Jun 6, 2014
Undoubtedly, it is hard to think of an avant-garde film that is more immaculate, elegant, foreboding, and unpretentiously poetic than Persona (1966) directed by Swedish master auteur Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries). It is also hard to think of a quasi-horror film that is so ‘modern’ (and, indeed, I mean that in a good way), sophisticated, psychologically penetrating, and unrelentingly visceral, as if Bergman was able to reach into the most dark and forlorn depths of the Nordic collective unconscious, namely in regard to the feminine and irrational side, and transfer that untameable and chaotic energy to the screen. A sort of metaphysical lesbian vampire flick without lesbo sex and fangs, Persona is also a work of metacinema that immediately lets the viewer know that they are clearly watching a movie, albeit not in a banal and pretentious Brechtian distanciation fashion, but as German film scholar Thomas Elsaesser recently argued in his recent essay The Persistence of Persona: “Bergman does not keep the spectator merely guessing or at a (Brechtian) distance. On the contrary, Persona has an almost hypnotic pull; it draws the spectator in and never lets go.” Indeed, Bergman's work is a rare piece of celluloid deconstruction with a soul, as if the director’s very being was run through a rabid film projector and screened at an arthouse theater in purgatory. Vaguely resembling Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s micro chamber play The Stronger (1889) aka Den starkare in its depiction of a power game between two women, Persona depicts the spiritual schizophrenia that occurs when two very different women—a nurse and an actress—become one to the point where the two beauteous women’s faces literally merge into one. Taking its title from a Latin word that originally meant the masks worn by actors in classical dramas and would later be used by psychoanalyst Carl Jung to describe the artificial personality that people use as a mask to hide their true self, Persona is a work that wallows in the idea of the double and the Jungian ‘shadow aspect,’ yet has so much more to offer. Written by Bergman in a mere 14 days under a number of different working titles, including Cinematography, Sonata for Two Women, A Piece of Cinema, and Opus 27, Persona is such an elusive and esoteric work that even the Swedish auteur himself did not even completely understand it, writing in the preface to the published screenplay, “On many points I am unsure, and in one instance, at least, I know nothing,” thereupon demonstrating the truly transcendental nature of the work. A work so important and influential that masterpieces like Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg’s Performance (1970), Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) would be unthinkable without it, the film was also described by auteur Bergman as follows in his book Images: My Life in Films: “Today I feel that in Persona – and later in Cries and Whispers – I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances, when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.” Indeed, arguably more importantly than anything else, Persona achieves the seemingly intangible in terms of abstract emotional articulation, thereupon proving that cinema is not only a genuine artistic medium, but a rather distinct one where things can be communicated that cannot be communicated in any other medium.
Right from the get go, Persona makes the viewer clearly conscious of the fact that they are watching a film by beginning with a montage featuring bright lights, camera equipment, film reels and a projector. The film also immediately makes it quite clear that they are watching a Bergman film, as the montage features a number of the director’s typical motifs, including god-as-spider, brutal Christian imagery (i.e. crucifixion, lamb being slaughtered), and a cold and impenetrable mother (as depicted in a scene where Jörgen Lindström of Bergman’s The Silence (1963) reaches out for a distant, faded, and seemingly intangible image of his assumed mother), as well as clips from the filmmaker’s early work Fängelse (1949) aka Prison. The montage also features a brief clip of a then-controversial erect cock, with the cock arguably representing the source of all human catastrophes (i.e. humanity itself). The film centers around two women—a nurse and a mute actress—who are in some ways quite the opposite, but in other ways, including their appearances, quite similar, like opposing doubles. While the nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) is engaged and lives a fairly conventional life, actress Elisabet Vogler (played by Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, who the director fell in love with during the filming of the work, in her very first Bergman film) lives the life of an artist. Of course, both of these women are hiding dark secrets and unflattering personality traits behind their outward personas. Elisabet fell silent and confused in the middle of a performance of Electra and was subsequently found bedridden, mute, and unresponsive the next day. Naturally, Elisabet was sent to a hospital and young nurse Alma was assigned to her case. Alma is told by the head Doctor (Margaretha Krook) that the actress has been in a mute state for 3 months despite the fact that she shows no signs of physical or mental illness. When Alma takes a look at Elisabet, she notices the pretty patient has a soft, childlike face yet seemingly angry and mean eyes. Alma later confesses to the mute actress that she loves film and theater, stating, “I have a tremendous admiration for artists. I think that art is of enormous importance in people’s lives, especially for those who have problems.” Little does Alma realize that, as is hinted at by the head Doctor, Elisabet is more or less ‘acting’ and ‘playing a role’ in terms of her mental illness.
