Persona ★★★★

Director - Ingmar Bergman
Writer - Ingmar Bergman
Cast - Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook and Gunnar Bjornstrand


How do you review a film like Persona? It’s a question that’s been bugging me for about an hour now and I still don’t think I’m making any real progress. On the one hand, I could talk about how artistic and creative it is, and how it really managed to get under my skin. On the other hand, I could talk about how it doesn’t make a blind bit of sense to me and how I don’t feel clever or worthy enough to offer my own interpretation of its story. You see, that’s the problem; I loved Persona as a piece of visual cinema. The imagery was stunning and Bergman’s direction was, as it always is, utterly exemplary. The performances of the two leads were superb, particularly when you consider that one of them only says fourteen words in the entire film, and some of the themes that I managed to pick up on were very intriguing. In a way, I wanted to award the film five stars and dismiss my own ignorance as something that needs to be remedied. And yet, despite the fact that this is clearly a stunning piece of cinema, something about it didn’t work for me…

This is the first time I’ve watched Persona, and I fully accept that it probably demands a rewatch or two, but for now I can only assess what I took from it, rather than I what I should have taken from it. The film’s influence can be found in a number of my favourite films, most notably Mulholland Drive, and it’s easy to see why it is so well-loved and well-respected. Nevertheless, as a first-time viewer, I felt a little baffled and a tad alienated. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and is often the sign of a thought-provoking piece of cinema, but I felt unable to consider the film a masterpiece because it left me feeling mightily confused. Similarly, whilst I have a lot of time and appreciation for Bergman’s stylistic choices, I couldn’t shake the feeling that some of them simply didn’t fit the tone of the film that he was making.

Nonetheless, Persona is still a very accomplished piece of cinema. For a film with such a short running time (it clocks in at about eighty minutes, with the actual story not starting until ten minutes in), it manages to pack in a lot of detail and characterisation, alongside a pretty solid story. Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann), an actress, has become mute. Every psychological test says that she is sane, and the head Doctor (Krook) doesn’t know what to do. Enlisting the help of a young nurse called Alma (Andersson), the Doctor offers Alma and Elisabet the use of her summer cottage so that Alma can attempt to nurse Elisabet back to health. At first, Elisabet remains uncommunicative and distant, despite Alma’s best efforts, yet as their stay in the cottage continues, the two women become close. However, something isn’t quite right. Alma can feel her personality slipping away from her and begins to become convinced that she is being consumed by Elisabet. As Alma begins to adopt Elisabet’s life and personality, Bergman forces us to question the difference between fantasy and reality, as well as asking us what it really means to be human. It is, all things considered, a fascinating, complex and demanding story.

Perhaps Persona’s greatest strength is that it manages to tell a story about two women on the words of just one of them. Elisabet mutters fourteen words in total, none of which we can ever be sure that she really uttered, yet Ullmann’s performance is absolutely mesmerising. Her facial expressions and the manner in which she drifts aimlessly, almost like an invincible force, through the film is a real sight to behold. Without her, Andersson’s equally phenomenal performance wouldn’t be anywhere near as good. Andersson plays Alma’s apparent descent into madness and uncertainty perfectly, bouncing off Ullmann’s reactions at every turn, and delivering a performance that wrenches at the gut, the heart and the crotch. The fact that both of these women carry the entire film on their shoulders is utterly astonishing.

Naturally for a Bergman film, Persona is very wordy. Handled poorly, it could have been a total disaster, but Bergman’s skills as a fluent writer are out in full force here. The “conversations” between Alma and Elisabet are all written to mess with the audience. Every little line is so intricately written that the film reads like a piece of classic literature. There are no sex scenes, yet the sex that Alma discusses is incredibly sensual, and the introduction of themes manages to be obvious and subtle simultaneously. Bergman’s screenplay tells us everything we need to know, yet shies away from feeding us the answers on a plate, and the way in which he presents Alma’s degeneration into madness via words rather than actions is simply exquisite.

Ultimately, Persona is a brilliant film that absolutely demands more than one viewing. I’m sure that I’ll grow to love it even more given time, considering how much it blew me away. I simply failed to understand certain elements of the story. But hey, isn’t that one of the beauties of cinema; the ability to reassess one’s views?

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