Persona (1966)

persona-main3

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Writer: Ingmar Bergman

Producer: Ingmar Bergman

Photography: Sven Nykvist

Music: Lars Johan Werle

Cast: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook, Gunnar Bjornstrand

“Don’t you think I understand? The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming, but being. In every waking moment aware, alert. The tug of war — what you are with others and who you really are. A feeling of vertigo and a constant hunger to finally be exposed. To be seen through, cut down, even obliterated.”

Such is said of the protagonist in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, yet it may also be said of the film itself. For while Bergman had been considered a “serious” filmmaker since his pair of 1957 classics The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, those films were still entirely accessible. Allegorical, yes, but still fairly tidy.

It wasn’t until Persona that Bergman fully satisfied the “hunger to be exposed.” That is, to expose cinema in a self-reflexive way. He saw through it, cut it down, obliterated it. And as Bergman himself wrote in his book Images, “Today I feel that in Persona — and later in Cries and Whispers – I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.” (A)

As a result, you won’t find the words “rollercoaster ride” in any critic’s review. Instead, you’ll find superlatives like an “exceptionally beautiful specimen of movie making” (The New Yorker) and “a landmark in late twentieth century art” (Time Out, London). That’s because the film is Bergman’s most experimental, elliptical and self-referential work to date. It’s theme-driven, bizarre, ambiguous and long portions unfold in sheer silence. And while the result may be a challenge to the average viewer, it’s one that’s fascinated directors and theorists for decades.

The film follows actress Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who has gone blank on stage during a performance of Elektra and has refused to speak since (the audacity of Bergman to have a silent protagonist!). She’s admitted to a mental hospital and assigned to the care of a pretty nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), who takes her to a remote, sea-side home to study her. As Alma holds a series of one-sided conversations, she begins confessing the most personal of information. It isn’t long before we realize that it’s actually Elisabeth who’s the one doing the studying and Alma who’s undergoing to the psycho-analysis. Through heated exchanges ranging from sexual to violent, we’re left to ponder whether the two women are in fact the same person, and what that says about the nature of identity. Is one the alter-ego of the other? And if “persona” is another word for “mask” and “Alma” another for “soul,” one has to wonder whether we’re really watching a woman grappling with her own conscience.

More fascinating than the theme itself is Bergman’s treatment of it. He continually comes up with new visual ways to express the similarities of the two women. In many shots, Elisabeth and Alma are so tightly framed that it looks like a limb from one (i.e. an arm holding a cigarette) belongs to the face of the other. At other times, they embrace in such a way that their necks appear to wrap around each other, as if two heads from the same body. Other times yet, they appear ghost-like, like the wide shot of Alma sleeping in the foreground, only for Elisabeth to appear from an overexposed room in the background and move through a transparent sheet. Most obviously, Bergman flat out says it in a famous close-up of the two women lying side by side, just as Alma says, “Is it possible to be one and the same person at the same time?”

As Mast writes, Bergman is constantly messing with our senses. At one point, Elisabeth’s husband (or at least a figment of him) makes love to Alma while calling her Elisabeth. At another, Alma believes she hears Elisabeth speak (we hear her too), only for Elisabeth to deny having spoken and forcing us to wonder whether Alma (and we) imagined it. (B)

Perhaps most revolutionary in this regard is a sequence where Bergman essentially plays the same scene twice — a confession of Alma to Elisabeth – shot from two different points of view. The first time, we see the scene from Alma’s POV, looking constantly at Elisabeth, who wears a black sweater and black headband. With a sequence of four shots and a series of dissolves, we slowly move closer to Elisabeth’s face. Suddenly, Bergman starts the scene over, except now from Elisabeth’s POV, looking constantly at Alma, who wears an identical black sweater and headband. The dissolves happen again, on exactly the same dialogue cues.

Note also that in each instance, as Alma’s confession grows darker, their half-lit faces grow darker. The two halves increasingly seem to complement each other, until finally Bergman blends them together to create a single face. As Mast writes, this is the classic formula of thesis (Elisabeth’s face), antithesis (Alma’s face) and synthesis (both faces combined into a single identity). Note also that both scenes start with a close-up of the women’s hands on top of each other – a genius callback to Alma’s earlier line: “It’s bad luck to compare hands.”

