Sleight of Hand in Ingman Bergman’s The Magician

The Magician (Criterion)

I’m not a Bergmanite. By that I mean, I respect his work and I admire his films, but I don’t respond to his aesthetic and philosophy the way I do with other directors. I appreciate his films more than I really like them. You could say I don’t warm to Bergman, a cheap joke with a kernel of truth of truth behind it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not open to being impressed by his art or won over by his stories.

Max von Sydow is The Magician
Max von Sydow is The Magician

I put that out there to frame my review of Bergman’s 1958 The Magician, a film he created in the midst of his most fertile and prolific period of filmmaking. The enigmatic tale of a travelling medicine show fronted by a mute mesmerist (Max von Sydow) behind a mask of stage make-up, theatrical costumes and practiced gestures arrived after The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (both 1957) and before The Virgin Spring (1960) and Through a Glass Darkly (1961), the films that made Bergman’s international reputation, and is often overlooked in that company. In many ways, this story of magic and reason and performance is Bergman’s celebration of the theater as both a confidence game and a beautiful mystery, explored in the form of a ghost story turned human comedy.

The atmospheric imagery of Gunnar Fischer’s magnificent B&W cinematography sets the stage for a spooky tale that takes a turn into mind games and earthy comedy presided over by the genuine fake portrayed by von Sydow. His is only one of the performances within a performance. Ingrid Thulin is introduced as a young scholar and protégé of the magician but it’s a front, as much a piece of their theatrical presence as it is a way to hide the beautiful young wife of the magician in plain sight in front of the rubes and aristocrats they entertain. Bibi Andersson comes on as a bumpkin of a country maid but turns out to be more worldly and mature than the nervous virgin of a city boy assistant who thinks he’s seducing her.

There’s a definite shift of loyalties and aspirations among the players by film’s end but while our perspective and understanding of the game has changed, the equilibrium remains the same and, for all the cynicism of certain players in this show, Bergman thinks that’s just fine. Theater may be a confidence game but the experience is no less affecting for it. Other members of Bergman’s stock company fill out the other significant roles, notably Gunnar Björnstrand as a rationalist who challenges the magician and Erland Josephson as a curious town official fascinated by the troupe. There is still a certain theatrical distance between Bergman and his players, but here it seems part of the experience. This is, after all, a show performed for an audience.

Criterion debuts the film on DVD and Blu-ray in an amazing presentation; the Blu-ray is rich and bold and flawless, like a film print fresh from the lab projected directly onto the screen. Both editions feature a new visual essay on the film by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie and two archival interviews: a brief (under four minute) clip with Bergman discussing the film from 1967, and a longer audio-only interview with Bergman conducted (in English) by filmmakers Olivier Assayas and Stig Bjorkman in 1990. The 36-page booklet includes a new essay by Geoff Andrew, a 1990 appreciation by director Assayas and an excerpt from Bergman’s autobiography.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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