Friday, May 7, 2010

Persona (1966)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Sweden 1966
85 min
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.
- Alma

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.


Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

i love that film.

i disagree that the film has "lesbian" contexts. rather I saw it as a story of ONE woman struggling with 2 sides of her identity, her gender, and society's expectations of her image.

pantalla_adicta said...

I lovelovelove it. I had to watch it for my film history class, and my professors never talked about lesbianism, neither did I related the film to it. I do agree with you those scenes are the result of an unconscious mind: the film's atmosphere is dreamy, so I interpreted both women lived in a strange world of their own, some kind of parallel universe. Since my professor's indicated the interruption of the film was to remind us we were watching a film; I understood Bergman intended to say everything in the story was fake, some kind of collective hallucination.
I ust read Sontag's opinion. Thanks for sharing!

Lolita said...

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist:
That is certainly a more valuable and probable interpretation! Just writing "lesbianism" all over the film is to make it too easy for oneself, along with making one look pretty stupid.

Thanks for the long comment! It made me happy to read. I also think it's fun that a director from my own country has had such a great influence on film students around the world.
I like your phrasing "parallel universe", and also the interpretation of Persona being some kind of collective hallucination. The more I think about the film, the more I feel I want to re-watch it!

TomS said...

I just happened upon your blog today and was awestruck by your appreciation for Ingmar Bergman, especially "Persona".
I often just watch the opening montage for the poetry, and its sinister beauty and ambiguity. I often see it as a depiction of the birth of a filmmaker (Bergman himself) complete with conception, pain, religiouus struggle, and obsession with faces.
I loved your review, and the link to Susan Sontag.
I have been a "Bergmanite" ever since I was too young to see "Cries and Whispers" in a theater and Roger Ebert had a series on Bergman's films on the local Chicago PBS station.
I hope to visit you again and hope you'll drop by my journal of various topics, including film.

Kate Gabrielle said...

Fantastic review, I'd much rather read yours than a "professional" one any day :D I really want to see this.. I'll have to see if Netflix has it :)

Lolita said...

Tom S:
I'm glad to hear you love Bergman! I think most people in Sweden are proud of his work. I will sure have a look at your journal! Welcome back!

Kate G:
Aah, you're too sweet! I'm glad I awoke your interest - you should definitely see it! I think you will appreciate it, it's pure cinematic art. Netflix should have this - if they lack Bergman it would be embarrassing!

Darsh said...

She's safe. Netflix has lots of Bergman.

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