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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Review: Persona (1966)

* * * *

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson

Continuing on yesterday’s theme, today I’m focusing on another Bergman classic: Persona. Like The Seventh Seal, this is a deeply psychological film concerned with heavy and ultimately unanswerable questions. However, this isn’t simply an academic exercise, it’s also a totally enthralling film. Long story short: I can’t wait to see more Bergman. Short story long:

Liv Ullmann stars as Elisabet Vogler, a famed actress who has suddenly, and without explanation, stopped speaking. Her doctor (Margaretha Krook) suggests that she and her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), spend some time at her summer home, hoping that the seclusion will help draw Elisabet out of herself again. However, the more time that Elisabet and Alma spend together in isolation, the more Alma is drawn out and, perhaps, into Elisabet. Elisabet remains silent, watching, listening, as Alma talks about herself, revealing deeply personal secrets, exposing herself completely.

In a letter to the psychiatrist, Elisabet confesses that she’s studying Alma – “devouring” might be a better word. There’s something vampiric about the way she relates to Alma, taking in Alma’s words while giving up none of her own. The two women are slowly becoming one, merging into each other. There is a scene which plays twice in which Alma exposes Elisabet’s greatest secret: the disdain she feels for her own son. During the first reading of this monologue, the camera focuses exclusively on Ullmann listening. During the second, it focuses on Andersson as she watches Ullmann’s reaction. And then there is a scene where the two faces are literally merged into one.

The quest in Persona is to find an authentic voice. Elisabet is an actress who is constantly taking on roles, immersing herself in artificial personas even in her personal life. Her decision to have a child, for example, is borne not of desire for a child, but in response to a challenge when it is suggested that the role of “mother” is one for which she is not suited. She is accustomed to wearing many masks, but knows that none of them are genuine and her sudden voicelessness is a direct result of her realization that the falseness of her words and actions make them meaningless in the face of real crises in the world. She lacks substance because she can become anyone and has no “self” to act as an anchor. Isolated with Alma, she does not attempt to become her but manages instead to absorb her, seeming to take the other woman completely into her consciousness.

In discussing these elements I’m only scratching the surface of what the film has to offer. Persona is a film very much open to interpretation and multiple readings, which makes it both fascinating and a little infuriating. On a technical level I’m completely enamoured with the way that Bergman constructs his shots, often using the actresses to frame each other, blocking scenes so that the profile of one is cutting off the other, so that the two actresses seem to occupy the same space at the same time. The ways that Bergman finds to visually express the idea of identity leave a lasting impression, as do the performances by Ullmann and Andersson, one so strongly silent and the other excessively vocal.

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