Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson embrace in Ingmar Bergman's "Persona." Credit: Criterion Collection
'Persona' The Criterion Collection $39.95
The public reputation of morbid legend Ingmar Bergman is basically secure; even “Muppets Most Wanted” featured a gag about “The Seventh Seal,” with Death playing chess with the Swedish Chef. But among die-hard cinephiles it’s always been wobbly. In the 1960s it was downright volatile. Bergman had his celebrity fans (Susan Sontag, Woody Allen), but the loyal opposition included critic Andrew Sarris, who once pointed out that an anti-Bergman club was launched by no less than Maya Deren, the avant-garde titan whose work clearly influenced Bergman’s more experimental passages. (Ouch.) The director had helped birth the European art film in the 1950s, but at this point he was old news, eclipsed by the French New Wave. “Persona,” from 1966, was in effect return fire — a film both innovative and mysterious, a puzzle even more impossible to solve than “Last Year at Marienbad.”
Since then "Persona" has been largely treated as a head-scratcher, in which two women — an actress (Liv Ullmann) who’s gone willingly mute and a nurse (Bibi Andersson) tending to her — switch identities. For starters, this isn’t even accurate. What occurs between the two women is oblique, and lacks clear resolution. Only Andersson’s Alma appears to change, and the only thing she swipes from Ullmann’s Elisabet is her husband, for a dreamlike tryst. If it is a puzzle, it’s missing a few key pieces.
That said, it’s a lot more direct, even follow-able than its rep suggests. It’s even one of his better dramas. There’s an audacious six-minute overture that shows the fiery birth of a film projector, which rattles off cryptic images (including a subliminal insert of an erect penis) before settling on a boy caressing first the camera, lens then a projected image. It settles again, this time into a depiction of the relationship between Alma and Elisabet, who retreat for R&R to the island of Faro — a favorite spot for Bergman in film and life. Alma is starstruck, yet finds herself opening up to her catatonic charge, even regaling her — in the film’s most famous scene — about an orgy she once had on a beach, and later about her abortion.
But Elisabet is no mere sounding board. She’s been quietly studying, even lightly judging her. Alma discovers this when she whimsically peeps at a letter she’s written. Elisabet’s feelings about Alma aren’t negative, just slightly condescending. Yet Alma's discovery that she’s been, in effect, watched causes a rift so violent that the film itself tears and burns up. The rest details Alma’s combustion, both via drama — she rails against Elisabet verbally and physically — and with film tricks, including a scene shot twice from two different perspectives and a split-screen mash-up that joins their faces into one.
And yet however abstract “Persona” becomes, there’s still an underlying, mostly coherent drama running through it. Bergman even reworked it for the stage. It captures the entire life of a relationship, albeit a platonic one (although there are intimations of sexuality, including a dreamy late-night embrace that fades out before anything key happens). They start off peaceful and happy, and by the end they can barely look at each other.
But “Persona,” as a film, is much more open than that. It can be read straight, even considering the mysterious way it ends. And it can also be read as self-critique, as a commentary on film, as a film about film. It’s both a mindf—, which inspired the likes of “Mulholland Dr.”, and Bergman’s abstract version of “8 ½,” with him reflecting on his career thus far and musing on what he's learned cinema can do. (One of the original titles was “Opus 27,” though it was in fact his 34th feature.) If anything, it’s about cinema’s limitations as a device that reflects and captures life. The images are usually stark and plain — a major contrast to his previous film, the Eastman Color comedy bomb "All These Women." Bergman shoots against drab backgrounds, and the island itself is arid. Faces and bodies fill the frames, except for the few times the film goes full-tilt boogie expressionistic.
Bergman wanted "Persona" to be read as poetry, but many of its specific images — including most of the opening — are so personal as to be impenetrable. You could read interviews to see why there’s a faux-slapstick insert, but that might be to miss the point. “Persona” is both whatever you want it to be and something specific, something that could only have been made by Ingmar Bergman.
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