants it to be.

Given the age of the above movies, one might think that rape-revenge is a rather new genre. But, the rape-revenge genre is older than old. One can look to the Roman story of Lucretia, whose rape, and subsequent suicide, led to the vengeful overthrowing of the Roman Monarchy that led to the development of the Roman Republic.

The Virgin Spring has origins in a murder-revenge ballad from 1673, Tore's Daughters in Vange. In the ballad, Tore's 3 virgin daughters were on their way to churc, when they were murdered by herdsmen, and a spring developed where they were murdered. The herdsmen continued on to Vange after the murders, and sought shelter in the home of the parents of the daughters. Upon discovering what the herdsmen had done, the father, Tore, killed the two older herdsmen. Before Tore could murder the youngest Herdsman, Tore asks their identity and discovers that the herdsmen were his sons who were returning home. So, three guys killed three virgins, who happened to be their sisters, and then were killed by their parents out of vengeance. Upon this realization, Tore asked God for forgiveness, and built a church on the site of the spring as retribution.

The Virgin Spring re-develops this framework to change it from an familial story of non-identity and murder to a rape/murder-revenge story about violation and grief. Bergman has also crafted a story of envy, religion, sin, redemption, shame, and guilt. That the story is set in medieval Sweden focuses even more of the story on the classic themes it portrays instead of trying to claim it is a story of modern sins.

Bergman opens the movie with a shot of a demonic-looking woman. She is visibly very pregnant, and she is opening up the kitchen for the day, while also praying to Odin for help in her situation. In the next scene, her family is openly worshiping a Crucifix, posing as a duality between the Christian masses and the polytheistic worshipers of the Gods of old. As soon as they finish praying, the Christians start figuratively putting more yokes on the pregnant woman, Ingeri, who is also their half-daughter and is also pregnant out of wedlock. The proceed to slut-shame her for her indiscretions, and tell her how much of a burden she is. Meanwhile, their good and blonde daughter Karin is busy sleeping away the day after dancing so long the night before. Being a maiden, she is supposed to be taking the virgin candles to the church, but she is too busy snoooozing while her mother is making excuses. After waking, and agreeing to delivering the candles, Karin demands to wear a specific dress, and also demands to have Ingeri accompany her on her journey to the church.

In the first act, Bergman has already set up Odin vs Christianity, Ingeri (sinner) vs Karin (virgin), envy, nepotism, family dedication, and the shame of out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But, Bergman has also set up the innocence and naivety of Karin as she constantly witnesses her parents' oppression of Ingeri and, feeling sympathy, wants to give support Ingeri as a human being.

Ingeri and Karin set out on their journey to the church. As they travel down the path, Ingeri pretty much calls Karin a slut for dancing with everybody the night before, and tells her that she's gonna get raped behind some bushes. Meanwhile, Karin is all "I just am asking around for your benefit, and I think that I can fight guys off."  Ingeri, frustrated that she couldn't get Karin's goat, ditches Karin and visits the cabin of Odin's real world analogue. The analogue tries to rape Ingeri, but she runs away from him and his assault.

On the other side of the narrative, Karin comes across 3 herdsmen with whom she shares the picnic which was provided to her. After eating, the herdsmen rape and murder Karin while Ingeri looks on from a cliff. At first, Ingeri looks happy that Karin is getting violated. But, as Ingeri witnesses the brutality, she starts regretting her desire for Karin to be violated. The youngest herdsman, who is just a wee child, also looks horrified at what he just witnessed.

The herdsmen take all of Ingeri's belongings, including her special dress, and make their way to the residence where we began. At first they're taken in by the family, until the herdsmen try to sell her dress for money. Upon identifying the dress as Karin's, the parents fret, grieve, prepare themselves, and then murder the highwaymen. In the end, looking upon the murdered boy herdsman, the parents start to realize what they had done. But, they have to find Karin, whose body is still in the field. Upon finding the body, the family begs forgiveness, and believes that the building of a church is the best form of atonement for the crimes they committed out of revenge.

What The Virgin Spring retains that most of the other films do not is that need for a post-revenge redemption. The Woman attempts a perverted redemption by having the Woman take one of the children as payment for the suffering inflicted on her. But, really, that isn't nearly as redemptive as the idea of doing something altruistic in a place where so much evil has been done. Building a church out of a sincere sense of self-knowledge of one's evil acts is morally redemptive, and actually builds something constructive out of the mess.

Last House on the Left, the American kind-of adaptation, eschews the rebuilding of community for a scorched earth finale. Last House attests that the situation has irrevocably changed this family, and is not interested in any guilt of the family over their revenge. But, Last House on the Left is also political in nature. Craven has argued that Last House is about the Vietnam war. And, by participating in the act of aggression and revenge, America had never apologized, and so his characters do not need to apologize.

Still, the changes of The Virgin Spring from the original ballad inform the audience that Bergman was less interested in the sordid and more interested in the morality. By not making everybody related, and removing the incest and kid-killing twist at the end of the ballad, Bergman places the focus squarely on religion and shame for the course of the movie. Even immediately after the violation, Karin is walking around shell-shocked, traumatized, and crying before she is murdered by a blow to the head. She is ashamed and violated, but is offered no chance at redemption or forgiveness.

The Virgin Spring is not graphic by today's terms, and Bergman's methodical pacing extracts the horror from the onscreen acts. The horror is replaced with a studied distance at the immorality that surrounds the piece. The multi-layered nature of the film, delving into emotions and religion among other issues, makes the film still vital. Add in a bit of shame and guilt and The Virgin Spring is still an essential entry into the rape-revenge genre.

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