CAUGHT BETWEEN ‘Wild Strawberries’ and ‘The Virgin Spring’, Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Magician’ performs something of a disappearing act from the contemporary public eye. It’s of considerable to Bergman students and scholars, though, for its pivotal position between the director’s 50s and 60s eras as well as its clear expression of his inner mind. Perhaps the most self-referential of Bergman’s many films, ‘The Magician’ thoroughly explores his views on the nature of art, the artist himself, his relation to his audience, and the fundamental divide between creativity and analysis. These themes surround a charade that alternates between class-based battle of the sexes comedy that is typical Bergman (think ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’) and the dour rural mysticism more evocative of ‘The Seventh Seal’. The visual cues of Bergman’s early era, made iconic by ‘The Seventh Seal’, are also dominant here: obtuse camera angles often a little above the actors, fully dressed-up citizens perched on agrarian hillocks like ‘American Gothic’ transplanted into a Bruegel vista, and the familiar stable of Bergman actors: Bibi Andersson, Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, etc.
Although parts of the film are absorbing and occasionally masterful, it nonetheless feels a little unnecessary, given that its general concept (traveling entertainers brush up against the real world, experience humiliation, soul-searching revelation, and a recommitment to their bonds) was laid out in ‘Sawdust and Tinsel’ five years earlier. That film was more self-contained, more consistent, and ultimately more effective as a creative work.
‘The Magician’, though, is certainly not without merit. Visually it is deeply rewarding, sensual, and layered in the finest Bergman tradition. The performances are also roundly strong, though this almost goes without saying. First among them is the enigmatically empathetic Von Sydow as the titular character (one of many Bergman called Vogler), silent for the film’s first half but still a massive presence with his piercing eyes and Mephistophelean beard. We’re treated also to a wonderful tête-à-tête between Dr. Vergerus, a supercilious scientist played by Björnstrand, and the magician’s protégé, soon revealed to be also his wife (Thulin). A climactic scene between Dr. Vergerus and the presumed ghost of the magician invokes the psychological horror of Edgar Allen Poe, but recast in Bergman’s lush chiaroscuro and societal symbolism instead of the American’s author’s introspective abyss. Having lost his spectacles, Vergerus stumbles through his garret laboratory with a dreamlike desperation, almost akin to modern choreography, and ultimately collapses inside a prison of his own making. Though Bergman primarily projects himself through Vogler’s character, Vergerus’s fruitless quest for his glasses offers parallels the director looking on behind his own kind of lens.
Once the players’ masks are revealed, though, and we get a clearer look at the face (‘Ansiktet’) beneath—be it Von Sydow’s or Bergman’s own—the break from character comes too crookedly and the ending seems suddenly pat. Bergman’s skill in superimposing comedy and drama—one of his most distinctive—is especially apparent in ‘The Magician’ and supplies it with a strangely quiescent undertone despite the tortured soliloquizing of various characters. This may make ‘The Magician’ more appealing to those who shy away from the irrepressible melancholy that defined his next decade of output. But this rounder edge cannot hew so sharply or so swiftly to the bone, and thus ‘The Magician’ is a more scholarly than cinematic treasure.