Persona (1966)

2015 #7
Ingmar Bergman | 79 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | 15

Since that debate [between New York critics Susan Sontag and Andrew Sarris when the film was first released], writing about Persona has been for film critics and scholars what climbing Everest is for mountaineers: the ultimate professional challenge.

Oh dear.

PersonaThat quote comes from Thomas Elsaesser in the introduction to his Criterion essay “The Persistence of Persona”. He goes on to add that, “Besides Citizen Kane, it is probably the most written-about film in the canon. [Every major critic has] written with gravity and great insight about Persona, not counting several books and collections entirely devoted to the film.” Well, I can’t promise gravity or insight. In fact, practically the opposite, because I think that Persona is almost wilfully obtuse.

That’s not because the film is stupid, but because it’s “slow to understand” in the sense that the viewer can’t understand it — people have been debating its meaning for almost 50 years now, and it seems that still no one really knows what it’s about or what it’s trying to say. Obviously that’s some people’s bag, but it leaves me slightly baffled how it can gain such acclaim as to be well-regarded outside of the circles that decide Sight & Sound’s decennial list — I mean, it’s on the IMDb Top 250! There are some great bits, in particular some gorgeous cinematography, but the artistic indulgences (shall we say) and the complete lack of any clarity of meaning by the end make it an unlikely populist choice.

Summer holidayThe plot, such as it is, concerns an actress (Liv Ullmann) who has decided to become mute and her nurse (Bibi Andersson), who travel to a seaside summerhouse to attempt recuperation. After we’re told how they grew closer, events concern the breakdown of the relationship between the two women… or is there only one woman? We might end up inside one of their heads… but whose? Or is it both of their heads? Or…

In his review (which can be found on this page only), David Stubbs reckons that the film is “an occasionally cryptic but overwhelmingly powerful meditation on the parasitic interaction between Art and Life… about the helpless incapacity of art to ‘say’ anything in the face of grim reality.” He may well be right. What the women’s odd relationship/symbiosis has to do with that, I have no idea.

On the bright side, as I mentioned, it is beautifully shot. Some of it is on the surface unexceptional, but carries a simple beauty; other images, however, are strikingly composed and lit. There’s a particular shot that merges the faces of the two actresses together. Even though the similarity of their features is supposedly what gave Bergman the entire idea for the film, he didn’t come up with that shot until the edit. I personally didn’t think Ullmann and Andersson looked that alike, but, nonetheless, the merged shot could not be achieved any better with today’s photo-editing technology — it looks like one, wholly different, person. I’m sure there’s a deep philosophical meaning there, but I was just impressed by the technological wizardry.

Lesbian vampires?The film’s other most famous bit is a monologue Andersson delivers one night about a foursome she found herself in. As with most of the film its exact meaning is debatable, but it’s another unusual behind-the-scenes story: it was nearly cut, apparently, even though it’s in many respects the pivotal scene. It’s where the nurse opens up the most, leading to the actress’ ‘betrayal’ by repeating the story in a letter, which is what leads to the disintegration of their relationship and all the confusion/weirdness/’deep psychological filmmaking’ that follows. Later, Bergman lets a monologue (yes, another one) play in full twice. The meaning? He had intended to cut back and forth between the two actresses, but couldn’t decide which shots to discard, so just let it all run twice. At least that’s some confusion cleared up, then.

Clearly some people get a lot out of Persona. That’s nice for them. For me, it has moments of brilliance, but the stunted attempt to artistically portray the futility of portraying an idea through art is unenlighteningly ironic.

3 out of 5

Persona was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.