Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is probably the great Swedish filmmaker’s most perplexing and thought-provoking work; it’s certainly his most surreal. Unusual imagery and curious narrative developments aren’t necessarily foreign to the rest of his filmography, but they have never been as frequent as they are here, nor have they been as overtly inexplicable. (Even if their meanings remain unclear, at least the dream sequences in Wild Strawberries can be clearly identified as dreams; there is no such easy rationalization here.) With so much happening in this 1966 feature, so many levels of story and visual complexity, it’s little wonder that Persona has yielded a great deal of discussion and analysis. And subsequently, it’s little wonder that the newly released Blu-ray/DVD from the Criterion Collection is accompanied by an excellent gathering of supplemental material, enhancing an already fascinating film, which, incidentally, looks superb in this new digital restoration. A booklet featuring an essay by Thomas Elsaesser, an excerpt from the book “Bergman on Bergman,” and a portion of an interview with Bibi Andersson join four new and archival interviews and nearly 20 minutes of on-set footage. There is also the documentary Liv & Ingmar, directed by Dheeraj Akolkar. Not pertaining just to Persona, this affecting and at times troubling film does a good deal to shed new light on the tenuous relationship between Bergman and Liv Ullmann (it’s told entirely from her point of view), and it makes the viewing of their subsequent films together all the more revealing.
Preeminent Bergman scholar Peter Cowie, who has written and spoke extensively on the filmmaker, also provides a visual essay exploring the film’s prologue. This sequence, running nearly 7 minutes, represents according to Cowie, not only a microcosm of the whole film, “but of Bergman’s career and anxieties.” Certainly, this opening gets Persona off to a riveting start. A barrage of images burst from the screen, ostensibly with little to no relation to each other. It’s an assortment of beautiful and haunting visions, all shot, as with the rest of the film, in stark black and white. Nature, violence, sex, humor, old age, death, youth, and war: these apparently incongruous elements illustrate nearly everything that can feed a mind, influence actions, and preoccupy thoughts. Save for the images of war, it’s never quite clear to whom these visions belong as the film progresses. The footage from Vietnam, however, is viewed on television by Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who has suddenly stopped speaking. Oddly stricken during rehearsals, she bears no physical or mental impairment. She has simply become mute: by choice, as a result of some tragedy, perhaps because of the world around her, a general state of despair and hostility represented by these opening shots. In this “poem of images,” as Bergman calls the film, it’s all speculation.
A doctor (Margaretha Krook), while sympathizing with Elisabet (she too recognizes “the hopeless dream of being”), questions the affliction, suggesting that it’s another role, a performance the actress will eventually drop. In any case, a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), is assigned to take care of Elisabet, and the two begin a stay at the doctor’s secluded seaside cottage. There, it becomes clear that both women are tormented. Though still uncertain about what affects Elisabet, Alma attempts to establish a connection by divulging details of her own past, her present, her fears, and her desires. She does so promptly and without a filter. Despite Elisabet’s silence and lack of verbal correspondence, Alma talks and talks. Not obliviously though; she knows she is perhaps selfishly rambling, but she doesn’t stop. It’s not as if Elisabet is contributing, after all, though she does appear to be genuinely interested. Indeed, as we and Alma find out, she is not just casually listening, she is studying.
In his essay, Elsaesser contends that it’s possibly Alma who is taking on the part of an actress. He writes, “Alma finds in Elisabet’s silence the screen upon which she can project all the roles she has always wanted to play. … By dramatizing her own existence in front of her silent spectator, Alma becomes an actress, performing before an audience.” By that same token, an artist’s job, according to Bergman, consists of “recording, making notes, observing, absorbing, and feeding off their environment,” just as Elisabet does when she sits silently watching Alma.
Quickly Alma’s talk becomes more intimate, as if speaking to a psychiatrist or confessor, or sister, or lover. She tells of an explicit sexual encounter with another woman and two young boys, a dubious pregnancy, and a subsequent abortion. Her emotions run the gamut. But perhaps her most revealing comments, at least as far as Persona’s essential themes are concerned, are those that mention how one can become multiple beings, and conversely, how multiple beings can become one. “I think I could turn into you if I really tried,” Alma tells Elisabet. “I mean inside.” “You could be me just like that,” she adds. It’s after this that Alma hears, or thinks she hears (hopes she hears) Elisabet speak, but it’s unclear.
