Thursday, July 21, 2011

Classic Throwback: Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

Having declared it quite impossible to judge Persona after one viewing, I decided to re-watch the fascinating film again today. I first watched it in May last year, when I was working my may through Ingmar Bergman’s most acclaimed works. Though Persona has divided fans and critics, it is often considered to one of Bergman's most important films. The word ‘pretentious’ also pops up now and then. While imbued with a haunting, otherworldly ambivalence and transforming into quite an unsettling psychological drama in it’s second half, it is strangely unsubtle in its messages and yet simultaneously indecipherable. Still, I prefer his more accessible films, notably The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries

The film opens, accompanied by the unnerving score that returns at intervals throughout the film, with a bizarre prelude, starting with images of a film projector lamp and several fragmented and disjointed images; including a spider, an erect penis, the slaughtering of a lamb (and the squeezing of its eye, which could be a reference to Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou), a crucifixion, and shots of elderly corpses. I’m not sure what other images were included in the 85-minute cut, but the version I own is inclusive of some of the images initially trimmed from the theatrical release and has a running time of only 80 minutes. To be honest, it feels like a very, very long 80 minutes.

Dealing with a personal breakdown, which leads to her complete rejection of speech, renowned stage actress Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann) is instructed to spend some time out of hospital with her chatty nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson). Isolated from the rest of the world at a vacation cottage the two are warmed by each other’s company. Alma finds it comforting that Elizabeth is willing to listen to her as she reads aloud and recounts anecdotes and personal stories from her past, while Elizabeth, interested in Alma, has enjoyed studying her as she does the talking for both of them. 

It is quite evident in the first half where this film is going. But, the fact that it builds such a dreamy atmosphere and opens with these projections, gives the impression that this will be a film that isn’t supposed to make sense (a bit like Mulholland Drive for example). Is Bergman’s desire to create a film that sparks debate? One where the meaning is so ambiguous that it requires multiple viewings to grasp? Perhaps there is no meaning. It’s a frustrating film. 

The film shifts at the half way with quite a bizarre twist that makes little sense. Following a series of unsubtle proclamations by Alma - “We are alike, I think I could turn myself into you if I tried” – Alma starts having some strange delusions. She imagines Elizabeth speaking to her (or doesn’t, but Elizabeth denies it) and then entering her room later in the night. They embrace one another, turn to the camera, and then appear to morph together as one as the image fades to black. The women's personalities have merged with their identities beginning the blur into one. The entire film is shot to resemble a dream so it is difficult to differentiate between what Alma interprets as reality. 

When Alma discovers a letter sent by Elizabeth to her doctor, recounting an intimate story shared by the two in confidence, her attitude toward Elizabeth is dramatically altered and she is angered by what she views as a betrayal. She grows tried of her prolonged silence and lack of reciprocated personal information, sparking conflict for the remainder of the film. There is a charge of eroticism constantly linking the women and Alma, out of anger, begins to attack Elizabeth's regrettable decisions about motherhood (which may be the cause of her psychosomatic illness). While she outwardly projects a level-headedness, her own inherent weaknesses become apparent too. Following Alma's repeated monologue near the conclusion, half of each of their faces fuse together, which is an extension of the earlier sequence in Alma’s room. The fact that Ullman and Andersson look alike is not an accident.

I am still no clearer on understanding Persona, or knowing how to discuss it. Intriguingly, Bergman is always reminding the viewer that he is present, constructing the film. Opening with the light of the projector and early ‘moving pictures’, there is an instance in the middle where the image splits and the print seems to burn inside the projector. There is even a shot near the conclusion of Bergman and Sven Nykvist (his long-time cinematographer) at work. The two central performances are fantastic, especially Bibi Andersson, but Ullman really does a fantastic job of using only her face to create her compelling character. The way the faces of the women are framed (largely through close-up) and the way the light hits their faces, is given plenty of attention too. While I love Bergman’s films, I feel I am now done with Persona.


  1. I watched this film last year, and while I liked it enough, I'll never watch it again. It was a bit pretentious, yes. Anyway, lots of people think it's a masterpiece, and I can see why.
    Nice review - I don't think I could review it as well as you did!