A young 25-year-old who, just like her mother, plans to quit her job as a nurse upon marrying and having children with her fiancé Karl-Henrik, Alma literally talks to herself while she is alone, as if she has to convince herself that she is happy about her life and future, stating to herself while applying makeup in a ritualistic fashion, “All of this is predestined. It’s inside me. I have nothing to think about. It’s a safe feeling. I have a job that I like and enjoy. That’s good too…but in another way. But it’s good. Good.” Ultimately, Alma and Elisabet are heading to the head Doctor’s seaside cottage (shot at Fårö Island, which is just a few miles down the coast from where Through a Glass Darkly (1961) was filmed just 5 years before), so that the former can nurse the latter back to health. Although seemingly catatonic, Elisabet has a rather horribly hysterical response to seeing the iconic footage of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức committing self-immolation on television and later she even laughs at Alma’s favorite radio soap opera. Before leaving for ostensible fun in the sun, Alma reads a letter to Elisabet from her husband, who also included a photo of her young son, and the patient seems rather perturbed by the situation, as if it is the source of her psychosis. Almost immediately upon arriving at the seaside cottage, the roles of doctor and patient are almost entirely reversed, with Alma doing all the talking about her life and problems while Elisabet listens in a seemingly inquisitive fashion. Although Alma first discusses banal subjects like the books she is currently reading and other totally trivial matters, she soon opens up and pours her wounded soul out to Elisabet, discussing how her fiancé Karl-Henrik thinks she lacks ambitious, stating, “though not with my career, I suppose in some greater way,” as if the nurse is not doing what she really wants to do in real-life. Rather strangely, if not unsurprisingly, Alma begins comparing herself to mute Elisabet, as if she is the woman whose life she has always dreamed of living.
One night, after drinking some fine wine, Alma confesses to Elisabet that she once cheated on her fiancé by getting involved in a ménage à quatre on a beach with her friend Katarina and two underage teenage boys. Although Alma confesses that the orgy resulted in the best sex she has ever had in her entire life, it also resulted in her getting pregnant and, in turn, an abortion that was carried out by her fiancé Karl-Henrik’s colleague. Naturally, like any sane woman, the abortion left Alma with some mental hang-ups that she does not know how to process. After telling the orgy/abortion story, the two women sit at a table and Elisabet speaks for the first time, stating, “Go to bed. Otherwise, you’ll fall asleep at the table,” which Alma repeats, as if the two are sharing the same brain. The next day, Alma drives to town to deliver some letters written by Elisabet, but on the way there she decides to read what her patient has written. Naturally, Alma is quite disturbed when she reads the following words that Elisabet has written in the letter: “Alma takes care of me, spoils me in the most touching way. I believe that she likes it here and that she’s very fond of me…perhaps even in love in an unaware and enchanting way. In any case, it’s very interesting studying her. Sometimes she cries over past sins—an orgy with a strange boy and a subsequent abortion. She claims that her perceptions do not correspond with her actions.” When Alma gets back to the cottage, she is so distraught and anxiety-ridden by what she has read in the letter that she accidentally breaks a glass and intentionally leaves shards on a small path for Elisabet to step on. When Elisabet notices her foot is bleeding after stepping on the shard of glass, she begins to stare at Alma in a knowing fashion and Persona as a film begins to break apart just like the characters, with scratch marks appearing up and down the screen to the less than soothing sounds of hissing, though the scene concludes with another nightmarish dream-sequence similar to the one featured at the beginning of the film (including more footage from Bergman’s Prison and crucifixion scene).
