Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Magician (Ansiktet)

Bergman on the set with Max von Sydow (left)

THE MAGICIAN (Ansiktet)                         B+                  
aka:  The Face
Sweden  (101 mi)  1958  d:  Ingmar Bergman

After exploring themes of death and redemption in The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet) (1957) and Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället) (1957), the director decides to go creepy, with Bergman exploring the horrors of the spirit world in a film he describes as a comedy, yet also one of his more macabre efforts, especially the dark Gothic look, where more than any of his other films this resembles the graphic design of black and white German Expressionist films of the 20’s, including a mute character and long wordless sequences that allow shadows and mirrors to convey hidden expressions from the subconscious.  A brooding and darkly unsettling film set in the middle of the 19th century, when people were still coming to grips with metaphysics and the power of illusion, with the supernatural playing a prominent role, where this film pits an irrational faith in the unknown against the powers of reason, personified by two stubbornly headstrong men, Max von Sydow as a magician and master illusionist Dr. Vogler, who is challenged at every turn by the rational skepticism of Gunnar Björnstrand as Dr. Vergérus, the Minister of Health (two names that will recur in Bergman’s later works).  With an atmospheric opening drenched in the foggy mysticism of Kurasawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD (1957), made a year earlier, where a rag-tag group of performing artists from Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater ride a rickety stagecoach through a haunted forest filled with evil spirits and demons (and a near-dead body), which includes Vogler as a wandering magician with his faithful wife and assistant, Ingrid Thulin as Manda, who plays both male and female roles, a clownish Åke Fridell as Tubal, who serves as manager and spokesman for the group, providing a highly decorative running dialogue that hypes each anticipated event with a stream of flowery superlatives, attempting to create a sense of awe and wonder, and Granny Vogler (Naima Wifstrand), an alleged 200-year old witch providing comic relief as one of the passengers who devises potions, can foretell the future, and literally cackles through most of her performance, muttering under her breath, “I see what I see, I know what I know.”  En route to Stockholm they are stopped in a smaller provincial village, immediately subject to suspicion and potential arrest by a group of prominent city leaders (considered an affront to staid bourgeois morality), including Starbeck, the overly pompous police commissioner (Toivo Powlo), Egerman, a timid loyal civil servant (Erland Josephson), yet led by an overly demonstrative scientific rationalist Dr. Vergérus, whose secret desire is to dissect Vogler after death proving he’s a mere mortal, but who decides to investigate the rumors that mere hucksterism could potentially be actual magic, ordering a private performance in town.  While Vogler is dressed with a wig, a beard, and false eyebrows, pretending to be mute, claiming to have supernatural powers, the struggle between the mockingly sarcastic doctor and the reticently mute magician results in the demystification of the magician’s act, suggesting he is a charlatan, with an arrogant Dr. Vergérus exposing and thoroughly humiliating them at every turn, which seems more about class difference than magic, as Vergérus belongs to the wealthy aristocratic elite who find this sort of lowlife riff-raff utterly contemptible, bordering on a circus act.  Ordered to the servant’s quarters in the kitchen, this less snobbish audience holds magic acts in high esteem, with Bibi Andersson playing a wonderfully flirtatious maiden in town, prodded by Tubal’s eloquent power of suggestion after introducing Granny’s “love potions,” she instantly takes up with the handsome young coach driver, Lars Ekborg from Summer with Monika (Sommaren med Monika) (1953), while Tubal consorts with a lonely widow in town who’s not going to allow this opportunity to pass her by. 

