Masculinity Under a Microscope - Writ Large, preliminary thoughts on VALHALLA RISING
I recently - and finally - caught Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn's breathtaking new film, VALHALLA RISING, via Video-on-Demand service. Following the pagan warrior One Eye as he accompanies a band of crusaders in their journey to the Holy Land, the film plays out like an odd mixture of brooding uber-masculine Viking epic, with the pacing of a Terrence Malick venture and a dash of 70s Herzog/Kinski madness. In scope, beauty, and pure brutality, I can't say I've ever seen anything truly like it. It's not any one thing, but a mixture of things, and a pure, unadulterated work of imagery and poetry. VALHALLA RISING is definitely not for everyone, but then again, few films are.
The film begins with a sequence depicting One Eye's enslavement to Scottish pagans and the constant hand-to-hand fights he competes in for their sporting pleasure. After being introduced briefly to this situation, and the leaders of the clans discussing the coming Christians marauding the land and massacring the pagan tribes if they don't convert, One Eye escapes in a bloody rage, murdering the party that is to transport him to his new owners and heading off on his own, with the young Are - who fed him in captivity - in tow. It's not long before they come upon the Christians, freshly off a massacre, and still sitting in the area where they killed another clan of heathens.
Instead of either side attacking the other, and thinking they could use a great warrior like One Eye on their side, the Christians invite One Eye to join them in the Crusades as they take back the Holy Land and fight for riches and the Lord. Soon they are journeying across the ocean, and it's at this point the film becomes an increasingly spartan filmmaking exercise; the dialogue all but ceases to exist for long stretches, and the imagery really takes over even more than it had already.
One Eye also has some sort of ability to see events in his future, tinted a bright, bloody red, which makes you wonder if that's how he sees the world - through that blood-red hue. He also carries a bit of a mystical quality about him in that he seems to be able to speak through Are, who constantly answers questions asked of One Eye and makes remarks on behalf of him. This plays out to much stranger effect in the last half hour of the film, when the fates of the party and the events that lead to them play out.
The crew finds land after drifting for days in a fog that seems to have descended upon them for fateful purposes, but it's not Jerusalem, and is filled with lush greenery. Once their party is attacked, two things become apparant: they are in fact in the New World, and are under threat from "primitives" and their pagan companion has brought them to Hell for suffering and death.
The contrast between One Eye and the Christians' reactions to their ultimate location is interesting to consider: One Eye is a warrior, a non-convert, and for him, death can only lead to his place in Valhalla, and some sort of Hell isn't really an option as long as he fought the best he could and died while fighting. But the Christians think they've been corrupted by the pagan, this viking One Eye, and they blame their plight on him, descending into madness, sodomy, murder and, ultimately, their own deaths.
VALHALLA RISING is enigmatic, ethereal and difficult - having seen it twice now I'm still processing most of my thoughts on it. It's completely unlike any other viking epic I've ever seen, and the cinematography is some of the most gorgeous I've ever encountered. During the film's final two acts, slow-motion photography is employed to an extreme, giving the impression of characters walking through sludge to get to their destination. The movements, the expressions on their faces - they're all highlighted in various forms of suffering, coping and acceptance. The essence of VALHALLA RISING is in these final scenes: masculinity, under a microscope, on a large scale. What it says to you - that's the interpretive part.