The Sydow House Rules
The Magician (aka Ansiktet) Sweden 1958
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Criterion Collection Region 1
I’ve had a thing for Bergman for a while now... ever since I saw some early 40s films by him on BBC2 a couple of decades ago. That being said, however, I’ve not seen that many of his movies... probably less than 20... but each time I start watching one I am quickly reminded of why I enjoy his films so much. It’s always a combination of blindingly beautiful shot compositions mixed with a quite often stark or bleak attitude emanating from the characters... even when those characters are in a good mood.
Thus, The Magician when I watched it the other day, was an instant turn on as soon as the credits had finished rolling. Picture perfect shots involving dark shapes of horse, cart, tree and lone figures draw the eye in and it’s interesting just how different and magical each subsequent closer shot of the same set up is from a different angle. It may well be a case of moving the camera around and then moving the props, sets and actors slightly to maintain a balanced composition from shot to shot and hope the audience doesn’t notice... but either way it works quite well.
The film follows a travelling magician, played as brilliantly as ever by Bergman stalwart Max Von Sydow, and his entourage who must persuade censorious local government officials that their show can do no harm to anyone... by staging a performance for a select few who are in power. Most of the movie takes place under the confines of a kind of house arrest leading up to the performance and then dealing with it’s aftermath... but it’s not all doom and gloom as there are, as often with Bergman, sharp scenes based on tart humour (some of the verbal tussles such as the shifting who’s seducing who game between the magicians coach driver and a maid in the house reach almost slapstick proportions) and the lighter, or at least lightly perceived, sides of human relationships.
That Bergman is able to take these rather wild shots of humour and pitch them, especially towards the later parts of the movie, against scenes of bleak despair and the crushing weight of humanity such as the darkened workings of the magician’s psyche and his wife (played here by another cornerstone of what was then Bergman’s regular bunch of actors, Ingrid Thulin) without making them jar or feel like the pacing is in any way off... is just another sign of the absolute craftmanship that Bergman demonstrates in his theatrical features.
The Magician is seen in almost three guises in this movie as the character is revealed to us little by little, starting off with a fake bearded cypher of a man who exudes confidence and mystery... the actor is stripped bare later on when we see him with his wife (who is made up as a man as his young ward when travelling the roads) and we see how much he loathes what has become his profession and his lot in life. This image is further confounded right near the end of the movie when, before a moment of triumph which trumps and almost throws away the value of all that leads up to it, he is seen as a pitiable performer begging for his wage so that he and his wife can eat.
The Magician and his show are both a product of illusion and trickery and yet... it also becomes clear that he is able to genuinely mesmerise people which no amount of explaining can do. Further dimension is added to the film in the presence of a genuine witch who brews the various potions which the travellers sell to people and it is clear that she is blessed with magical powers including the power of prophecy. She plays in sharp contrast to the “manager” of the company who regrets her being with them and who insists that he do all the talking on behalf of everybody.
The film is quite stark and powerful and quite even toned throughout it’s running length, in spite of said juxtapositions of light humour and dark despair, but towards the end there is a scene which takes on an almost Bunuelian atmosphere as the film switches to one of the characters having what can only be described as, and attack of surrealism... courtesy of the combination of mesmerisation and chicanery brought to the table by Max Von Sydow. And then the end sequence, just as the motivation and plight of the characters has hit rock bottom, suddenly gets... well I don’t want to spoil the punch line to this little chamber piece but let me allude by mentioning the film’s musical score. What plays throughout the film as a very spare and "even" take on understated gloom suddenly turns into a fully fledged Nina Rota-like carnival score. Seriously, I was almost expecting the ending to be a forerunner of Fellini’s Eight and A Half when it suddenly changed tone.
This film is definitely Bergman on full form with a series of crisp black and white images of simple beauty enriched with the consummate acting talents of Sydow and his contemporaries and a lightness to counter-balance (but not to its detriment) the deft exploration of the depths of the human soul... peppered by the odd surprise which will keep the first time audience on its toes.
As is to be expected, the Criterion edition boasts an excellent transfer of an excellent print and a few extras which will be of some interesting to Bergman’s followers. Another great job by Criterion of another minor masterpiece by Bergman which is well worth your time if you are a lover of film in general.