The Compleat Ingmar #32: Persona (1966)

And here we are: perhaps the film by Ingmar Bergman that is most famous, apart from The Seventh Seal, and probably the one most written about in film studies. Persona may not be as immediately iconic as the film that brought us a medieval knight playing chess with Death, but it is undoubtedly one of the films most responsible for the director’s reputation – as a master of his craft, but also as a storyteller who did tremendous work especially with his female protagonists (sorry, Max von Sydow, but it’s true) and whose films explore harrowing psychological and metaphysical territory.

When I first saw Persona, it was perhaps my second or third Bergman film. I’d first seen The Seventh Seal, obviously, and I’d feel more comfortable recommending that one, or possibly Smiles of a Summer Night, to anyone watching their first film by the director. Certainly, its psychodrama pitting the stage actress Elisabet (Liv Ullmann, in her first performance directed by Bergman) and her nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) against one another is abrasive and psychologically violent, but more than that, Persona is a film that unapologetically leans into the avant-garde, especially in comparison with the ones Bergman had made previously. He had made use of surrealist imagery before, but it was generally framed as dreams (as in Wild Strawberries) or as the smoke and mirrors of performance of one kind or another (as in The Magician). In Persona, the film begins with images that would not be out of place in a video installation in a contemporary art museum. We have to interpret them, but as the film has barely even started, we have little to go on. Even in hindsight, once we’ve seen the film, they are still not easily placed: yes, we can assume that the boy we see (Jörgen Lindström) is Elisabet’s unloved son, but it is not clear what his appearance signifies, and other images – of the inside of a film projector, of dead (?) bodies in a morgue (?), and snippets from black and white slapstick films – don’t make things clearer. They do establish a tone and an atmosphere, which the story that follows builds on, but they unsettle the viewer from the first.

That unsettling quality Persona has may be what kept me from getting into it when I first watched it. I’d seen surrealist films (well, I’d mainly seen a couple of David Lynch films when I first watched Persona), but there was something about this that got under my skin more. I don’t think I particularly liked the film at the time, but the next day I went and ordered the Criterion DVD. A few weeks later, two parcels arrived: it seemed that I’d ordered Persona twice, and there couldn’t have been a more fitting film by Bergman for this, seeing how this one plays with duality and doublings throughout.

Returning to Persona after all these years and watching it in the context of Bergman’s filmography (we’re more than three quarters through the films included in Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema), I’m finding it easier to relax into the style and the themes. Even beyond how accomplished a work it is, Persona does stand out for a number of reasons – it is more experimental, and its almost exclusive focus on female characters (men only appear in very few scenes and are entirely ancillary, at least as characters) changes the character dynamics in fascinating ways – but I am able now to relate it to some of the director’s other films. In that respect, I found that I could enjoy Persona for its craft and artistry, even when it isn’t immediately an enjoyable experience.

Nonetheless, even now, on a rewatch, there are scenes that are striking and unsettling beyond Bergman’s other films, and the one that still shakes me, even though I know what the director’s got hidden away in his box of cinematic tricks, is one roughly halfway into the film. Alma has found out that Elisabet, who she’d started to see as a friend, has been writing letters revealing extremely intimate stories Alma told her – and what may be worse, Elisabet’s words are belittling, objectifying Alma, turning her into an object of study for future roles Elisabet might play. As Alma’s admiration (and perhaps something more?) for Elisabet curdles into something more toxic, we watch her face – and then the film breaks. A tear appears in the image, we hear the clacking sound of the projector, and then the celluloid burns up… but just before it does, Alma’s eyes shift – and does she look at us for just a frame or two? On rewatching the footage it isn’t clear to me whether that is indeed the case, but the scene is jarring in either case. The film breaks the fourth wall elsewhere, in a less ambiguous fashion, but it is this moment, its unexpectedness and the violence with which it breaks the unwritten contract between the filmmaker and the audience, that instils in me the feeling that I cannot trust Persona. It’s like a revelation that the film, through that tear in the image, is looking back at me and studying me.

I’ll definitely revisit Persona at some stage, perhaps once we’ve finished the collection. There’s definitely a lot more to get from this one. But perhaps I should put enough distance between myself and the film, so that when I next watch it, that moment again catches me unawares.

Coming up next: we’re returning to the very early films by Bergman, with Thirst (1949) and Port of Call 1948). It’ll be strange to go back to those earlier, more conventional, more derivative works, especially after watching the film by Ingmar Bergman that may just show him at his most audacious and most self-assured.

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