on October 5, 2001
Ingmar Bergman's best films give the viewer the feeling of participating in a rite. Its rhythms are less those of conventional narrative, than of theatre or a religious procession, say. As with rites, the appeal is not to the viewer's intellect; their effect is both sensual and spiritual, troubling precisely because we can't put our finger on that appeal.
Of course, this requires a kind of faith, and is open to charges of manipulation, precisely the theme of 'The Magician', a splendid slice of unnerving Grand Guignol horror, where a rather academic argument between the Enlightenment values of sceince, reason and empiricism confront those of superstition, magic and the inexplicable. These latter values might be called medieval, pre-Renaissance, and we are reminded that the modern theatre developed in this period from the Church, from rites and passion plays. this is the kind of effect 'The Magician' has, visually and tonally.
The argument is not between the doctor and the mesmerist, but between the film's surface narrative (which, as an argument, promotes the predominance of reason) and the film's form (which destroys every attempt at argument). Everything within the film that seems to derive from supernatural forces can all be ascribed, more or less, to rational causes, for example psychological weakness; even if it is this very weakness, that border between what we know and what we can't know, in which the mesmerist exists. Although we might say 'Ah, it's only a delusion', the very fact that these self-generated delusions can convincingly take the place of safe, everyday reality, can become that reality, suggests the limits of rationality, without any recourse to the supernatural.
The shams of actors, con-men, misanthropes pretending to be mute, women pretending to be men might all be illusions which, once exposed, can restore the status quo; but once the idea has been suggested that a boundary can be crossed, that an illusion can be real, than a system based on those boundaries is undermined.
In a film where actors pretend to be what they're not, whose narrative proceeds like theatre and climaxes with a theatrical spectacle, Bergman's technique can be called a charade - e.g. the haunting trip through an eerie forest, the fog streaming in the sunlight like a magical gateway; the terrifying attack on the doctor in a surrealist attic, are all an illusion to give us a sensation, but they also undeniably reveal a world for us that lives with us and which we never acknowledge. As ever with Bergman, it is only with acting, deception and illusion, not ational argument and empirical evidence, that we can even begin to approach the truth.