Bergman's strange psychological headscratcher fits in well with the 60's European trend of loopy existential pictures of Roman Polanski, Antonioni and later David Lynch and even late career of Stanley Kubrick (who famously wrote a fan letter to Bergman in 1960 calling him the greatest filmmaker of the day).
Persona (1966) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook, Gunnar Björnstrand
By Alan Bacchus
Persona feels very much a product of the 60’s, on a technical level Bergman crafts number of experimental sequences which, with today’s eyes feels more like a parody of obtuse art house experimentation. It’s a stretch to make sense out of the two psychedelic montages – the first which opens the film and the second at the midpoint –but it’s sheer audacity and ambitiousness is thrilling. The opening scene is 3-4mins cooky sequence featuring a cacophony of imagery and sound – at one point we even see an erect penis cut in there - which at first seems completely random but foreshadows the psychological state of the film's protagonist, Alma.
Then the film settles into a traditional narrative. Bibi Andersson plays Alma, a nurse assigned to provide care to an actress Elisabeth (Liv Ullman) who has suffered a mysterious ailment which has rendered her mute. After some therapy in a hospital Alma takes Elisabeth into the country for a peaceful retreat which might just help induce her out of her psychological funk.
Slowly the roles of patient and therapist reverse themselves. As Alma attempts to unlock Elisabeth’s soul she finds herself reveals intimate details of her own personal traumas. In one miraculous scene reminiscent of Nicole Kidman’s startling revelation to Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, Alma confesses to Elisabeth an orgy which caused her to be pregnant and then have an abortion. As the ‘therapy’ progresses, Alma’s inability to crack Elisabeth’s drives her to madness.
Other than the Eyes Wide Shut comparison, there’s a lot of ‘late career’ Kubrick in Persona. Lars Johan Werle’s brooding atmospheric music creates a spooky tone like that of Kubrick’s The Shining. And even Bergman’s use of long tracking shot brings to mind Stanley's panache with the camera.
Persona is indeed a technical marvel. DOP Sven Nyvkist’s compositions are instantly recognizable as Bergman’s. As in Cries and Whispers his close-ups are framed and his actors blocked with formal and often peculiarly unnatural arrangements in the frame. Bergman loves his profile shots and even within this limited range with precise framing he finds some arresting and stimulating visual compositions.
And the obtuse psychological themes are not that hard to penetrate either. Though it’s a two-hander Alma’s journey is inward, with the presence of Elisabeth serving only as a Rosetta stone for Alma to understand her own emotional problems.
In reading other reviews and analyses of the film, there’s seems to be some confusion about the notion of the title. Some people see a merging or switching of personalities between Alma and Elisabeth – that is, Alma assuming the ‘persona’ of Elizabeth. I don’t particularly see it this way. By the end of the film Alma has assumed the place of patient, after her psychological breakdown, but not in place of Elizabeth. The question of whether Elizabeth ever existed, or if she was a fabrication of Alma’s mind I can’t fully answer, but it’s a mind fuck nonetheless and the work of a master filmmaker.