#238 Persona

(1966, Ingmar Bergman)

“You should go on with this part until it is played out, until it loses interest for you”

Oh, Ingmar Bergman. You crazy Swede, with your vague films about things with incomprehensible images and people looking moody. What can I possibly say about your films without sounding like a philistine who doesn’t get TRUE ART? Well, guess we’ll find out as I take a look at Persona, which sadly doesn’t feature any disco ninja frogs or tomboyish schoolgirls obsessed with steak.

Persona primarily features two cast members, and barely anybody else. Alma (Bibi Andersson) is a mental health nurse who is instructed to watch over Elisabet Volger (Liv Ullman), an actress who one day just stopped talking. During a stay at a holiday cottage to allow Elisabet to recover, Alma struggles to cope and talks constantly to counter Elisabet’s silence. During the course of the film, their roles often end up reversed, with Alma becoming the distraught mental patient seeking answers from another.

Persona is definitely a challenging movie. It’s challenging to watch, and it’s challenging to write about. When the movie starts, it makes itself deliberately unclear about its intentions. Shots of projectors, of erect penises, of random silent movies, and finally a boy on a mortuary slab all obscure what the film is going to be about. When this section of the movie finished and things moved into the actual story, I found myself just sitting there thinking “what the hell did I just watch?”

Not that it gets any less incomprehensible as the story itself kicks off. Far from being a straightforward story about a nurse and her patient, this is a movie where a lot of things are said and not a lot happens, and when something does happen, it isn’t clear what it is or why it’s happening. It’s a movie that tries desperately to be meaningful and artistic, but veers a little too far into the downright weird territory.

Some of it works very well. Alma gradually talking more and more to the point where she reveals some very intimate secrets about herself is a great statement on our societal fear of silence, of the need to constantly talk in order to appear relevant and interesting, and our inability of knowing how to deal with someone who doesn’t speak at all in a typical situation. I was also very interested to see how this affected their dynamic, with Elisabet ultimately appearing stronger and more mentally sound than Alma, completely switching the carer-patient dynamic around.

But beyond that, there were things that fell flat with me. The idea that the two women were somehow merging seemed incredibly awkward, since we never really learned much about either of them, so it was hard to see much merging. The reflection of their fears of childbirth worked, but beyond that it seemed like it wasn’t doing a great job of bringing that central idea together.

I also had an issue with the presentation of the movie, which was far too clinical for my liking. Bergman had actively chosen to keep sets minimal and keep everything looking fairly flat. The problem with this is that it made the entirely movie look like it was set in some kind of void, completely separate from reality, and this made it hard to identify with the characters. In addition, the reliance on close-ups above all else meant that it was often hard to tell where these characters were in relation to one another.

There were some scenes I simply didn’t get. I already mentioned the opening montage of bizarre images, but there were also scenes where Elisabet wanders into Alma’s room and then they both stand up and face the camera, moving their faces close together. Another scene where Elisabet’s husband seemingly turns up out of nowhere and confuses Alma for his wife also seemed a little bit odd and possibly never actually happened…???

Bergman definitely made something oddly fascinating here, but sometimes the level of obscurity he was trying to maintain could get a little grating, to the point where it seemed like he was desperately trying to make something difficult to figure out for the sake of it.

Persona is potentially interesting with some good ideas, but it’s not exactly a film I’d want to watch again.

Starring Bibi Andersson & Liv Ullman
Written and produced by Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography by Sven Nykvist

Favourite Scene: Alma desperately talking to fill space was definitely interesting to watch.
Scene That Bugged Me: The opening scene, the scene with Mr Volger, the scene that repeats itself because…??? Take your pick.

Watch it if: You like incomprehensible Bergman movies
Avoid it if: You’re expecting some Japanese high school kids to get sucked into a TV

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Posted on November 26, 2013, in 1960s, Drama, Sweden and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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