“This is probably my last movie. No one will ever allow
me to make another movie after this one.”
Avant-garde filmmaker Guy Maddin’s Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is a strange and hallucinatory take on Knut Hamsun’s Pan. There is certainly enough in the film that readers of Pan will recognize, but Maddin’s surrealism and tropical elements give it a completely different feel from the Nordic setting of the 1894 novel. In addition, plot elements have been added from Prosper Mérimée’s 1837 short story “La Vénus d’Ille,” such as the discovery of the malicious Venus statue that falls on the doctor’s leg. One top of that, the protagonist and his sister also own an ostrich farm.
In Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, Peter Glahn meets Julianna on a ship (though it seems like a dream sequence—it’s hard to tell in this movie). After being held as a political prisoner, he’s on the way home to the mythical Mandragora, where the sun never seems to set. His frumpy spinster sister, Amelia, has been running their ostrich farm in his absence. He takes up hunting with his dog Aesop and spies on the fisherman’s pregnant wife Zephyr (Alice Krige of Star Trek fame), who spends all her days wandering in the forest. After making a deal with a statue of Venus to win him, Zephyr awkwardly seduces Peter in her tide-house in a scene reminiscent of a B-52’s video, before Peter admits that he really loves Julianna (quirkily played by Pascale Bussières).
Amelia (Shelley Duvall) is a homely spinster who’s in love with the mesmerist Dr. Solti (stage actor R.H. Thomson), who has a false leg after the Venus statue crushed it. The Glahn siblings go on a picnic with Dr. Solti, only to discover to their dismay that he and Julianna seem to be an item. At one point, Peter learns that Julianna’s mother was a prostitute who was artificially inseminated with the sperm dug out of the gallows of a hanged man. Like in Pan, Peter throws Julianna’s shoe overboard while boating back to shore. They go back to Solti’s Peter Greenaway-style laboratory, where Solti demonstrates how he has Julianna under a kind of mind control.
Amelia gets an idea from the skulls of the ice nymphs and attacks her farmhand Cain Ball (Frank Gorshin, the Riddler of Batman fame) by driving a nail into his head, setting him on fire, then filling his mouth with live flies. Things aren’t going his way with Julianna, so Peter performs an invocation to the trees to bring forth justice on his former lover and Solti. While taking a feminist stance against Venus, Zephyr is crushed to death by the statue.
All the characters then pile into a bed to indulge the dying Cain’s final fantasy that they’re paddling in a boat. Julianna says she’s leaving, asks Peter to give her Aesop, and the dog suffers a similar fate as he does in Pan.
The Making of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is like a combination of a Gustave Moreau painting, Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and films by Peter Greenaway and Kenneth Anger. Maddin said he took a pilgrimage to the Musée national Gustave Moreau in Paris before filming, and vowed to make a Moreau film and landscape. The director’s commentary recounts how Maddin created set designs from Moreau prints but ran them through copiers, which ended up reducing almost everything to the “jewel tones” that are seen in the film, such as cyan, lime green, and magenta.
The budget for Twilight was between $1.5 million and $2.5 million, depending on the source. It definitely shows in the film’s campy sets and costumes, but the kitsch is lovable rather than grotesque. The entire film was shot in 35-mm in the abandoned Vulcan Iron Works in Winnipeg, Canada. They had six weeks to build the set, and even the forest and water scenes were filmed in the warehouse. The leaves look fake because they are—real trees that had been chopped down were brought in to create the forest, and fake leaves were wired onto them. Air guns and fans were used to constantly blow spores and sparkles through the set. Light is used profusely in the film, and scenes are often almost completely overexposed, but the technique works well in Twilight. The film was shot in 20 days, and the actors then had 20 days to re-record their voices.
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs vs. Pan
In the novel Pan, Lt. Thomas Glahn (Peter in the film) is in love with Edvarda (Julianna in the movie). He dabbles in romance with Eva, the blacksmith’s wife, but in the film it’s Zephyr, the fisherman’s wife. Other common plot elements include much of Hamsun’s dialog (courtesy of screenwriter George Toles), Glahn’s hunting, his dog Aesop, Glahn’s woodland hut, the doctor with his cane, Glahn shooting his foot, and Glahn throwing Edvarda/Julianna’s shoe overboard.
The film doesn’t explain much of the characters’ stories, so fans of the film will definitely want to read Pan to understand the characters more. In Twilight, Julianna remains mysterious, whereas in Pan we come to learn that Edvarda is a vapid, neurotic tease who ultimately leads to Glahn’s ruin.
The plot element of the Venus statue is from the Mérimée short story, and it gives the film more of a pagan element than the book. Zephyr herself adds some pagan elements, from binding her hands before entering the forest to the love-spell deal she makes with Venus to try to win over Glahn.
As noted in the director’s commentary, the pagan gods speak a different language than that of the modern world. After giving a feminist diatribe to Venus about not needing a man, Zephyr is crushed by the statue. The character Amelia also has a unique role in a modern film—as a romantically starved spinster she constantly bemoans her unwed state. Shelley Duvall takes on the role without trying to turn the spinster character into a strong woman.
Waiting for Twilight
Maddin’s friend, filmmaker Noam Gonick, described Twilight of the Ice Nymphs as a moment that “can either propel him to the forefront of independent filmmaking or send him spiraling back into a humble career as a house painter.” Twilight is now on my list of favorite films, since Maddin did something completely imaginative and unexpected with Hamsun, while retaining much of the essence of the novel Pan.
A documentary about the making of the film called Waiting for Twilight was narrated by Tom Waits, and is available on YouTube: