I think for a long time, the phrase “art cinema” was synonymous with Ingmar Bergman: black and white; really deep thoughts about Life, The Universe and Everything; playing chess with Death and other abstract visuals, etc. And to Bergman’s credit, he became popular enough that such imagery became so cliche. But does that mean people love his films the way they love those of Kubrick or Scorsese?
There are a bunch of YouTube videos in which critics and filmmakers and scholars talk at length about why Bergman is so great and what his films are “really” all about, but if I’m coming at him from the perspective of just another film fan, albeit one with a little more knowledge of film history than some, I shouldn’t need any of that for me to appreciate his work; indeed, I’m trying hard to avoid those videos while writing this post about Persona because I want to be as unbiased in my opinions as possible.
Some might say knowing Bergman and his worldview is necessary to grok his films—but did the average moviegoer have that information when he made his movies during the sixties, pre-Internet? If Bergman was the capital-A Ar-TEEst he was proclaimed to be, I imagine he’d have wanted his work to speak for itself. So let’s give it a shot.
Persona has a grand total of four speaking parts, not counting a brief narrator who struck me as superfluous: one man and three women, though one woman says perhaps a grand total of a dozen words throughout the whole movie. If I interpret the plot, such as it is, correctly, it goes like this: famous actress has what appears to be some sort of mental breakdown on stage and goes to a hospital. She either can’t or won’t speak. The doctor says she ain’t crazy, she just needs a little time to herself, so she assigns a nurse to stay with her at the doctor’s beach house. The two really bond, but the actress might be faking whatever condition she’s supposed to have and she definitely takes advantage of her friendship with the nurse. Liv Ullmann is the actress and Bibi Andersson is the nurse. I’ll assume you’ve heard of them.
That description by itself, however accurate (or inaccurate), does not not begin to describe the experience of watching this movie. For starters, the pre-opening credits sequence is just about the definition of abstract. In retrospect, it made a tiny bit of sense—I think the kid is supposed to be Ullmann’s son in the movie, but if so, why he’s presented the way he is boggles my mind.
|FWIW, shots like this made me think|
this was a French New Wave film.
Andersson talks a lot about her life—her job, her fiancée, sexual encounters she’s had, Ullmann and her life—but she also gets into some of those Really Deep Thoughts I mentioned, and I’m sorry, but if I don’t think it’s relevant to the story, my inclination is to just zone out on that stuff. What’s so amazing about Really Deep Thoughts?
Eventually she gets tired of playing Jay to Ullmann’s Silent Bob, and we get some physical conflict, but then a dude who I took to be Ullmann’s husband enters the picture. He wears dark glasses so I assumed he was blind, which would explain why he mistakes Andersson for Ullmann, but then she goes along with it...? And she maybe has sex with him?? And how is any of this meant to be therapeutic to Ullmann’s “condition”? Andersson’s character did not strike me as a specialist.
Story aside, Persona looks wonderful. I’ve heard of the DP, double Oscar winner Sven Nykvist. He makes nice use of natural lighting, both indoors and out. The shadows on the faces (and bodies) of Ullmann and Andersson and others almost take on abstract shapes at times. The women’s faces are juxtaposed in ways meant to complement each other as well as to contrast; there’s lip service about Andersson wishing she could be Ullmann and I think we’re meant to notice that. Their faces melt into each other at times, and this is done skillfully. I doubt Persona would be as memorable visually if it were in color.
As for acting? Well, they were both good, I guess. In Ullmann’s case, I thought of other silent performances in sound movies, like Holly Hunter in The Piano, though in that case, her character made an effort to communicate and be understood. Ullmann’s not completely laconic, but she’s also too much of an enigma. If this had been a psychological thriller, directed by, say, David Cronenberg, her actions would be more informative of her relationship to Andersson. At times, I almost thought that was what Bergman was going for, but no. The whole thing is interior and subjective.
Look, I get that some films won’t be understood in one viewing, and often times, that can be quite rewarding, but I need to want to return to an otherwise obtuse film for reasons besides the fact that it looks really cool. I admit, I expected to see Ullmann and Andersson get it on in some fashion (they don’t, but the sex scene Andersson describes almost makes up for that), but I also expected something in the way of insight about... I don’t know. Something. I don’t really think I wasted my time watching this, but I don’t think I gained much from it either.