Starring Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jörgen Lindström
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
I haven’t been brave enough to watch an Ingmar Bergman film since I was a teenager. At that time I watched The Seventh Seal and I didn’t know what the hell to make of it. I pushed on and watched it again… same result. So I decided that Bergman was a filmmaker that just wasn’t for me. As the years have moved on, this decision has gnawed at me. I surmised that it wasn’t necessarily Bergman’s fault that caused The Seventh Seal to be incomprehensible, but instead it was my age and general naivety. I decided that my early 30s was a fair time to reassess this decision, so that’s how Persona made its way to this year’s Blind Spot list.
Persona is about Elizabet (Liv Ullmann), an actress that suddenly stops talking. She is admitted to a hospital where they determine that she is completely healthy and without issue, but because she continues to refuse to speak she is assigned a personal nurse to attend to her needs. For reasons I forget, the doctor sends the pair to her seaside summer home in hopes that the fresh air and being out of the city will help with Elizabet’s recovery. But in actuality, Persona isn’t really about any of this specifically.
I can’t claim that I know what it is all about, but I do know that the film plays with the idea of reality throughout. The film opens with a series of shots of film projectors and other seemingly unrelated images, ending with a boy in a room with corpses, slowly waving his hand in front of a projection of a woman’s face. Without human contact he seems to be reaching towards the projection for the human connection he desires. His reality is cold and distant, but this “reality” is more surreal symbolism than anything else.
Elizabet is an actress, a profession that trades in fabricated reality. She stops talking after an incident where she is overcome with the urge to laugh on-stage. It’s like the walls in her mind that allowed her to detach from herself to play a role have eroded away. Now all she can see is how ridiculous her job as an actor really is. But in going silent, she also retreats from the other “roles” in her life, namely that of wife and mother. And it is these roles where the deep psychological meat of the film resides.
The other side of the film is Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse. While at the seaside home, Alma becomes very comfortable with Elizabet’s silence, seeming to interpret it as acceptance and an invitation to share her life story. In a way Elizabet is the silver screen to Alma’s projector, absorbing whatever she projects without reaction. This creates a reality in Alma’s head about the situation, and these varied threads of reality all come together when Alma realizes that things are not necessarily what she has built them up to be.
The truth of what we see in Persona is always in question. As an audience we understand how the cinema works, and with the help of the filmmakers we build the film’s fabricated reality in our heads while experiencing it (like Alma does in her situation). But in Persona, Bergman actively deconstructs the characters’ sense of reality as well as the audiences’. Instead of taking us on a journey, he’s actively working against us, subverting the very idea of film, so that the journey is entirely one of the mind. If that’s not great filmmaking, I don’t know what is.
So yeah, I think I’m finally old enough to tackle Bergman. 🙂
Persona is part of my 2014 Blind Spot Series where I see one movie a month that I feel I should’ve seen a long time ago. It’s all the brainchild of Ryan McNeil over at The Matinee, one of the web’s premiere film blogs. This month Ryan tackled Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a film I have yet to see myself. Head over there and check out his post, as well as the links to all the other people taking part in the series! And feel free to participate on your own blog as well!
Persona was on my Blind Spot list as well, but was my first Bergman feature. I’m not 100% positive that I know what happened either, but I did enjoy watching it. That has to count, right? Great review!
It’s been so long since my last that this kinda felt like my first too! If you enjoyed it that’s all that matters. I found it to be a fascinating experience once I dug into it, but at the same time I don’t know if I actually liked it. I’m not excited to re-watch it, anyway!
May try and hunt this down. Have avoided it intentionally after a lecturer in my Uni film class had the biggest stiffy ever for this – and crowbarred a clip into almost every lesson. Must have seen the shot where the two faces become indistinguishable about 6 times!!!
Bergman in general is a massively overlooked director, probably one that qualifies as everybody’s blind-spot!
Hahahahahaha! That’ll definitely turn anyone off to a movie! Hopefully you get something out of this if you watch it. It’s very good, but also kind of hard to get through. It’s definitely a movie to be in the mood for.
Your story reminds me of my teacher for History of Film who was obsessed with Lars von Trier. He somehow justified showing us his film The Idiots. This was in 2000, so the movie was only a couple years old at the time. We also watched American Beauty, which had just won Best Picture a few months before. A History of Film professor that admitted to hating old movies… WTF. Sorry, you caused me to flashback there!