Withdrawing to their private quarters afterwards, Egerman’s wife Ottilia (Gertrud Fridh) is mesmerized by the magician’s spells, seeking “spiritual” comfort, inviting him to her room later that night, as is Tubal to his lonely widow, where Vogler’s appearance and the mere suggestion of his spells seems to have provided an allure of intoxication to the entrenched lives of the lonely aristocrats, where the visitors offer the hope for something new.  Vogler, of course, has no interest whatsoever in the invitation, as he has an affectionate and understanding wife who reveals a feminine side once the doors are closed, though Vergérus intrudes into their bedroom, obviously enchanted by Manda’s hidden sensuality, taking more than a casual interest, which only draws the ire of Vogler, finding that man’s cynical behavior to be a pathetic overreach of his authority, as coveting another man’s wife is frowned upon on all levels of society, though making a spectacle of it is uncustomarily insulting and rude.  This sets the stage for the next day’s performance, which offers a surprise, as after initially hypnotizing the police chief’s wife, ridiculing both herself and her husband, Vogler is summarily attacked by a coachman he hypnotized, ashamed of how easily he was manipulated in front of others, physically assaulting Vogler afterwards, who is left on the floor and pronounced dead by none other than Dr. Vergérus himself, who finally gets his wish to examine the remains, but in performing an autopsy he discovers instead his own house of horrors, which could easily be interpreted as an intellectual horror film and a symbolic self-portrait, a journey from magician to savior, then to con man, and finally back to an extraordinary artist again.  The master of illusion seemingly rises from the dead, yet remains unseen, where only his presence is felt, like a haunting, where Vergérus is staggered by what he perceives, with Vogler’s face reappearing without his mask, giving rise to apparitions, as suddenly supernatural elements mysteriously occur with no explanation, causing the doctor to grow hysterical, questioning his own ethical core beliefs while at his wit’s end whimpering on the floor in fear, only to be interrupted by Manda, breaking the spell, so to speak, preventing even worse psychological damage.  The doctor, of course, pretends it was nothing afterwards, still insisting the man is a fraud, yet there he was cowering on the floor overcome by dread, horrified by the ghoulish tricks that left him utterly petrified.  Very compelling stuff, particularly the magician’s payback, a brilliant hall of mirror’s sequence happening in the clutter of an attic, a back room of the doctor’s private quarters, which is an interesting contrast of austerity of emotion, as the magician does not speak, using stark, original scenes of the inexplicable juxtaposed against the gluttonous affair in town filled with exaggerated excesses of food, sex, and drink.  The final performance, which comes after the regularly scheduled performance when no one suspects anything, is truly supernatural.

While Vogler pretends to be something he is not, concocting mysteries that are all easily explainable, covering himself in a disguise, where it is suggested he’s on the run from facing criminal charges, yet he’s still a compelling and sympathetic figure, where there’s something about him that is altogether recognizable and appealing, becoming a fallen and despised Christ figure suffering the sins of humiliation, an artist, an illusionist, all various aspects of Bergman’s own creative approach, with the artist viewed as a huckster, a criminal, a con artist, perhaps even a clown, yet they conjure up emotions that are inherently human, which is the beauty of the magical connection between the illusory world and the real.  By being aware of his own limitations, tormented by his own self-doubt, Vogler delights in the fact there are moments when he truly does hold a special power, connecting to the unknown, perhaps even haunted by it himself, yet there is an unmistakable gift or spell that he holds over audiences, as he has the power to touch their souls, anticipating a spirit of a more modern era when performers are revered for their particularly unique talents.  Revisiting themes from Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton) (1953) and a stepping stone to Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen) (1967), Bergman creates a high-wire act that flirts with disaster, overcoming all odds of cynical speculation and doom, relegated to the gutter at one point, exposed as near worthless, presented with unspairing realism, probing the depths of the characters, with each nakedly exposed at some point, yet somehow triumphing in the end, where they move on to yet another show, summoned to perform before the King of Sweden for his own personal audience with the magician.  Holding a lifelong interest in the magical world of make-believe, Bergman reaches into his own bag of tricks with this one, perfecting the art of misdirection, as the surface is never what it appears, but who in the audience is able to see behind the curtain, under the mask, and into the hearts of the performers?  If performance is an illusion, a sleight of hands, a trick, then what is the truth?  And if a performer resorts to magic or trickery in order to convey a larger truth, shouldn’t they be lauded with praise, and not sneered at as a charlatan or huckster.  Sometimes it’s hard not to confuse one’s perception of the messenger with the message.  If cinema, like the circus, is viewed as secondhand entertainment, unable to reach the magisterial heights of the noble and illustrious theater, then how does one explain how it makes us feel?  Is it not just as true?  Often overlooked due to the power of the films that came both before and after, with some believing this was a response to his dismissive theater critics, where he doubled as the artistic director of the Malmö City Theater (which may account for the spillover of anger), Bergman examines his own existential issues through a kind of ghost story that deliciously celebrates the theater, filled with shadows and mirrors and forests with demonic spirits, including a macabre yet all-too recognizable Macbethian witch casting spells, conjuring up magic potions, which is all part of delivering a performance, making an audience believe in the illusions and trickery, becoming fascinated by the allure and the beguiling art of seduction (which are always more fun when they’re not fully understood), hoping to gain some special insight into the mystery of the human condition and the ephemeral nature of truth.

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