Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Sweden. 1966.
First, a very brief “plot-summary”. A nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), has been assigned to care for a famous actress, Elizabeth (Liv Ullman), who suddenly stopped speaking during a performance of Electra and has remained silent ever since. When they go to stay in a seaside house owned by Alma’s psychiatrist colleague, the apparently self-confident nurse gradually reveals more and more of herself in the face of Elizabeth’s silence, and is shocked to read a letter the actress has written implying that Alma is an interesting case-study. The two women seem almost to exchange identities, or to become one (strikingly expressed visually in a famous shot); in a dream sequence (or perhaps fantasy), Elizabeth’s husband comes to visit and seems to think that Alma is his wife. Finally Alma, back in her nurse’s uniform, catches a bus to go home, leaving the almost-mute Elizabeth alone. Almost-mute, because Alma has drawn out of her the single word “nothing”.
An essential element of Persona is the several reminders that we are watching a film. The opening montage consists of a projector lamp flaring to life, brief glimpses of very early film and other material, followed by a shot of a boy awakening, feeling a sheet of glass through which he seems to be observing us the viewers, who turn out to be the fuzzy features of Alma/Elizabeth. Halfway through the film, the projector seems to stop and the film to catch fire, a shock for the unprepared viewer. At one point Elizabeth points her camera straight at us; at another, we briefly see Bergman and Sven Nykvist, his cinematographer, at their camera on a crane. At the end, we see the film running out of the camera and the projector lamp dying down; there are no closing credits, and no “the end”. This self-reflexivity can be expected from Godard, in his playfully postmodern manner, but not from Bergman, so it is particularly significant here. For whatever reason, he wants to remind us that we are watching a film.
What struck me most forcibly on first seeing Persona was the wonderful performances Bergman achieves from his two actresses. Andersson has to carry almost the entire dialogue, while Ullman is equally powerful in conveying everything through her face: a performance comparable with that of Renee Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. In fact Persona shares with Dreyer’s silent masterpiece an emphasis on huge close-ups of the human face, warts and all.
Particular scenes are specially memorable, such as Alma’s recounting of a beach orgy, infinitely more erotic to listen to than it would have been to see in flashback; Alma accusing Elizabeth of neglecting her son, recounted twice so that we can contemplate each woman’s face in turn during the telling; and Elizabeth’s single instance of unpremeditated utterance by screaming “no, don’t!” when Alma threatens to throw a pan of boiling water over her.
There is so much to think about in Persona (which, needless to say, requires rapt concentration). One major question concerns Elizabeth’s silence: is it elective, as happens in some of Tarkovsky’s films, or is it some kind of mental breakdown? There are clues which point both ways: the fact that it suddenly happens during a stage performance suggests the latter, while on the other hand she seems a perfectly normal, intelligent, feeling woman in every respect save for her silence.
Then there is the question of whether there are really two women at all; could the whole film be played out as a fantasy of one of them, or indeed of somebody else? This hardly seems likely, though the idea has been entertained by some critics. At one point Alma says that she seems to be becoming two people, the respectable self she shows in public, and the real self which Elizabeth is bringing out of her. Again, is there a sexual attraction between the two women, or at least by Alma for Elizabeth? Several moments of physical tenderness seem to suggest this.
It has also been questioned whether there are dream (or fantasy) sequences at all; perhaps all we see can be taken as “real”? This would include the husband’s visit, with his bizarre mistaking of Alma for his wife, and a scene where Elizabeth comes to visit Alma during the night, but emphatically denies it (by shaking her head) the next morning.
Critics of a more cynical bent have suggested that Persona is nothing more than pretentious rubbish. This notion can be dismissed; Bergman has always been a deeply serious artist, and so many intelligent people have found the film deeply satisfying, if mystifying. The fact that a work of art gives rise to puzzlement and differing interpretations is no reason to call it pretentious.
Personally I do not rate Bergman in the greatest pantheon of directors. While he is superb at “chamber-pieces” involving intense emotions among (especially) women, his range is rather narrow; one cannot imagine him producing the cinematic sweep of an “epic” like, say, Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. But I have come to the view that Persona is not just Bergman’s finest work, but that it is also one of the essential films in the history of the medium
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