Persona (1966)

Bergman in fine experimental form—still a radical work that explores the theme of personal identity through the performative and illusory medium of cinema.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #1,634

Dir. Ingmar Bergman
1966 | Sweden | Drama/Experimental | 83 mins | 1.37:1 | Swedish

NC16 (passed clean) for sexual references

Cast: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann
Plot: A nurse is put in charge of a mute actress and finds that their personae are melding together.
Awards: –
Source: AB Svensk Filmindustri

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Personal Identity
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex/Experimental
Pace: Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 31 Oct 2018
Spoilers: No

Professor Thomas Elsaesser ended his essay on ‘The Persistence of Persona’ with this: “… not only [are] the iconic images… worth a thousand words but also the silences that launched a thousand commentaries.” 

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona remains to this day a startlingly enigmatic work, limitless in its interpretations, not to mention the countless underlying implications of interpreting the film in a certain way over another.  

One might, however, see the enigma as beyond contemplation or deconstruction, such that a way to appreciate one of Bergman’s most explicitly radical pictures is to take it in as a whole, like how we might take in, say, the encompassing beauty of nature (as opposed to asking why it is so beautiful). 

It’s hard to write about Persona without sounding pretentious, as if everything made sense phenomenologically, though not necessarily rationally, but I’ll try.  

I think by experimenting with the modality of cinema (the first few minutes of the film are a testament to its fragmentary and illusory qualities as a random montage of images, both still and moving, are run through some kind of projector that eventually breaks down), Bergman is revealing the pretence and machinery of meaning-making.  

Persona’s main theme is that of personal identity, one that is constantly shifting and elusive even if it is tightly guarded, and in his two characters, Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) and Alma (Bibi Andersson), patient and carer respectively, Bergman finds a perfect conduit to explore how meaning-making is conveyed—and distorted—through one’s silence and the other’s voice.

“If she won’t speak or move because she decides not to, which it must be if she isn’t ill, then it shows that she is mentally very strong. I might not be equal to it.”

Theatre actress Elisabet refuses to speak after a strange affliction consumes her in the midst of one of her performances.  Alma, her assigned nurse, tends to her and brings her to a remote island to recuperate. 

Perhaps the idea of recuperation might conjure up a journey toward bliss, however, Persona is anything but—the music is jarring and frightening, particularly when accompanied by editing tricks, whilst the striking images, shot with careful attention to light and shadow by the legendary Sven Nykvist, reveal faces that are imbued with deep mystery, whether superimposed with each other to create tension, or intertwining together in the ethereal.  

Ultimately, one might read these faces, very often seen in close-ups, as a kind of illusory reflection (imperfect ‘mirror’ images if you will…) of not just the metaphysical relationship between the two characters (or is it Elisabet/Alma and her subconscious?), but also our (in the me-and-my-own-subconscious sense) sacred connection with the cinema.  

If cinema as an artistic voice can be said to meet the silent, mature viewer or vice versa, isn’t it then so true that each becomes the other’s persona i.e. the self and the self-image? 

On one hand, the conditions we create for film-watching (in a darkened cinema—which now has a double meaning) grant our desire to return back to the Imaginary (Lacan’s term) when we were pure and whole. 

On the other hand, cinema because of its fragmentary nature (of shots and cuts), would also desire (our wholesome) us.  Bergman has given us a complex work that requires deep, reflective—and reflexive—thinking.

Grade: A-


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