Persona ★★★★★

"I wonder what's really wrong with her."

A cataclysmic dead letter for the ages.

A film as self-consciously difficult as Ingmar Bergman's Persona requires a critical approach that meets it on its own terms. Too many people seem to address Persona in one of two ways: a) a cow so sacred that it obviates the need for analysis as though to address it formally would endanger its delicate mystery (similar tones of bewildered reverence can be heard in uncritical paeans to films like Mulholland Dr. and Muriel); or b) a pretentious, willfully obscure relic that wallows in a stew of fashionable existentialism. These knee-jerk responses are not so antithetical as they may appear at first glance; in fact the effusive charlatanry of the former and the boorish Philistinism of the latter share a common cause: upholding the primacy of unmediated storytelling as the true object of cinema.

That Bergman is intentionally employing a host of technical and narrative forms meant to frustrate such traditional ways of viewing is ignored entirely by such responses. For the dilettante five stars and a simple "holy shit!" will suffice (I must confess my recent review of Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang amounted to a prolix "holy shit!" and is exactly the kind of response I mean to admonish here), while the anti-intellectual is free to burnish his everyman credentials by dismissing the film out of hand as so much artsy navel-gazing. Neither approach sheds much light on Persona.

A more instructive way to think about Persona may be to inquire how it differs from a conventional narrative and why Bergman might have wanted to alter his means of presentation. For Persona is not a film without a structure; rather its structure emerges through various means of fragmentation, only the most obvious of which being a principal character's near-muteness. There is the frequent omission of basic expository data (is the boy on the gurney Elizabeth's son?). There are unexplained images that appear so briefly they are nearly subliminal. There are scenes that uncannily echo preceding scenes (which upset the natural assumption that time is moving continuously as the film advances). The film is preceded by a narratively unrelated prologue and interrupted mid stream by another such interlude. Events occur which give the impression that Alma (whose perspective viewers come closest to sharing) may be delusional (and at one critical point logical speech betrays her entirely, replaced with a feverish word-salad like HAL-9000 on the fritz), but perhaps the most crucial of Bergman's tools of alienation is his frequent refusal to clearly delineate which sequences are "real" and which are imagined.

The aforementioned distancing devices render any attempt at conventional plot summary both speculative and capricious. The most one can say with confidence is that Alma (a naive nurse) agrees to care for Elizabet (a traumatized actress) while she convalesces from an apparent breakdown and that their time together is beset by great tension. The specificity and continuity of conventional plotting has been deliberately excised, and so we are left with only the pervasive atmosphere of disharmony as an increasingly desperate Alma seems to empty herself to compensate for the withholding of the Sphinx-like Elizabet. Bergman's Brechtian strategies are far from arbitrary. Instead they serve as a brilliant mimetic doubling of the film's central crisis: just as Alma cannot interrogate the silent Elizabet to her satisfaction so the viewer cannot receive the expected narrative closure such an interrogation might yield (this is demonstrated on a more microcosmic level early in the film when Elizabet takes and destroys a letter Alma was in the process of narrating).

In other words, Persona is what it's about. The burning celluloid that marks its central interlude hints at the limits of cinematic investigation, that the film's images contain more than can be possibly expressed. It's as if Bergman is saying we can only go so far, only get so close; and as for grand conclusions (like those proffered by the smug doctor who hires Alma), they are to be reached at one's own peril.

I think Bergman's intention with Persona is to engender a continual sense of presentness. By removing the hallmarks that traditionally indicate narrative progress towards a more-or-less univocal conclusion, Bergman compels the viewer to simply endure the situation in all its alienness so that ultimately they experience the film much as Alma experiences her time with Elizabet, as a terrifying and disorienting moment-by-moment process of perpetual acclimatization. What Bergman is searching for here is a kind of radical empathy that supersedes narrative logic, a total identification with the image in the moment that does not rely on context for its power but rather operates on an associative level; this is pure cinema.

Some stray notes:
-"NO, DON'T!"

In my Top 100 list.

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