I consider Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) to be a masterpiece. It is one of my favorite films (though not even my favorite Bergman film — just to show how highly I think of Bergman’s work), and I purposefully sped up my Bergman posts here so I could review Persona close to its release on Blu-ray. That was over two months ago, now. Why the delay? It’s hard to say. I’ve watched the film a few times in the last bit, and each time, while watching, I am overloaded with things to write about. Then I sit down, start to write, and it all fizzles away. My response, even if I think it is articulated in my head, simply does not transfer to words. There’s the delay. And yet . . . now I feel that that admission is saying something about the film, which looks absolutely stunning with Criterion’s new restoration. I have loads of thoughts — or something close to thought — as I watch, but then it all falls apart when I write. Yet, in part, the film is about confusion, about insecurity. It’s about hanging on to the brink of understanding, and then losing one’s grip. This film is resistant to words, and, in some ways, resistant to comprehension.
In its famous prologue, Bergman is provoking us to respond to images that seemingly (and, perhaps, literally) have little to do with the story that follows: a film projector lights up, film speeds across the screen, then we get glimpses of a tarantula, a crucifixion, a penis, a few frames from a silent film reel, a slaughter. Then we are in what appears to be a morgue, getting a close-up of a dead person’s sunken lips.
We then see a young boy lying still on a gurney. But, wait, even among these dead, he is not dead. He wants to read. Then, interrupted, he looks to us in the audience, interested but perhaps a bit wary. When we get the shot from another angle, we see that he is indeed looking at a screen, and on that screen is a woman’s face, a face that transforms into another woman’s face, and back again. The boy reaches out.
It’s an image that hearkens back to Bergman’s 1963 film, The Silence, when the same actor put his hand on a train window as he passes a tank, all that violence just on the other side of the screen.
And even though Persona doesn’t have much in the way of physical violence, it is laden with emotional violence, centering on the two women on the screen, the two that young boy (how is he related to them?) is drawn to.
The film’s central narrative focuses on the two women. Elisabet Volger (played by Liv Ullmann, in her first role for Bergman) is a stage actress who seems to have deliberately become mute. One night during a performance of Electra, she realizes she cannot talk. Doctors can find nothing wrong with her and determine it must be mental. Alma (Bibi Andersson) is the young nurse called upon to offer companionship and, in some way, nurse Elisabet back to health. Together they go to a beautiful cottage by the sea.
Elisabet, in some way, for some reason, has forsaken language, creating a vacuum that Alma is compelled to fill. At first, as we’d expect, Alma talks of innocuous things — books, her fiancé — but soon, while Elisabet sits listening, Alma talks about her guilt. She’s cheated on her fiancé, and in a way that is particularly sordid, resulting in an abortion. She has spoken so much she’s exhausted herself.
The film becomes something else at around this time. For one thing, it seems she’s haunted by Elisabet — and maybe she is:
For another, Elisabet, other than not speaking, seems healthy and calm. But Alma — it’s Alma who starts to destabilize. Importantly (at least for my own walk through the film), in Latin Alma meant “nourishing” or “fostering” — as in alma mater, the “nourishing mother” — and today in Spanish and Portuguese it means “soul,” leading to a current interpretation of “feeds the soul.”
We can easily say that the name Alma works for a nurse. However, just how does the nourishing come? Here, it feels as though Elisabet is nourished through consumption of Alma — of her soul.
The film remains elusive and lends itself to dozens of interpretations, the most famous of which is probably that Elisabet and Alma are one and the same person. This idea is supported in a variety of ways: there’s that strange moment in the prologue when the child looks at an image that shifts between the two women (incidentally, there are two other children mentioned in the film: the one Alma aborted and the one Elisabet seems to have forsaken). This isn’t the only shot that supports the idea: later, the Bergman literally puts the two women’s faces together in one shot. Alma notes that both women look alike. And when Elisabet’s blind husband (the always great Gunnar Björnstrand) comes to visit, he embraces Alma instead of Elisabet, and Alma and Elisabet allow — maybe even embrace — the error.
For me, though, that line of interpretation doesn’t get very far unless it doubles back to the original story of two women coming together, with a clash of identity, on a lonely island. It is, after all, a very simple story about two people we can relate to, and the poetic images make literal sense when applied to the two individuals’ emotional selves. This is an incredibly violent film! One can walk away from this film thinking it’s amazing any of us can maneuver through this life, with all of the ways it strikes us down, and its relationships, with all they take out of us.
There is a lot more going on than I have accounted for, a lot that feeds the mystery of Persona.
And it’s uncomfortable to say the least. But Bergman doesn’t stop with the story. He brings us, the audience, in as well. He makes us — and our hungry appetite — part of the show. First, as I mentioned above, Persona begins with an image of a film projector lighting up, followed by a host of images that, in retrospect, definitely connect to these violent souls of ours. Then, in what could be considered a throwaway shot, we come under focus:
And our two stars, united after all they’ve been through together, look at us:
Remarkable! And, again, despite all that I wrote above, I still feel the compelling mystery that will always remain within the frames of this tremendous work of art.
To wrap up this post, I wanted to touch upon the Criterion Collection edition. It’s worth picking up. First, the transfer is a new 2K restoration, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Part of the beauty of this picture is cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s light. You can feel the air, at times crisp and clear and at times hazy. Oh, and besides that, with this film Nykvist is credited with revolutionizing the close-up.
Along with the new restoration (did I mention it’s beautiful?), are a host of supplements that I found both helpful and delightful in their own right.
On the disc there’s a visual essay on the film’s prologue by Peter Cowie; he basically takes us through it bit by bit, examining each image and referring to the story that comes after. It’s tremendously insightful, and, rather than make the film less mysterious, its elucidations serve to show more mystery.
There is also a nice selection of on-set footage, over which is played an audio commentary by Bergman scholar Birgitta Steene. She helps us see how the picture came together, and gives some of the backstory. There are also several interviews, including archival interviews with Bergman, Ullman, and Anderson, as well as new interviews with Ullman and filmmaker Paul Schrader. Also, accompanying the discs is a booklet with an essay by film scholar Thomas Eisaesser, an excerpt from Bergman on Bergman, and an excerpt from a 1977 interview with Andersson.
So, a loaded set already. Sweetening the deal, to the point it threatens to spoil us, is the 2012 documentary, Liv & Ingmar, by Dheeraj Akolkar, in which Ullmann tenderly tells the story of her “painfully connected” life with Bergman, which began with Persona.
So much of this stuff is alone worth the price of admission. Its a wealth of material, accompanying a singular film. I really cannot recommend this highly enough.