PERSONA (1966)

  • Director: Ingmar Bergman
  • Writer: Ingmar Bergman
  • Starring: Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#18) 
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel, buy or rent with Amazon Video and Apple TV

Persona is one of the most famous “art movies” ever made, and has been one of the most discussed films among critics for 55 years now despite not having any kind of a traditional plot. It is considered by many to be the greatest work of one of cinema’s most acclaimed directors, Ingmar Bergman. One film professor wrote that Persona is to film critics as Mount Everest is to mountaineers, that is, the ultimate challenge in their field. Which is to say, it is definitely not a challenge my meager talents are not up for. Another critic wrote that, “Everything one says about Persona may be contradicted; the opposition will also be true.” I don’t know how true that is, but it does point to the essential fascination many people have for Persona: more than almost any other work of film art, it seems open to endless interpretations.

After opening with a bizarre but somehow logical 7-minute “prologue” of non-sequitur images, Persona focuses pretty much entirely on the relationship between two women. Liv Ullman (Bergman’s current girlfriend at the time) plays Elisabet, an actress who stops speaking in the middle of a play and doesn’t start again, with no explanation. Bibi Andersson (Bergman’s former girlfriend) plays Alma, a nurse who is assigned to take care of Elisabet in a rural cabin on a remote Swedish island (most of the movie was shot on the island of Fårö, where Bergman lived at the time). Over the course of the film, the two women’s personalities seem to merge. The first paragraph of Persona’s wikipedia entry claims the movie’s themes include duality, insanity, Jungian theory, “issues related to filmmaking,” vampirism, homosexuality, abortion, motherhood, and “other subjects.” Which, I mean, yes. I have also seen the movie referred to as “psychological horror.” In general atmospherics, perhaps, but if you’re a big horror movie fan, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this film.

From a content perspective, I would say the central question of the movie is why Elisabet stopped speaking, and whether there even is a reason. At one point, she reacts in horror to images of a monk in Vietnam setting himself on fire on her hospital room TV, at another she stares at a photo of Jews being led from the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust. Was she overwhelmed by the horrors of the world? Or does it have something to do with her son (played in brief shots by Jörgen Lindström), who we eventually learn she may have unsuccessfully tried to abort and doesn’t love (though we learn this in a speech given by Alma, so what does that mean). There is no big reveal. At the end of the movie, Alma coaxes Elisabet into saying the word “nothing,” then leaves the island (we suddenly see in this moment that Alma is being filmed by a full movie crew, led by Bergman).

The two most remembered scenes from the film are likely two long monologues given by Andersson, though Ullman’s silent reactions are at least as important. In the first, Alma tells Elisabet how nice it is to spend time with someone who just listens to her, then tells her in great detail about an impromptu orgy she had many years earlier with another woman and two boys while sunbathing on a beach. Roger Ebert later noted that the speech was so effective that people talked about the scene on the beach as if it was actually in the movie, instead of just described. This seems to have both been the most joyful moment of Alma’s life and the most shameful, given that she got pregnant and later had an abortion, without informing her husband.

The other speech is late in the film, about Elisabet’s experiences with her own pregnancy, though again, it’s entirely delivered by Alma. The entire monologue is in the movie twice. First, played entirely on Elisabet’s face, then all over again played entirely on Alma’s. Then Bergman transposes Ullman and Andersson’s respective faces over each other, somehow merging both of them into one being. Next thing we know, Alma is cutting her own arm and Elisabet is hungrily drinking her blood. Unless this is a dream. There are lots of questions of what is real and what is a dream in Persona.

Nearly everything about Persona was shocking in 1966, in terms of both content and form. Explicit discussions of sexual situations and frank treatment of abortion were both very new on screen, of course. There is even a very brief shot of an erect penis in that weird opening montage, which apparently only lasts for a sixth of a second and Bergman said was supposed to be “subliminal,” but I definitely saw as it went by. Perhaps less obviously from a modern perspective is Bergman doing a whole bunch of crazy things with form and technical work. He worked with his usual cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, to come up with a bunch of fairly subtle effects, like the haziness of a scene where Elisabet visits Alma in the middle of the night (also, again, is this a dream? The topic remains hotly debated). 

The themes and meaning of Persona have been written about intensely over the years, exacerbated by the fact that critics can’t even seem to agree on what actually happens in the movie. If you can’t even get that far, it’s hard to get to the meaning. Yet, crucially, it doesn’t feel like Bergman is losing control in some way, is being confusing when he doesn’t mean to be. He’s presenting these things to us and we are free to impose our own interpretations on them. Some people probably find that maddening, while for others it’s a big reason they starting being interested in movies in the first place. 

I am somewhat fascinated, for example, by Roger Ebert’s interpretations. He opens his essay on the film with the statement that it answers Shakespeare’s eternal question of “to be or not to be?” unequivocally with “No, don’t!” He’s referring to a scene in the movie where an angry Alma threatens to throw boiling water on Elisabet’s face, and Elisabet breaks her silence to protest. Even if human existence is meaningless, one possible interpretation of her silence, she still wants to exist, to live, to not experience pain and disfigurement. It may be relevant to note that Persona followed immediately on the heels of a series of Bergman films addressing the existence (or non-existence) of God, including Det Sjunde Inseglet.

Bergman himself thankfully kept mum as to his intended meaning (generally artists providing interpretations of their own work is a bad idea, in my opinion). All he really said publicly is that the initial idea for Persona came from a dream he had while in the hospital for pneumonia and other ailments. He had originally been working on a film to be called The Cannibals, also starring both Andersson and Ullman, which was about to enter production when Bergman’s severe illness caused the whole thing to be shelved. He apparently then occupied his time in the hospital by hand-writing the whole screenplay for Persona in two weeks in a notebook. He was an interesting dude.

So yes, Persona feels far more like a dream than a conventional movie, and thus even though it is certainly one of the essential masterworks of world cinema, I can hardly say I can recommend it to everybody. If my descriptions of Persona here do not sound like something you would enjoy watching, it probably is not, and I don’t say that with any kind of judgment. But if you are someone for whom one of the main joys of going to the movies is to turn to a companion afterward and say, “what did you think?” then you may find Persona to be a gold mine.

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