Review Of Persona
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/6/06
Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 black and white film, reminds me of Herman Hesse’s novella Siddhartha. Not in the subject matter, but in that both works of art perfectly marry their messages with their forms, and both say so much with so little a narrative spine. In that sense, both are great works of art that transcend any of the discomfit their often dubious artistic and social claims make. Persona has only four main actors, two of which dominate the film, and only one of which speaks. That would be a 25 year old nurse, sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), who is hired to take care of a famous stage actress who has had a nervous breakdown and refuses to speak. This is Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman). The other two actors who appear and speak are Mr. Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand), who makes a brief hallucinatory appearance late in the film, and the doctor of the asylum where Elisabet is housed and where Alma works (Margaretha Krook), who gives an early, damning assessment of the actress early on, that presages much of the manifest and pretentious nature of the film’s interior arguments:
‘Do you think I don’t understand you? You chase a hopeless dream. This is your torment. You want to be, not to appear to be. To be in every instant conscious of yourself and watchful. And at the same time you realize the abyss that separates what you are for yourself from what you are for the others, and this makes you dizzy, scared to be discovered, scared to be left naked, to be unmasked, to be put again into your limits. Because every word is a lie, every smile a grimace.’
Ostensibly, the film’s bulk takes place at the doctor’s summer home on an island, where Alma tries to care for Elisabet, and get her to speak. The two women connect as Alma talks and talks- of life, love, and one brief sexual orgy she had. She got pregnant, had an abortion, and some feel that the abortion was botched, leading her to desire motherhood when she cannot conceive after it. But, this is not evidenced in the film, for earlier Alma soliloquies that she is predestined to marry her fiancé and have two children. This would counter the claims that an abortion ruined her chance at motherhood. Elisabet seems something of an emotional vampire, and there seems to be a bit of an erotic, lesbian connection between the two women. There are scenes in both women’s bedrooms where the other comes and seemingly emotionally seduces the other. Then, Elisabet writes the doctor, telling her that Alma may be falling in love with her. Alma reads the letter, and rages inside, as an escalating game of emotional violence ensues, including Alma’s assuming the role of Elisabet when her husband comes- although this may be a dream sequence. By film’s end, Elisabet has indeed spoken one definitive word, ‘Nothing,’ yet there have been two other times she may have spoken in the film. Neither Alma nor the viewer can be certain, though, as one time is during an act of kindness and the other a moment of fear, when Elisabet utters ‘No, don’t do it,’ when Alma threatens to scald her with boiling water, after Elisabet has assaulted Alma violently.
In retaliation for Elisabet’s seductions of Alma, she allows Elisabet to step on a bit of broken glass, then devastates her with an account of why she has gone insane- told first by looking at Elisabet’s reactions, then repeated word for word as we study Alma’s sadistic joy in telling it. This monologue includes Elisabet’s giving birth to a boy she loathes. This, all after Bergman has the film literally disintegrate onscreen, which again references us to the outer trickery of the film, which started with Bergman’s progressive symbolism of the artificiality of filmmaking: images of light from a film projector, then the film running through spools, a series of images from earlier Bergmania- a spider, from the Spider Trilogy, seemingly silent comedies, a spike driven through a man’s hand, faces in a morgue, and ending with a shot of an ugly little boy (Jörgen Lindström from The Silence) who looks at the camera, pawing the air, which, in a reverse shot, we see may be a photo of his mother- but is it Elisabet or Alma? It may be both. Alma knows too much of Elisabet’s past to be sure they are not aspects of the same person. The film also ends with the recognition of the artifice of the whole exercise. Has it all been a dream? The ugly boy returns, as well the acknowledgement of the filmic artifice, then blackness.
This film proves that while deconstructionism is often a miserable failure in some arts- mainly writing, it can be put to brilliant usage in film. Is Persona a pretentious film? Of course, one of the most pretentious ever filmed. But it’s also a great film that uses the medium’s tools like few others. Pretension and greatness are not necessarily mutually exclusive, although they usually are. This film is an exception. Here, Bergman self-consciously uses filmic tools to acknowledge the film’s exterior ‘reality’, and this is why the film provokes such extreme reactions. Compared to, say, Terrence Malick, who uses film far more subtly to create a whole new mode of internal filmic expression, by contrasting image with sound and word, this film is a bit heavyhanded and preachy. It has not aged well- neither in its psychobabbling nor in its many supposedly deep queries on the nature of reality, the nature of self, the nature of art. It states the annoyingly obvious, sometimes, such as a person’s being capable of duality.
In a famous shot, there is a juxtaposition of Alma’s and Elisabet’s faces- Alma’s right side, and Elisabet’s left side, to form one image. It is not as startling as it must have been to see forty years ago, and this is for several reasons. First, Bergman telegraphs this with many shots of both women gazing directly into the camera. We have seen their faces, and subliminally juxtaposed them before this shot comes late in the film, but the actual juxtaposition actually undercuts much of the film’s claim- that the two women look alike. The mixed shot of the two of them results in a quite ugly woman, because neither actress does look much alike. They have very asymmetrical features, and one must realize that this film was made decades before science proved beauty was a mathematical concept involving symmetry, and not, as the cliché goes, in the eye of the beholder. While both Ullman and Andersson were beautiful women, in their youth, their composite is an utter grotesque, and surely Bergman saw this, and tried to play against the interior claim by Alma that the two women looked alike.
