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The Magus


‘…can be firmly recommended to the literate and to the mystery minded as a mental gymnasium…’

I’ve always had something of a fascination for the writing of John Fowles, and that fascination starts with The Magus, a deliberately slippery mystery story that follows many of the expected genre tropes, before exploding them and revealing itself to be…well, it’s anyone’s guess really. Fowles himself revised his original text for a re-mastered edition, so good luck figuring it all out. Director Guy Green makes a bold stab at making a tricky book into a lush film, and Fowles is on aboard for the adaptation, so there’s plenty of room for improvisation.

‘I’ve got everything a poet needs,’ boast Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) ‘except poems.’ And what is a poet without poems other than a schoolteacher? That’s the profession that Urfe is following as he arrives on a small Greek island to replace a predecessor who appears to have died unexpectedly. What’s going on? Psychic Grandda Conchis (Anthony Quinn) says he doesn’t know, but he would say that, wouldn’t he? Is he a magus or magician, luring Urfe to his death? Or is he a psychiatrist, or a film-director, or a prankster? Each visit Nicholas makes to Conchis’ villa seeds more doubt, yet the presence of a beautiful girl Lily (Candice Bergen) who may or may not be a captive keeps Urfe coming back for more.

‘Welcome to the meta-theatre!,’ chimes Conchis, whose idea of an evening’s entertainment is to get Nicolas to bet his life on the roll of a dice. Fowles is interested in deconstructing Urfe’s deflating sense of machismo; a ‘child of the century’ who doesn’t accept responsibility for the damage he does to the women he meets, Urfe’s seduction methods fall flat; ‘I can pinch your bottom or kiss you,’ he offers Lily, but each option remains out of reach despite his best efforts.

As with Fowlas’s breakthrough novel The Collector, The Magus is a story about captivity, but while Lily initially appears to be the captive, repeated viewings reveal that it’s Nicolas who is firmly trapped by the logic of Conchis or conscience. A WWII survivor, Conchis’ story is depicted in flashback, and looks back with bitterness at the nature of collaboration. This kind of ambiguity, and the film opens with a copy of Empson’s book Seven Types of Ambiguity in case we’re wondering what kind of film this is, proves engaging to explore, and with a little magic to disguise the gear-shifts, including startling jackal-headed figures in the background, The Magus retains its charms as a set of puzzle-boxes, offering a different outcome every time you watch.

Tanned and well-groomed, Caine was never more stud-ly than he is here, and even if Caine and Fowles reportedly hated the result, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Once you accept that there’s no easy answers, The Magus can be firmly recommended to the literate and to the mystery minded as a mental gymnasium, and one consructed well ahead of the curve. Just don’t ask exactly what it all means…



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    • And I’m not sure why there was so much hate, other than this being so experiemental at times. I’m not saying it doesn’t fall away near the end, but I find both film and book engrossing….

  1. Thanks for spotlighting one of those films hard to categorize. Some said The Magus was autobio as Fowles taught a class on GR isle of Spetses, wrote poetry, and dabbled in philosophy and the occult. He’d read Jung, Frazer’s Golden Bough, Grave’s The White Goddess, and some of Crowley’s works, and perhaps learned about the high weirdness that occurred during WWII. The movie was filmed on Majorca, where Grave’s lived for years. It’s a story about tricks and myths, deception, and manipulation with an existentialistic psych ops twist. I’m not a huge fan of Caine, accent?, but he can act. Did like him in Man Who Would be King, Alfie, Batman, and Ripper films.

    Background music seemed off; might have been better had they gone with Peggy Lee’s Is that all there is? The book reminded me of an adolescent fantasy with a rude awakening, perhaps because when I first read it I was an emerging adolescent, being introduced to the world of psych ops, and several rude realities… I found the book baffling and still do, though I’ve decoded lots of Fowle’s messages (I think). Like the poster said—is the game love, lust, life—or is it death? Fowles once made a comment reality was infinitely baffling, and only when we realize we’re responsible for our actions, can we be free—and truly humane. He said that’s what the movie book was trying to explain. A thought worthy of consideration. For a more contemporary look at Magus plotting, see Michael Douglas in The Game (1997?) or oddly enough, 1996 Fight Club.

    • I did not know about the autobiographical content; it chimes with the masculine self-hatred that’s going on here too. I like the classical allusions here too, and part of the charm is trying and failing to understand. But I do think it’s possible to take positive lessons from this tricky, tricky story…

    • It was a massive flop in the day, but way ahead of its time and has a strange video-game quality as it gets weirder. Enjoy!

  2. Not sure what to say here. Obviously, Caine.
    But I am not a fan of books, or movies, that deliberately obfuscate their reason for being made. To me, it comes across as extremely nihilistic.

  3. Both the novel and the movie are intriguing, but also can be a tough slog. They seem like they look forward to so much in our own time, but are also locked in their own ’60s sensibility, some of which doesn’t translate. I made up some notes on this a few years ago but never posted them because I wanted to give it another chance.

    • I like them both, although I’m warning to this film each time I see it. It connects up to the video game aesthetic of The Game and Serenity…

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