Reviews & Commentary

Persona (1966)

Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman
Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullman
Sven Nykvist

A projector lamp. Film running through spools. A penis. A nail driven through a hand. A spider. Footage from a silent film. Bodies in the morgue. A boy watches Bibi Anderson’s and Liv Ullman’s faces on a screen. No, that isn’t an excerpt from a Coleman Francis film’s narration, but a list of some of the images which open Ingmar Bergman’s Persona.

Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to care for Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman), an actress who suddenly fell silent while performing in Electra. According to her doctor (Margareta Krook) there is nothing physically or mentally wrong with Elisabet, she has just stopped speaking and acting (trying to realise, in the doctor’s words, “The hopeless dream of being. Not doing, but being — in every moment”). Alma and Elisabet move out to stay at the doctor’s cottage on a small island, where Elisabet’s condition improves somewhat, even if she still won’t speak. Instead Alma, who says she’s been told she’s a good listener, speaks, telling Elisabet intimate stories about herself — an affair with a married man, sex with a boy on a beach. And on the island the two women start to move closer to each other, their personalities bleeding into one another. By the end of the film, neither they nor the audience is sure what is real and what is fiction.

“You can be immobile,” says the doctor in an early scene, “you can fall silent. Then at least you aren’t lying. You can close yourself in, shut yourself off. Then you don’t have to play roles, show any faces, or make false gestures. You think… But you see, reality is stubborn. Your hiding place isn’t watertight; Life seeps in. You’re forced to react. No one asks if it’s real or unreal, if you’re true or false. It’s only in the theatre the question matters. Hardly even there.” Elisabet has grown tired of acting, both in life and on the stage. In another scene, she watches a news broadcast about the war in Vietnam. She is horrified, and her realisation is that theatre can never express the horror, that authenticity is impossible. So, she tries to shut down, hoping that doing nothing will prevent her from being false.

Alma, on the other hand, says she wants to believe in something, to mean something to someone. But on the island, Elisabet’s personality starts bleeding into her. She comments on how alike they look, and says, “I could turn myself into you, on the inside, if I tried hard enough.” And reality itself comes undone. One night, we see Elisabet enter Alma’s room. The next day, Elisabet denies she was there. Was Elisabet lying or was Alma dreaming? The film gives us no clue. I would say the answer is somewhere in between. As the opening sequence seems to suggest, Bergman is saying, just as Elisabet is, that art is inherently artificial: fiction is inherently unable to fully represent reality. This becomes clear when Elisabet steps on a piece of glass, cutting her foot. Elisabet cries out, the pain cutting through her silence, exposing it as another role, just as the doctor said. Then, the film itself begins to disintegrate and catches fire.

This echoes a story Alma told earlier about an affair she had with a married man; she said the relationship felt unreal — “at least I was never quite real to him” — but her pain was real. There are some things, the film seems to be saying, that cannot be communicated. There’s an interesting scene early in the film where Alma and Elisabet listen to the radio. At first they listen to a radio-play which makes Elisabet laugh — words are pathetic, incapable of expressing anything authentic. As Alma leaves the room, she switches the radio to a channel playing music. Elisabet lies back in the bed and sighs contentedly. Bergman seems to agree with Schopenhauer, who said that music is the only true art; where other arts are representational, imperfectly copying reality, music embodies the will itself.

But there is grace also in representational art: Persona is a beautifully shot film, and it’s a pleasure to watch. It’s a film I often find myself coming back to, just to see the images. Frequent Bellman collaborator Sven Nykvist’s cinematography makes wonderful use of location and of contrasts between light and shadow, often letting scenes play out on the actresses’ half-shadowed faces. Both Ullman and Andersson do superb jobs, alternating between subtle and dramatic at the drop of a hat. Quite simply, it’s a wonderful film.

Written by Kalle on Tuesday July 14, 2009
Permalink - Category: Film - Tags: 1960s, ingmar-bergman, liv-ullman, bibi-andersson, sven-nyvkist, featured

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