Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullman, Margaretha Krook and Gunnar Björnstrand.
Is it really important not to lie, to speak so that everything rings true? Can one live without lying and quibbling and making excuses? Isn't it better to be lazy and lax and deceitful? Perhaps you even improve by staying as you are.
An actress, Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman), has had a breakdown on stage and now suffer from muteness and a near-catatonic behavior. Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to take care of her. Elisabeth's doctor and Alma's supervisor (Margaretha Krook) recommends them to live in her beach house, which she thinks will help Elisabeth's health to improve. As the two women live together and become intimate (some would say in an erotic way, but I think that would be a misinterpretation) their identities start to merge.
Initially Alma feels great relief in being the only one to talk, experiencing comfort and sympathy from her silent listener, as she reveals the most intimate secrets about herself. Elisabeth's continuing silence does however make Alma uncomfortable, especially after having secretly read one of Elizabeth's letters to her doctor expressing a delight in studying Alma's behavior and increasing dependence on her, and Alma turns from being a compassionate and sweet nurse to an egotistical, irritable and violent woman.
A plot summary may sound simple (or complicated) enough, but the most interesting part of Persona is the way it repeatedly acknowledges itself for the piece of celluloid it actually is. Both the beginning and the end of the film consists of bizarre montages, brief pictures that the eye almost can't perceive: a silent film slapstick scene, an erect penis, a slaughtered lamb and a hand being pierced by a nail. There are also short sequences with a film projector, celluloid strips and carbon rods meeting each other, to further underline the fact that what we are watching is in fact a motion picture.
The film is also interrupted halfway through, when the movement of Alma suddenly freezes, and the celluloid burst into flames - about the time when the projectionist would change reels. Most famous of these self-reflexive moments is probably the one with the ca ten year old boy reaching for an out-of-focus woman on the wall, resembling the screen of a film theater, a face that switches between Alma and Elisabeth.
This motif is the reason behind Bergman's request that all publicity stills were to include a piece of the film strip on the edge. (See below.) Responsible for the breathtaking photography is the Bergman regular Sven Nykvist, whose style established with Persona is sometimes humorously summed up with the words "two faces and a tea cup". That's just brilliant.
Trying to summarize Persona in less than a proper blog post length is hard, and for an amateur like me close to impossible. For a fabulous analysis of the film I recommend an article from Sight and Sound in 1967, by Susan Sontag. You can find it here, on the fantastic Ingmar Bergman home page.
Sontag is very concerned with reviewers taking the easy way out, describing Persona either as "a film about the merging of identities" or "a film about lesbians and lesbianism", as well as people conveniently deciding that either everything in the film is supposed to be reality or entirely a fabrication of Alma's mind.
That was what I was referring to when I earlier mentioned something about Alma's and Elizabeth's intimate relationship: I had the strong feeling while watching Persona, that some parts (with increasing occurrence) were a result of Alma's distorted mind. Perhaps I should re-phrase: It is evident that Alma feels a close connection with Elisabeth after having revealed her inner self for her, something that in her unconscious mind (when asleep or drunk) turns into erotic fantasies, an embodiment of the closeness she feels to Elisabeth.
The paragraph above is entirely my own interpretation of some scenes in the film, and not Sontag's rantings. But for the interested I recommend the more professional Sontag analysis, even though everything I say is of course the unquestionable truth.
In short: My homeboy made it again, and even more so than before, with Persona. It deserves plenty of re-watches and philosophical discussion. I can't believe I haven't seen this film of his until... today.
1. Ingmar Bergman during the shooting of Persona.
2. Bergman with cinematographer Sven Nykvist.