Naturally, when the film resumes, Alma tells Elisabet that she is deeply hurt by what the actress has written in the letter and demands that she finally speak. Alma also venomously says to Elisabet: “You can’t know how I feel. I thought that great artists had great compassion for people…that they created through a great compassion and a need to help. That was stupid. You have used me. For what, I don’t know. Now that you don’t need me anymore, you throw me away.” Of course, when Elisabet refuses to speak, Alma becomes quite enraged and chases the patient around the cottage, though she is ultimately left with a bloody nose after the actress gives her a nice hit across the face. In retaliation for the bloody nose, Alma picks up a pot of boiling water and goes to throw it at Elisabet, but the actress cries “No!,” thereupon temporarily breaking her silence and proving that she does indeed fear death, as the nurse mentions. After Alma cleans up her bloody face, she once again confronts Elisabeth, telling her she is more or less a psychopath who is merely playing another role, remarking: “You are inaccessible. They said you were healthy, but your sickness is of the worst kind: it makes you seem healthy. You act it so well everyone believes it, everyone except me, because I know how rotten you are inside.” After that, Elisabet attempts to walk away on the beach and Alma pursues her and attempts to apologize by begging forgiveness in a groveling manner, as if pleading to an upset lover. That night, Elisabet becomes obsessed with a holocaust photo (taken from the Stroop Report) of a SS man pointing a gun at a Jewish boy in the Warsaw ghetto. Later that night, Alma hears a man shouting outside and discovers that it is Elisabet’s husband Mr. Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand), who mistakes the nurse for his wife despite the fact she keeps telling him, “I'm not your wife.” After Mr. Vogler delivers a monologue about their relationship (stating, “We must see each other as two anxious children,” which he also wrote in a letter to Elisabet that is read at the beginning of the film) and how she is the mother of his child, Alma finally pretends to be his wife while Elisabet stands right next to her. In fact, Alma plays the role so well that she and Mr. Vogler have sex together while Elisabet sits by the bed with a noticeable state of panic on her face. Naturally, Alma cries afterwards. The film climaxes the next morning when Alma psychoanalyzes Elisabet, accusing her of having everything but “motherliness.” Alma also accuses the actress of always acting due to her fear of her son, husband, “swelling body,” degenerating acting career, and virtually everything else in her life. In fact, Alma even goes so far as accusing Elisabet of hoping that her son had died in the womb or was stillborn, stating, “You wanted a dead child.” After her son was born, Elisabet apparently prayed for his death. After Alma does her scathing analysis of Elisabeth, both women’s faces somehow merge into one single face. Eventually, Elisabet falls into a fully catatonic state and Alma develops an unsettling mood that inspires her to cut her own arm. After that, Alma forces Elisabet to lick the blood from her gash like a vampire and then proceeds to smack the shit out of her patient. In the end, Alma packs all her things up and leaves the cottage alone, with the camera eventually turning away from the nurse and revealing a camera and director filming a scene. Indeed, at the conclusion, Alma rejects Elisabet as the ‘other’ so her ego is not destroyed and she puts her nurse outfit back on, thus putting her persona and, in turn, sanity (or semblance of such) firmly back in place.
An immaculate example of what I like to call “Nordic deconstructionism,” Persona is a rare example of the modernist technique being used in a totally soulful and deeply emotional way, as opposed to the overly intellectualized and audience-alienating approach used by French/Jewish artists, intellectuals, and filmmakers. Penned by auteur Ingmar Bergman in early 1965 while he was hospitalized due to double pneumonia, penicillin poisoning, and related psychosomatic symptoms, Persona was dreamed up while the filmmaker was in a decidedly debilitated state, as he “found it almost impossible to shape words and sentences” and was “interrupted by attacks of fever, disturbances of equilibrium, and the fatigue of hopelessness.” Luckily, Bergman’s state of delirium gave birth to “not a film script in the normal sense" but something, “more like the melody line of a piece of music, which I hoped with the help of my colleagues to be able to orchestrate during production.” Indeed, Persona is the hellishly dark yet singularly beautiful and even ethereal result of a cinematic poet reaching into the deepest abysses of both his conscious and subconscious and literally and figuratively projecting it onscreen, in a work of metacinema that makes the viewer completely conscious of the fact that they are watching a movie yet is simultaneously a rare example where a filmmaker pours everything—both spiritually and artistically—he has to give on screen, as if he and the film had become one just as the characters Alma and Elisabet become one. Like the actress character Elisabet, Bergman was notorious for being a horrible parent/spouse, but what he lacked in emotion regarding being a father/husband, he transferred onto the screen, thereupon using cinema and theater as an apt place to channel his misplaced empathy and ‘humanity.’ Indeed, as contemporary Hollywood filmmaker Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children) once eloquently expressed regarding Bergman's legacy, “He was our tunnel man building the aqueducts of our cinematic collective unconscious.” Like most of Bergman’s great films and great art in general, Persona unmasks the ‘persona’ of the artist by showing him at his most vulnerable, conflicted, and guilt-ridden, albeit in a semi-esoteric sort of fashion that does not make it easy for the viewer. Of course, at the same time, the film reveals the ‘vampiric’ quality of the artist (aside from Elisabet drinking Alma’s blood, a vampire appears during the second dream-sequence), who not only preys on the soul of his actors, cameraman, and crew members, but also the viewer as well, as no one can get through watching Persona without feeling absolutely metaphysically drained, even if they have already seen the film countless times. Of course, one of the things that makes Bergman’s film so great is the endless interpretations it offers to the viewer, as a celluloid work of art created by a man who once tellingly confessed, “A limitless, never-satisfied, ever-renewed, unbearable curiosity drives me forward […] It never leaves me in peace.” Indeed, Persona is certainly not a work that will allow the viewer to find some sort of inner peace, but it will certainly inspire them to find some inner truth, so long as they are willing to peel back their persona and investigate a part of their self that might come at the price of their sanity, just as the film almost cost the director his.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 10:48 PM
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