The political aspects of the film also are a bit strained. Early on, Elisabet seems horrified watching tv images of Vietnamese monks burning themselves to death with gasoline, and later she is fascinated by a famous Warsaw Ghetto photo from World War Two, which shows a young Jewish boy being harassed by Nazi troopers. That both are horrid symbols is manifest, but clearly they have no real referent to Elisabet’s condition, and this bit of forced pedantry detracts from the already convoluted plot and ‘messages’ of the film- interior and exterior. That these two things- tv and photography- are visual things representing ‘reality’, within the film, also distracts from the film. It’s as if, in wanting to show off his technical virtuosity, Bergman committed the cardinal sin of gilding the lily. Yes, the film is still great, but solecisms as this lend credence to the idea that Bergman was tossing things at flypaper and hoping whatever stuck would be critically masturbated over, and imbued relentlessly, for many things that seem symbolic, are merely happenstance. He was correct in his knowing to what lengths others would go to make something of this film.
The title, also, given that Elisabet is an actress, has been endlessly argued over, even though it’s perhaps the most manifest part of the film. In his defense, I think Bergman realized that he could not make too long a film out of this material, lest be charged with filmic narcissism, so wisely it only clocks in at about an hour and twenty minutes, for there are loads of people willing to overpraise this film for Bergman, without relying on himself to do so. That said, Bergman does give a little bit of narration, to most manifestly inject himself into the proceedings, as he does in shots where Elisabet is his surrogate, physically guiding Alma in her scenes with Mr. Vogler.
Bergman takes the usual smug swipes at artists- that they are selfish, lazy, narcissistic, etc., but these are rather hollow moments, as true as they may often be. So are those moments involving pain, ecstasy, truth, ego and superego, and their critique. The real core of the film comes from the most artificial of the artifices. That Bergman acknowledges that art is all artifice (they come from the same Latin root, as I’ve long championed) it can never be reality nor truth, therefore, what the film really declaims is that all human pretensions to the nobility of art and truth and suffering are just that, pretensions. That so few people and critics have not realized that Bergman is not attacking the ‘deep’ questions of existence, in this film, but affirming the immediacy of the shallow, is part of the film’s brilliance. And this is true, whether or not Bergman claims it so, because the intent of the artist is meaningless. Once the art is completed, he or she has no more claim over it than any other interested percipient of it.
That all said, the film is a technical tour de force due to the stellar camera work of cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The composition and lighting of every scene is breathtaking, heightened by the black and white (mixed with multiple grays), which is the true coin of the dream state, which this film fully exploits. Also, other than Alma’s speaking, much of the rest of the film works as a de facto silent film, recalling to me the great Carl Theodor Dreyer film Vampyr, or Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, which came out a year earlier. Both films are superior to Persona, for both have better tales, and are less self-conscious. Repulsion was set in a real world setting, and took off from there, while Persona is all artifice, with experimentation at its core. But that fact does not deny Persona its own form of greatness. There are numerous scenes which blatantly and slyly reference vampires, and Persona seems to have lifted much of its imagery and symbolism from Polanski’s film, and Bergman’s own earlier The Silence. Persona is indeed a horror film, in the sense that all horror is based internally, not in monsters manifested externally.
Many critics refer to this film as deconstructive or Postmodern, but they are again missing the point. Those terms are merely inward terms, gawking at the art. That is only the veneer of this film, the toolkit used, as it gazes outward at the viewer. The film, however, is a small film, in every sense of the term, which holds up a mirror to the viewer, not the art it is. In that sense, it is anti-deconstructive, for the art is what it is, and the viewer is the subject matter under examination. The acting by Andersson and Ullman is consummately fine, especially with Ullman’s realistic and hyper-realistic acting without words. Only four decades into the talky era, she has utterly shed all of the artifices silent films’ acting required, and the acting and visual virtuosity of the film are more than enough to cancel out the hollow psychology, and dated artsy clichés.
Persona is self-conscious, narcissistic, and not too psychologically deep, for there is no real reason offered for Alma’s identification with Elisabet, nor her breakdown, but it is the ultimate style over substance film, and as such attains its true greatness, despite the visual sleight of hand that leads many to be sucked into its hollow posturing as some source of great depth. But, more so, it’s a grandly entertaining film, more than it is a deep one, giving the psychologically naïve much to talk about as Bergman deceives the viewer into deep thought over the shallow. As such, it was most deserving of its Oscar for Best Foreign Film in the year of its release, but I urge every viewer to ignore any reviews of the film beforehand, even this one, for a naked approach to it is the only way to fully plumb its essence. Good luck.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website.]
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