Tuesday, June 9, 2009
If there were ever a definitive answer to what Persona all meant, I would not want to hear it. Countless theories have tried to make sense of its enigmatic characters, of its surreal, seemingly random images, and of just what Ingmar Bergman was trying to say. Wisely, Bergman never commented on the film's meaning, preferring to let the film speak for itself. And so it does, 43 years after the fact. Persona is more disturbing than most horror films, more emotionally devastating than most dramas, and altogether more satisfying than almost any film I have seen.
The setup for this complex film is deceptively simple. Alma (Bibi Andersson) is a young nurse assigned to take care of Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who one day stopped talking after a performance. As Alma's superior informs her, there is nothing physically or mentally wrong with Elisabet - she just refuses to speak. Alma is ordered to look after Elisabet at an isolated seaside home for the summer. Alma at first enjoys their time together, but as she spills more and more of her private life, Alma begins to break down.
"The human face is the great subject of the cinema. Everything is there." Bergman himself said that, and Persona is perhaps the greatest expression of this belief. The startling cinematography, by Sven Nykvist, often lingers on the actresses' faces in long, revealing close-ups. At other times, he frames shots so that the two actresses seem to be mirror images of each other, on opposite sides of the frame. Nykvist and Bergamn also constantly experiment with light and shadow, background and foreground. As a result, every shot looks gorgeous - and not just superficially, either, for this is a film in which every shot reflects, on an aesthetic level, the film's themes. The most dramatic example comes at the film's climax, when Bergman fuses the two women's faces together in an expression of how the characters' personalities have merged.
None of this would matter, of course, if it weren't for the actresses, who play off each other in consistently fascinating ways. Ullman is a tranquil, ethereal presence as the silent Elisabet. Andersson is equally brilliant as Alma, who initially comes off as composed and controlled, but is in fact full of doubts and insecurities. In one of the film's most famous scenes, Alma tells Elisabet about a sexual encounter she had with two strange boys at a beach. Bergman pulls no punches with describing the graphic details, and Andersson is compelling as her character confronts her guilt over aborting the child that resulted. Indeed, the film is full of such darkly compelling monologues. One, spoken by Alma near the end of the film, is actually spoken twice - once, with the camera focused on Elisabeth, and once with the camera focused on Alma. This seems tedious at first, but it serves the useful purpose of showing how inseparable these two women's experiences are.
This may all sound like pretentious, pseudo-psychological nonsense, but I assure you that Persona is nothing of the sort. Bergman's film may be ambiguous, but it is not esoteric. Persona is a true joy to watch, enveloping us in its spell. From the very first frame, I was utterly captivated by the film - so much so that I watched it again two days later with the same fascination. I also recently watched Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, and was struck by how dated and stuffy it seemed in comparison - more of an intellecutal exercise than a fully formed film. Persona never lets its ideas stifle its emotions, and it is without a doubt one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. Indeed, on every single front, Persona is that rare film that reminds you of everything that cinema can be.