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Knut Hamsun's 1890 novel 'Hunger' is not, on the face of it, a promising candidate to be made into a masterpiece of world cinema film. For a start, it's a really good book, and books this good tend to become bad movies. The narrator, a down-at-heel intellectual and would-be genius, is scuffling around Christiania (now known as Oslo) in search of a lot of things, but mostly greatness, food, money and company, in descending order of importance. However, his pride is so enormous that he can't bear to accept charity from anyone, and so his acute physical hunger soon becomes his main sensation. It's the kind of novel that sensitive literary young men with no money always reckon they have in them somewhere, but which when written usually turns out to be a self-indulgent mess. Hamsun, practically alone among the species, got it right. The book is written with an extraordinary mixture of deep sympathy for its infuriating narrator, but also ironic objectivity about his capacity to be his own worst enemy.
So how do you make a movie out of a story that just follows this weird, obsessive, self-absorbed egotist around a nineteenth century city? One thing you do at the start is cast Per Oscarsson. The Norwegian actor gives the performance of a lifetime as the film's main character, who unlike in the novel is given a name - Pontus. Oscarsson, painfully thin, unshaven, bespectacled, dressed in a tight, shabby suit and perpetually carrying around a bundle of his unpublished manuscripts, is riveting. He moves in quick, sharp, hesitant motions like some kind of neurotic seabird, and he keeps up a constant little mumble to himself, a running commentary on how well his day is going and what he wants to do next and what he thinks of the people around him and the city and anything else that comes into his head. Pontus is visibly going mad with hunger.
It probably sounds like a deeply depressing film, but it's not. The black comedy of Pontus' encounters with people, his absurd attempt to present himself as a more successful and satisfied person than he really is, are what make this film so watchable. The only character in film that I could compare him to is David Thewlis' bitter lumpen-intellectual drifter Johnny in Mike Leigh's 'Naked', but Thewlis' character is more paranoid, bitter and selfish, sponging off everyone around him, while Pontus not only refuses to accept the slightest gesture of charity from anyone, he also refuses to feel sorry for himself. Ultimately, there's something weirdly noble about him.
It's a great performance in a great, haunting film, warmer than Bresson or Bergman and funnier than either.