Gradually, the cordial relationship between the two is ruptured. When Alma discovers that Elisabet has been writing about her, that she’s possibly using her confessions for her own gains, she lashes out. There are insults, accusations, and reconciliation. A lifetime’s worth of emotional strain is condensed in several days. And when Alma purposely leaves broken glass on the ground and Elisabet cuts herself, Persona reaches a decisive point of transition. The film appears to burn up and we get another barrage of assorted imagery, a disturbing precursor of what’s possibly to come. It’s hard to say which actress has the more difficult role here, the fervent Andersson with her incessant dialogue, or Ullmann, who must remain silent and base her whole performance on observation and reaction.
With the gifted Sven Nykvist dependably behind the camera, Persona contains a surplus of astonishing imagery, from the aforementioned montage of disparate footage to the cold, bare walls that make up the hospital rooms earlier in the film. The most prescient and crucial compositions, however, are those that contain Andersson and Ullmann in the same frame. These images range from the abstract to the ethereal, but their greatest significance is when the two are shot in tight close-ups (“uncomfortably close to the camera,” as Elsaesser puts it); they are side by side, often looking straight at the camera. As a result of this “facial chorography,” in Paul Schrader’s words, their similar features become more obvious, as does the film’s preoccupation with exchanging identities. For whatever reason, in whatever way, the two are merging with each other. Regarding the intense shift in drama and the film’s emphasis on struggling identities, Bibi Andersson argues that the film depicts “the chaos a person experiences when they’re in conflict with themselves.” It represents, she says, a “crisis of truth.”
When Mr. Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand) shows up (or seems to; the certainty of depicted events at this point is questionable), he mistakes Alma for his wife. She initially denies it, but he pays no mind, and eventually she assumes the role. Elisabet silently appears as though she’s invisible to both characters (indeed, he may be blind). Soon they return to who they really are … or do they? An extended section of dialogue is repeated, first with the focus on Elisabet, then on Alma, and for a moment, their faces fuse together. “I’m not like you,” declares Alma. But perhaps it’s too late. The sequence ends with halves of their faces frozen together. This single shot, one of the film’s most famous, actually fooled both actresses. According to Ullmann, when she and Andersson each saw it they only recognized the other, never realizing that half of that face was their own.
As is inevitable with a film in which the image is so tantamount to the narrative, in other words, when what the spectator sees is an integral factor in the film’s progression and preoccupations, Bergman includes a good deal of self-conscious technique. “You are always aware that someone is filming this for you,” says Schrader, who points out several “metacinema tricks.” The characters have direct addresses to the camera, and aside from the moment the film seems to dissipate, there are also shots of film strips, projectors, the filmmaking process, and other films. As Cowie notes, “Cinematography” was the first title of the script. Is Persona, then, about cinema itself, about performers assuming their roles, about the creative process of storytelling, about audience reception and identification? It certainly is, according to Elsaesser, who calls the film “cinema about cinema.”
Persona was written by Bergman in just 14 days, while he was recovering in the hospital. He was quite ill and a previously planned project had fallen through, so these were not the best of times for the director. As such, he was preoccupied with personal, self-reflexive thoughts, and Andersson and Ullmann each acknowledge a level of autobiography present in the film. It is about “two sides of one human,” says Andersson. “Presumably Ingmar.” “For him, a movie is also a persona,” states Ullmann.
Bergman admitted that, by this point, he was concerned less with the reception of his films. He knew a movie like Persona was demanding on an audience (in an interview on the disc, he stated that it’s not necessarily the type of movie even he’d like to watch, preferring, for example, Westerns or Goldfinger over something by Antonioni). But that’s part of the brilliance of this film — there is so much left for debate. “That’s very important to me,” states Bergman, “the idea that you can never understand a film like this.” What’s more is that it’s all so intensely imagined and photographed. Bergman was no stranger to arresting visuals, but those that make up this film are among his strongest. Persona is thus a supreme blend of ambiguity and stylistic flourish. Like 2001 as a chamber drama, it’s a film that rewards multiple viewings for the depth of character psychology and narrative discovery, and also for its astonishing beauty.
— Jeremy Carr