Screenplay : Ingmar Bergman
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1966
Stars : Bibi Andersson (Nurse Alma), Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman), Gunnar Bjoernstrand (Mr. Vogler), Margaretha Krook (The Doctor), Joergen Lindstroem (The Boy)
Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" is one of the rare films that is acutely aware of itself as a film. It opens with the lighting of a film projector lamp, the film itself running through the spools, then a series of disjointed, fragmented images, including a spider, a short animated sequence, and a spike being driven through a man's hand. The film then cuts to a surrealistic shot of a boy, sitting in a morgue, trying to touch the unfocused image of a woman's face on a translucent screen.
All of this at first seems to be a series of pointless images splashed for purely aesthetic effect. However, as I see it, what Bergman accomplishes is twofold. First, he makes the point that this is a film -- an artist's interpretation of reality, not reality itself. Secondly, he primes the audience with images because intense visuals are at the constant forefront of "Persona." Close-ups of the human face are of the utmost importance because we must read a great deal of the action in the eyes of the two principle characters. The film contains dialogue, but most of it is not nearly as important as the facial expressions.
The story itself concerns two women: Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann), a seemingly healthy actress who suddenly decided to stop talking, and Alma (Bibi Andersson), the high-spirited nurse who cares for her. They spend the summer together at a house on a small island, where Alma is determined to help the actress. In an effort to pull Elisabeth out of her shell, Alma talks to her constantly, eventually confiding her utmost secrets to the apparently sympathetic actress. The thrust of the story is psychological, and the film shows the progression of battle between the two women's personas, and how they eventually merge into one, shown symbolically by combining their faces in one over-lapping shot.
Although "Persona" has many striking images and emotionally shattering sequences, one stands out in particular. After drinking too much, Alma confides in Elisabeth how she once cheated on her fiancee. While sunbathing naked on a beach, she and a friend had engaged in nameless sexual abandon by seducing two boys who were watching them. Bergman films the entire sequence in a sustained progression, and it is an intensely erotic scene in the truest sense. Andersson maintains a sense of real despair over past sins during the entire sequence, and it is testament to the eroticism of words and emotions over bare flesh.
Like many of Bergman's films, "Persona" is a confounding mix of dream and reality. Because the whole film is shot in a lucid, dreamlike state, it is sometimes difficult to tell what is real and what is not. This is compounded by Bergman's insistence on making sure we never forget this is a work of art instead of reality. In one instance, he shows the exact same scene twice in a row, from different perspectives. Not only does this give us two versions of the same sequence, but it also gives the feel of a director making two cuts of the same scene, unsure of which to use.
Bergman and his longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist shot "Persona" in stark black and white, making the imagery sharp and pounding. Bergman is intimately fascinated with the female face, and there are a number of close-ups that show the uncanny and unsettling similarities between the two women. Bergman constantly reminds us how much they are alike both physically and psychologically, and one of the last shots, which recalls a hallucination where Elisabeth comes into Alma's bedroom at night, suggests they will never be able to forget each other.
Bergman's films are never simple, and "Persona" is one of his most complex. It is a bewildering, sometimes frustrating experience, making it a film that must be viewed several times. There are no simple answers here, and Bergman doesn't make anything easy with his frayed narrative and constant injection of fantasy into reality. Still, it is a fascinating film and the mark of a true artist and genius.
©1997 James Kendrick