Reviews and notes
is one of Bergman’s most enigmatic films, perhaps his underground masterpiece, one of the keys to his cinema. Traveling actors, maids flirting about, a love potion, a happy ending, and diabolical apparitions – Bergman gives himself to the vertigo of quoting himself. Mourning his past, he makes an inventory of his themes in order to proclaim their end, bringing back all his characters, all his actors, who return for a bow. Everything is there, everyone is there, but beneath, abstraction is at work, mystery rumbles, doubt is gnawing at the whole. For in the center of his moving universe, this baroque forest of signs and symbols, we find a figure, the mesmerist Vogler, Bergman’s first major self-portrait. It should matter that at this moment in his work he represents himself as – or rather, as wearing the mask of – a mute illusionist who’s lost his faith in his power and knows only how to perpetuate appearances. All that is left for Vogler, the impotent magician who’s unable to invoke his magic, are the accessories of the part: his beard and wig, pathetic subterfuges. It’s the author, devoured by doubt and taking refuge in silence. He’s isolated, having shut himself off, facing his conscience and demons. Facing the secret of his art, which he’s the only one to know doesn’t exist, that there is no secret, that the king is naked.
– Olivier Assayas, Cahiers du Cinema.
The owner of The Face
is a travelling hypnotist, a follower of Mesmer and the star-turn of "Vogler's Magnetic Health Theatre." He owns, in fact, two faces: a professional face — bearded, bewigged, eyes heavily ringed with black, a compelling and dignified mask — and the naked face beneath, anxious, insecure, touchingly vulnerable, which only his wife knows.
His company comprises a sly, loquacious impresario, a spellbinding old crone, the hypnotist's assistant and wife dressed as a boy, and a young man, the coach driver. The little band has fallen on evil times and is fleeing from legal prosecution for fraud and insidious magical practices. On their way through a bedevilled forest they come across a dying actor — an irresistible occasion for Bergman the scriptwriter to air explicitly some of Bergman the man's preoccupations with the fear and fascination of death. ("I'll lay bare the actual moment to you," says the actor, gazing into the hypnotist's face. "Now it's reached my hands, now my feet, now I can't see . . .") Here, too, is the conviction that only through complete self-knowledge can one achieve spiritual release and happiness, even though the dark areas of experience may house that driving force of the artist which, exposed, might well wither away ("I've always longed for a knife ... that would lay bare my entrails ... a sharp blade to cleanse all impurities. . ."). The mid-nineteenth century scene assumes all the hallucinatory menace of Bergman's medieval time; and indeed to all intents and purposes the aim is timelessness: we are in the deep Bergman country and the time is the witching hour.
The actor, presumably dead, is bundled into the coach and the journey continues — to the town where the company is halted for an interrogation by a hostile group of officials: a Lord Lieutenant, the Chief of Police, and a sceptical doctor. A test demonstration of their mesmeric powers is fixed for the next day.
It is at this point in the film that one has time, in spite of the authority of the playing and the immaculate production, to wish for a tighter control of the script. As night draws on and the Bergman repertory company comes into its own above and below stairs, the house becomes crowded with incidental activity. The hypnotist is visited by the lieutenant's wife, who offers him sympathy and her bed ("I've given my husband a sleeping potion"); a frightened servant girl in the attic is crooned to sleep by the old sorceress; in the washing-shed another, more pert serving wench (Bibi Anderson) seduces the coach driver with calculated innocence; the actor, presumed dead, lurches through the door to die once more; and, over all, a violent thunder storm breaks. For all its surface brilliance one recalls, with occasional irreverence, The Old Dark House
With the morning performance, however, the film resumes its main theme: the conflict of the artist, with his fundamental need of illusion and spiritual sleight-of-hand, and the factual man of science who scorns all that is not susceptible to cold analysis. After the performance, part farce, part genuine mystification, the doctor is still triumphant: authority is all on his side, and the goaded artist takes a macabre revenge in a nightmarish passage of justifiable Grand Guignol. When the revenge is exposed as yet another display of brilliant trickery, the artist is stripped of all dignity: the mask fallen, he is reduced to pitiable life-size, a penniless servant grateful to pick up the coin scornfully flung down. All seems lost, cold fact and materialism have won the day, and the troupe prepare for their ignoble, risible departure under the driving rain. But at the last moment a summons arrives to a command performance before the King of Sweden. With a joyous swing of the pendulum the balance of power is switched: to sudden sunshine and a jubilant sound track, they drive away, invincibly resilient, with victory snatched from the very hands of defeat.
This account, long as it is, is the barest simplification of the film. Psychological red herrings riddle the piece, flung in with a seemingly wanton disregard for amplification and final significance. One knows that Bergman works at great speed, and a pure, potently simple fusion of plot with content must be well-nigh impossible in such circumstances. But the scattering of unexpanded personal allusions is becoming a wanton habit: they become an unnecessary hindrance to the film's action and encourage a dangerous cart-before-the-horse attitude in the audience. The wood, one feels, has no need to be safeguarded by so many trees — particularly those of stunted growth.
Once again tribute must be paid to the meaningful precision of the actors. These are performances that show no sign of haste, and their now familiar attunement to the director's wishes is a method in itself. Max von Sydow as the hypnotist, superbly sensitive and composed as the performer, helpless and disintegrated as the man beneath; Naima Wifstrand, as the ancient, snickering crone; Gunnar Björnstrand, as the coldly sadistic champion of cold reason — all are first class. And Gunnar Fischer's photography is, as always, among the best in the world. The Face
(The Magician) is still a fascinating box of tricks, a superior piece of intellectual legerdemain given its own special unity by the director's very personal imagination. But if we are ever going to see more than this from Bergman, now, one feels, is the time.
- Derek Prouse, Sight and Sound, Summer and Autumn 1959.
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