Sunday, 19 August 2007

Persona (Sweden, 1966, Ingmar Bergman)

The film world sadly lost two of its greats on 30 July this year, when Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman passed away. Having already reviewed Antonioni’s ‘Professione: Reporter’ (and won’t someone finally release his classic early 60s films on DVD?), I thought it was time Bergman received the same treatment. Shamefully to this point I have only seen a few of his films, from the great ‘Cries and Whispers’ to the less great ‘From the Life of Marionettes’. Persona certainly resides with the greats and compares favourably with them.

Persona is a film of great psychological depth that a regular plot synopsis really gives little indication of the greatness of the film, but I will try. A young nurse named Alma has been requested to care for Elizabet, a stage actress who suddenly became mute during a performance of Electra, and has remained so for three months. Persona then charts the relationship between the two women which is of a symbiotic nature, but has been the nature of numerous interpretations ever since the film’s release. Alma and Elizabet retreat to a rural residence which has been considered by her doctor to be a perfect place to recuperate. Since Elizabet has become mute, the conversations are all one way traffic, with Alma telling Elizabet of her fears and anxieties (her lack of ambition and so on) as well as stories of her past. The most notable of these is a tale of a sexual awakening when on holiday with her husband, when Alma and another girl, a total stranger, had an orgy with two male strangers. Alma mentions that she has never enjoyed such good sex with her husband since, nor was it ever that good before.

Much is made of the physical resemblance of the actresses; not extraordinarily so, but it was certainly a deliberate piece of casting by Bergman to choose both Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman in these roles. Alma frequently mentions how they are alike and how she could turn herself into her. There is a very famous shot at this point, where the two characters’ faces seem to merge as they turn their heads towards each other. Not only this, but is this an indication that their identities are merged as well? This is one of the major interpretations of the film; that Alma and Elizabet are one and the same person, and there are several clues in the film which sustain this argument. There is one scene where Elizabet speaks and suggests Alma goes to bed, and Alma reacts as if nothing has happened and repeats Elizabet’s words exactly. More crucially perhaps is the appearance of Elizabet’s husband at the country home. He ‘mistakes’ Alma for his wife, and after a brief denial, she confirms this. Elizabet is ‘present’ but it is as if she isn’t there. What’s more, she moves Alma’s hand towards Mr Vogler’s face. After he leaves, Alma begins to deny being Elizabet, although half of Elizabet’s face is then transposed onto hers as if to confirm they are one person and the characters represent one part of this person (Alma is the Spanish word for soul). Plus, Alma seems to know all about Elizabet. In the final scenes, she accurately sums up Elizabet’s concerns about motherhood and her rejection of her son (the film is filled with references to tragedies of great psychological stature, e.g. Oedipus, Electra). This is certainly a convincing interpretation, which I am more than happy to align to align myself with. Where the relationship is mutually beneficial in some ways, it is mutually destructive in others (such as the slightly gruesome scene when Alma scratches her arm deliberately and Elizabet sucks the blood).

Much can be interpreted from Bergman’s use of interludes of clips from films, which some have cited as a Brechtian alienation technique. The film begins with several clips, which includes crucifixion, a dead sheep, a cartoon, a spider (which Bergman uses as a symbol to represent God elsewhere) and notably a boy whose mother’s face is projected, distorted, on a screen (which I’m sure is meant to be Elizabet’s son). In some school of psychological thought, these represent childhood images of trauma, but it also represents an indication of the fictional and artificial nature of the film on Bergman’s part.

Persona is certainly the kind of film you have to take at more than just face value. If you’re willing to invest time and thought, there’s so much to explore. It’s a remarkably deep and provocative account of a breakdown, filled with psychoanalytic insight. It’s clearly the work of a film maker at the peak of his powers, effortlessly outstripping his contemporaries time and again. And then there are the stunning performances of two outstanding actresses, which I’ve barely mentioned. Persona is one of the most striking and powerful films you could ever watch. Perfect.

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