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Film Review: Persona (1966)

Some carbon cracks and lights, a reel begins to run. Black numbers flash and then the quick image of an erect penis, before a cut to an old cartoon, and a brief, jaunty song. Hands sign, too quickly to read, a sheep is being drained of its blood. Discordant strings play as its eye is squeezed out, and its grey viscera are poured from its cavernous gut. A nail is hammered into a straining hand. Crawling up a white, light emblazed wall is a black tarantula. Ingmar Bergman’s infamous symbol for a silent, neglecting God.

The uncomfortable, cinematic images are replaced, to our relief, by a bucolic forest and the sounding of a distant bell. The relief is short lived; we are taken to a morgue and its residents of aged, stony faces accompanied by the sound of a tap dripping, and footsteps somewhere down the hall. Life continues on somewhere. Then a boy, who we presumed dead, wakes by a phone ringing. Then he faces us, breaking the comfort of our fourth wall. And what are we? The camera pans around to see what he sees; the projection of a woman. Two? Superimposing onto each other.

This is Bergman’s famously enigmatic and seemingly impenetrable opening to one of his great works, Persona. The two women are Elisabet (Liv Ullman) a famous, theatre actress and Alma (Bibi Andersson) a nurse. As the film momentarily quells the chaos for narration, we learn that Elisabet has suffered what could be called, for the sake of brevity, an existential crisis, and during her stage performance of Electra, she suddenly and permanently falls into silence. She, having no material illness, is nonetheless detained into a hospital. The doctor (Margaretha Krook) understands her malaise, “Don't you think I understand? The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming, but being. In every waking moment, aware, alert. The tug of war... what you are with others and who you really are.”

Elisabet is suffering from inauthenticity and performance paralysis. Alma, a pretty but credulous nurse is assigned to her care and the two summer together at the doctor’s beach house. The beach here is knowing symbol of liminality, impermanence and ever shifting boundaries. Here, Alma, as the only wordsmith on offer, spills herself for the consumption of Elisabet. The actress becomes the audience. Over liquor and cigarettes, Alma indulges in her stories of her fiancé, previous sexual encounters and her feelings about her life and future.

The film is sparse of protagonists, with almost all of the action taking place between these two women, who become vampirically engaged in each other. Narration and surreality, wake and dream, action and memory, objects and reflections all fold into one filmic prism, and just as the boy looks out towards us in the opening, so too does the film itself. Asking us to recalibrate its own deconstructedness.

Indeed, Persona is easily one of Bergman’s most experimental films, and yet for all its romancing of the surreal and the uncertain, there is a depth of emotional content to the film that avoids it from becoming purely a cerebral expedition. The trueness of the challenge of the understanding of one’s own self and the disintegration of certainty that comes with that challenge, is all too commonly felt. The idea that the personality is an ever shifting performance masking, worse than bad character, but no character, is one that has uneasily rested on many a couch from Freud’s onwards. These concepts are timeless, thick and sticky and hold to them the other shattered fragments of the narration of images. And as such, it deservedly clings at its critical prizes in the annals of art film history.

Written by Rae Story

 

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