When you also consider, as Mast does, the fact that Bergman is doing all this through the man-made medium of film, you realize the title of “Persona” might refer to any number of things, be it “the mask assumed by a narrator or author, or to the mask worn by an actor in a play, or to the role played in a drama or in real life, or to an individual’s personality.” (B)

Indeed, Bergman’s top priority seems to be delving into the identity of the author (Bergman) and calling attention to the film medium at his disposal. As such, Persona opens with the spark of an arc-light projector illuminating a film screen, a film reel turning, a projectionist selecting film clips and projection leader counting down the seconds before the film begins. Mid-way through Persona, the film literally stops, creases and burns up in the projector, throwing the audio for a loop. It ends with the film slipping out of the projection gate, the movie screen going blank and the arc light burning out (Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop also ends with film burning up in the projector, no doubt inspired by Persona).

Adding to the reflexivity is the occasional intercutting of bizarre film clips, including an animated cartoon, slapstick comedy, nails being driven into Christ-like hands, a crawling spider (a symbol of God in Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly), a blood sacrifice, a fitting clip from Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), even a shot of a penis (foreshadowing Fincher’s Fight Club). It’s as if Bergman is reminding us that a film, when watched in a theater, is ultimately at the mercy of the editor, and later the projectionist, who can splice in whatever images he wants.

Why call attention to the projection process? Mast says it’s to remind viewers that what they are witnessing is fiction, an illusion: “The audience has entered the world of art and chimera, of magic and theatre, not of nature and reality.” It’s also to ask whether the world of nature is any more real than the one of artistic illusion. (B) And what type of art is it? The answer may lie in Bergman’s cut from a giant face sculpture outside the beach house to a close-up of Elisabeth’s face on stage. We’ve been led to believe she is acting in a theater performance, until suddenly, a film camera swoops into frame, suggesting a soundstage. Here, sculpting has evolved into theater and ultimately into cinema – art’s purest expression.

Bergman continues to break down the “illusion” of film through the use of direct address. The first instance (and creepiest) comes during a disturbing sequence of bodies lying on an autopsy slab. Suddenly, their eyes open, staring straight at us, and a young boy (who we thought was dead) turns restlessly under his sheet, like he can’t sleep (a moment of artistic inspiration?). He winds up putting on his glasses, pulling out a book and turning to stare right at us. It’s here that he reaches out and caresses the screen, as if he’s trying to understand the apparatus between him and us. When Bergman cuts to the reverse angle, we see that the boy is inspecting a large, blurry image of a woman’s face, which slowly comes into focus to start the narrative.

Even within the narrative, the direct address continues. Early on, there’s a single take where Elisabeth stares directly at us for an uncomfortable period of time. Day turns to night, yet her eyes never blink, her face remains expressionless and she holds her breath. Finally, she exhales and looks away, worn out by the ordeal. In a later scene, we get an empty wide shot of a beach, only for Alma to rise into the frame with a camera and take a picture of us (Wes Anderson has Owen Wilson do this in The Royal Tenenbaums). In all of these instances, Bergman has not only broken the fourth wall, he’s taken a wrecking ball to it, cleared the rubble and built anew.

So what new structure has been left in Bergman’s wake? How about the argument that structure need not always exist. Unfortunately, the art of experimentation seems lost in most movies. But that doesn’t mean Bergman’s masterpiece hasn’t inspired some of our greatest filmmakers: from Woody Allen, who spoofs Persona in both Love and Death (1975) and Stardust Memories (1980) to Robert Altman, who has Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek shift roles in 3 Women (1977); from David Lynch, who merges female identities and gives a visual nod in Mulholland Dr. (2001); to the aforementioned references from David Fincher (Fight Club) and Wes Anderson (Tenenbaums).

In fact, when an international group of directors weighed in on the 2002 Sight & Sound directors’ poll, they ranked Bergman the #8 greatest director of all time, and Persona the #41 greatest film of all time. When it came to the Sight & Sound critics’ poll, however, the film curiously dropped from the Top 10 in 1972 to a three-vote honorable mention in 2002. These critics seem to have shifted favor to Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal and Fanny & Alexander. Either way, my hat is tipped to you, Mr. Bergman. “Too many masterpieces” is a great problem to have.

Citations:

CITE A: Brody, Richard. “DVD of the Week: Persona.” The New Yorker. 5 August 2008. Web. <http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2010/08/persona.html>

CITE B: Mast, Gerald. Kawin, Bruce. “Ingmar Bergman.” A Brief History of the Movies. Ninth Edition. Pearson Education, Inc. 2006. P. 440-449.

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