Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Face (aka The Magician)

(This piece was originally published at this blog on December 30, 2010. It's reprinted here with new stills.)

On Bergman's First Summary-Masterpiece

In the opening scene, a troupe of wandering charlatans emerges, primordial, from the earth — the images, from the presence of the carriage to its distant traversal across a wide horizon, recall the travelers of The Seventh Seal

An old gypsy woman (Naima Wifstrand) spits on a raven (the group's family surname Vogler suggests fågel, or bird) / 

The scream that does not register on the soundtrack — a theater of the mind / 

As Granny paints the picture (Bergman's eminence of language and dialogue-image) — "A fox on two emaciated legs, covered in blood, with its head hanging by a few sinews. A fox with no eyes, and a rotten hole for a mouth." — the head of Albert Vogler (Max von Sydow) enters the frame in close-up, an artificial visage, constructed out of fake beard, ersatz locks, perched top-hat — a first expression, then, of the title, The Face [Ansiktet, 1958], and all this might imply / 

(The film has forever circulated in the U.S. on prints and in Criterion's release under the less abstract The Magician) / 

But the title is not only a call to examine Albert's face, or the faces of any characters in particular — it's a signal to take note of the human face in general, both inside the film and beyond it — the phenomenon of the face / 

The man found in the woods, "Johan Spegel" (the actor is Bengt Ekerot), bears a name which extends this theme — "spegel" the Swedish word for "mirror" / 

Albert gets in close to better hear the man's murmur, and the two come face-to-face (another apt Bergman title from later in the oeuvre), and with this image a potential fate is suggested for Albert Vogler specifically as for any man / 

After Spegel calls Albert out on his dummy beard and wig, the two venture to cross a small stream, and when Spegel stumbles it's because Albert — expert framing here by Bergman, ambiguity of action — has tossed him down / 

Albert is not the passive entity that a first impression might insinuate / 

And Spegel's facial hair, plotted in haggard patches, is no less a formulation / 

The 'capital of the state' is some zone on the outskirts of a woods / 

Kakfa / 

The troupe has been summoned to a castle, as it were, in the drawing-room of which they are greeted by Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson), while a police commssioner, Starbeck (Toivo Pawlo), and a "medical advisor," minister of health Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand), hover on standby, each figure armored in wigs and slathered makeup / 

Surnames which recur — menacingly, by virtue of the fact — from earlier Bergman films: "Egerman," "Vergerus," etc. / 

Manda Vogler (Ingrid Thulin), Albert's wife, takes cover as a man, named "Aman" (we will learn later on that the couple have assumed these disguises as a means of facilitating their survival as fugitives on the run) / 

'Identity' is humored by the observers: "Aman" is a theatrical trope — Aman is not 'realistically' perceived as actually being a boy, any more than Vogler's beard and moustache, once Dr. Vergerus compels him to submit (as though by the 'suggestion' of authority — again, everything here involves a suspension of disbelief) to an up-close "oral" examination, cannot possibly be taken for genuine / 

Everyone, in their makeup and get-up, is a performer in the comedy / 

The autopsy that Vergerus wishes upon Vogler in his initial examination, complete with the removal of the eyes (the organs of control — and of the cinema, and of the spectator — the 'see' of the face), will in fact come to pass later in the film / 

We have the sense of actors exiting a stage as the troupe withdraws from the interrogation and passes into the antechamber, dark as the wings, while on the soundtrack the examiners' laughs resound, bizarre, hollow, echoes inside the soul / 

When troupe-member Tubal (Åke Fridell) sells chambermaid Sofia Garp (Sif Ruud) the "love potion," he consults with Granny on how to make do given their exhausted supply — the two address one another in 'stage whispers,' the para-diegetic quality of which is accentuated + nullified by the presence of two common chairs placed on top of the table — they converse through the footrests — of course this is very funny to watch, but it also highlights Bergman's visual brilliance and magnificent aptitude for blocking his actors in a manner, with a solution, that is always, always interesting / 

Love potions, gulped in tandem by trouper Simson (Lars Ekborg) and Sara (Bibi Andersson) are another facilitator, agent, of 'disbelief-suspension,' self-suggestion, pretense, a precursor to the bonbons of Rivette's Céline and Julie Go Boating

The camera moves and faces come into frame like discrete beats, shocks, a montage without montage / 

"There's a bird's nest in the window." — omniscience of the Voglers — a second-sight that spreads: Sara looking out of frame in the laundry-room where her tryst with Simson's underway announces that she can see (a framing invisible to us) simultaneously the two men in the kitchen, and the light in Vogler's and Aman's bedroom / 

The magic lantern, the autobiographical touchstone of Bergman, — the magician the filmmaker, the filmmaker deemed a fraud, not solely out of the artifice of his method (though that too — reality comes into focus at what proximity?) but out of the efficacy of his acknowledged charlatanism, too / 

Vogler's nails bloodied after digging into his palm — Vogler smashing his fists off the table — Vogler striking the back of his skull against a closed door: the terrible limits of the body, of this very physical reality, for the being that thinks and feels / 

"A shadow of a shadow."

And: "The movement itself is the only truth."

Spegel resurrected in his ragged mockery of a 'magician's top-hat,' returned back to death in a coffin with a seal like a labial slit / 

Dr. Vergerus to Aman-Manda, as he drunkenly invades her bedroom with the hope of seduction: "Because you represent what I despise most of all: the inexplicable."

"Pretenses, false promises, double-bottoms."

Vogler, a golem (see, later, Fanny and Alexander) / 

Manda asks Vogler in their bed: "Remember when..." but of course this is more or less a soliloquy, life cannot yet have progressed into this realm of historical, immemorial distance for the young, middle-aged couple; what Manda recounts are episodes, created for the expostulation / 

The chimes of the clock / 

The parts of Vogler's disguise which will shift to the corpse of his double, Spegel, for the autopsy carried out by Vergerus, likewise his "V"-twin — Vergerus will not recognize the unidentical anatomy, physiognomy of the decoy, in the same way he didn't recognize the artifice of the beard and wig close-up during the initial examination of "V"-twin Vogler when the two first went face-to-face / 

How the coffin makes its way up to the attic (this contains Vogler, alive) as the black trunk containing 'Vogler's corpse' (i.e., Spegel) is carried up at the behest of the police commissioner — the move, the swap... a certain suspension of disbelief, or suspension of peering too deeply into the logistics, is required now on the part of the spectator / 

For in The Face 'real' magic is possible, and in Bergman, trunks possess an eldritch capacity (again see Bergman's second and final 'summary-work,' the prism-work which consciously recalls so many of the earlier films — Fanny and Alexander) / 

"Please stop the clock."

Vogler can 'be' in two places at once, as he bids A(Man-da) within her own room to lock the door to the attic (where he's already present) / 

Vergerus to Vogler at the climax of their magickal, virtuoso confrontation in the attic: "You induced a momentary fear of death — nothing more — nothing else." — Yet is that not the sum totality at the cusp of actual death? / 

"I've never seen you before." "I was in disguise — does that make a difference?"

Personae / 

And then at the ending, we're graced with one of the great final dialogues in movies (after, of course, the deus ex machina of the happy-end swoops in at whose accord but... the magician's, i.e., Bergman's): 

"Gather my apparatus and send them to the palace. But be careful — they're very valuable."


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