Persona ★★★★★

Ever heard of a film knocking the wind out of you in the first five minutes? If not watch Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. The opening sequence of this film is surely one of the most unsettling, incredibly haunting things I have ever seen on screen. The music, the images and the lighting are so discomposing to the viewer that within an unbelievably small period of time into the film, Bergman catches us by the throat and makes us experience an almost unbearably intense psychoanalysis of a woman’s mind or is it two women’s minds, I can never be able to tell.

After the opening sequence we are shown a boy getting up from his bed in what seemed to me like a mortuary. I felt like the same way. After the opening, I felt like I was knocked out cold in the first round and that my soul and body were completely at Bergman’s grace and at the feet of his harrowing tale. I truly felt chained and my hands nailed to the screen. It was so distressing that it deserved to be stopped for a while and I felt like I deserved a break. At the same time the extremely disorienting and Kafkaesque nature had me hooked unwillingly or willingly, I can never be able to tell.

The film is about an actress Elizabeth Vogler, an actress who suffers a very sudden and severe stroke of psychosomatic illness which makes her lose the reason, the desire, or even need to speak to another human being. The intensity of her grief is shown in the severity of her stare. The things that she sees would affect any other person too and can scar their minds emotionally. But these harrowing images affect her in so many inexplicable ways that she burrows herself deeper and deeper and identifies herself alien to everyone around her.

I thought the first act of the film was harrowing but then the film took another deep and uncompromising dig at my already limp heart as Volger and her caretaker, Sister Alma reside in remote island and the shocking consequence of events that follow. Volger’s mind seems to be easing off initially. Bergman creates a devilishly brilliant setting where there are just two people and only one of them speaks. What does one do in such a situation? Exactly what a sane and normal person would do, try and talk and connect with the other person and make them come out of their shell and express themselves. Alma’s candidness turns to a severe betrayal in a space of few minutes and this spirals the ambiguousness of Alma’s character, Elizabeth’s character and my own perception of what is what and who is who. Is Elizabeth the one who is haunted by her past or is Alma the one? The transformation of the film from its focus of two separate lives gradually melting into one and making the viewer’s mind cramming with questions was almost unendurable and so unnerving.

The metamorphosis of Alma’s character is so believable and agonizing mainly because of how the paranoia shifts from Elizabeth to her. As a person who has lost all her hopes and wishes of connecting or communicating to another human being or the world in general, Elizabeth finds the reclusive stay at the island a calming experience. But the conundrum here lies with Alma, how she copes with loneliness left only with the company of a person who is as distant to any feelings as the next planet. The revelations of her past bring out inklings of Elizabeth emotions and as Alma tells more and more of her experiences, there comes a striking resemblance of how identical their frustrations, pain and grievances are. Elizabeth has taken the step of disconnecting herself while Alma has made a point to stick it out. That is the only difference I could identify between them.

Bergman’s characterization and unexplained ending leaves the audience in the dark but also leaves the brains of viewers to a delectable number of theories. Elizabeth’s sorrow disassociation could be viewed as a mirror which reflected all of Alma’s inner unexpressed feelings. There was a clear sense of a bond developing between the two which makes the distasteful and disturbing ending all the more affecting. It could also be that Alma never existed and was a figment of Elizabeth’s imagination. Or it could also be that Elizabeth never existed and it was Alma’s fried brain thoughts all the way. There are several scenes which could prove this or several others which could prove otherwise. It is as much a cerebral feast as it is about the horrors of a deranged of mind. And when it all finished I felt like I had been through this for such a long time and checked the runtime which was a staggeringly short 80 minutes. I mean the effect was unbelievable truly. The ear membrane slicing music, the flashy and bold contrasts of dizzying bright light and the black outfits, and a mind boggling tale of psychoanalysis from the point of view of a patient, combined with the heady mix of exhausting, melancholic performances and tone of the film together sucked me into a trance. That is the reason why this film felt so much longer than what it actually was. I mean that as a compliment and it could possibly be the greatest compliment for this film. It is how it makes us truly want to shun away and thirst for a relief, because throughout there is absolutely no breathing space, there is absolutely no respite and it always gives the sense of falling into a pit deeper and more shocking than what its premise suggested.

Bergman had once said:

“If I had not found the strength to make this film, I would probably have been all washed up. One significant point: for the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success.”

The film demanded the same strength and hell bent attitude from me to sit through it in one go. And I felt washed up and stunned after it finished. Alluding to the second line in Bergman’s quote I would also request anyone who has not seen this film, to watch it without pondering upon whether or not they will like it, love it or hate it, as it is one hell of an experience which must not be missed.

PS, After finishing my watch, I read how this film has influenced so many others after it like Lynch’s masterpiece Mulholland Drive, Altman’s 3 Women and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. I reflected and had a wry smile on my face rooted from my grimacing reminiscence of how fucked up this film actually was to have had such an unmistakable influence on these films. Again this is meant as a compliment. It is that freaking awesome.

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