  2. Thanks. Yeah its certainly a challenging watch. I'm not all that happy with this review though. I don't understand the film at all. But the review I wrote last year was so bad I felt like I had to work on a new one. Took me all day :-p

  3. It's been a few years since I've seen this film and it's one of my favorites though I more prefer Wild Strawberries and Cries & Whispers. I'm planning to post my old reviews (some of which will have some re-editing) of Bergman movies next month where I'll be watching Scenes from a Marriage (theatrical cut). I need to have some Bergman DVDs in my collection.

  4. I've only watched Bergmans SEVENTH SEAL... I need to watch more!

  5. The Seventh Seal is one of my favourite films. Wild Strawberries is wonderful, and Through a Glass Darkly, Winter's Light and Cries and Whispers are all quite good too. A significant one I haven't seen is Fanny and Alexander!

  6. I'm not sure I could come up with a totally cogent explanation of the film, but it is one of my favorite Bergman films. I really like the constructedness of it, with the opening sequence (several of those flashed images are from earlier Bergman films) and the way the film burns through at one point. For me, it's a tantalizing film, exploring the almost mystical connection formed between the two characters, as well as the surprising shifts of strength and weakness between them. You'd think Elisabeth would be weaker, as she's the patient, the one who needs care, the one who's so broken by the pain of the world she refuses to speak - but soon it seems that Alma is really the weak one, as she loses touch with reality more and more while Elisabeth grows stronger. Some have suggested that Elisabeth feeds on Alma vampirically, growing strong by stealing her essence ("Alma" means "soul"). At the same time, Alma can be quite cruel to Elisabeth, so I don't fully buy the vampiric reading.

    There's a lot in the film, but it's elusive. It doesn't tack down easily to one meaning, but instead suggests a plethora of intepretations of different aspects. The breakdown of communication is in there, too, leading me to think of Persona as Bergman's ultimate exploration of Modernist angst. Like I said, I can't explain it, but I sure do love it and I'm fascinated anew every time I watch it.

  7. I just watched this today (with a review posted by the end of the week, I hope) for the first time, and I tend to agree with the general consensus. I think the word "pretentious" gets thrown around a lot with this movie because it is an accurate description. That's not necessarily bad, mind you, but I think this is as deliberately obtuse a movie as you're likely to come across. Very pretty, very deliberately directed, and well-acted, but it is not fun or entertaining. It is capital-A Art, for better or worse.

  8. Yeah, I have struggled through this a couple of times, and while I respect the filmmaking, and the performances, it's just way too obtuse to enjoy. Thanks for following, and the comment!

  9. I saw the film decades ago.I have no particular opinion about the artistic quality. But often throughout the years since a saw the film it has popped up in my mind. More often that most films I have watched throughout my life. On numerous occasions I have thought: "Aha that is what Bergam was saying in Persona". For instance when you spend a lot of time with someone somehow personalities, or parts of personalities, start to float into each other. Your review is excellent and gave me a better understanding of the film. On the other hand I am not sure I will ever watch it again.

  10. I'm glad it proved to be insightful. I really struggled through this film a second time, but my understanding of the film became a wee bit clearer. I wasn't happy with this review, though. It's a film I don't regret buying (blind) but I doubt I'll watch it again. Thanks for stopping by emstrur!

  11. This is a damn hard film to write about, especially if you hold it in as high regard as I do. I consider this to be the best movie by the most talented person to ever manufacture a film. Every quibble you mention, the frustration, lack of focus, lack of understanding; is all perfectly fair.

    The only thing I can offer is that I'm not entirely sure Bergman WANTS all of this movie to make sense. I think, maybe, he had some diluted idea in his mind, and did what he could to translate that onto the screen, understanding be damned.

    If there's one thing I hate it movies, it's being reminded that I’m watching a movie. Which is odd, given that that device works so well in Persona. Bergman does that right away here, with the projector burning out, and later, when we see Bergman and Sven Nyquist in the middle of a crane tracking shot.

    Bergman wants you to know you’re watching a movie, he wants it to be obscure and fictional. There’s a lot going on here, and yes, it’s an extremely long 80 minutes. I could write for pages and pages about this film, but, in the end, I believe Roger Ebert said it best: “The title is key. Persona. Singular.”

    Great review, Andy!!

  12. I absolutely love Bergman's films, but this one I have struggled to grasp. Even to write what I got down here took me all day and I wasn't happy with what I came up with. It is certainly a challenging film, but not one I have enjoyed puzzling over. There are plenty of elements that I admire; the cinematography, the performances, the ambiguity for example, but I just found it extremely tedious to sit through. Perhaps I will give it another go, but I doubt it!