Persona ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

After watching a film like Persona, it’s tempting to immediately scour the internet for interpretations. I’m sure I will indulge in this activity at some point, but for now, let me try to make head or tail of what I just witnessed on my own.

The opening segment is, in a word, visceral. My nerves were immediately on edge. On first viewing, my interpretation is that the boy we see in this intro is the unloved son discussed in the film’s final third, separated from his mother by a hazy screen. She remains distant and unknown to him, but he doesn’t understand why (we later learn why).

The intro also sets up the repeated theme of film, photography, and acting. Much of the film is about the duality between the roles we play in life (like talkative actors on the stage) and our inner silent lives. Life is a performance, and we must play our parts according to the script. Later on, we see further evidence of this duality in the stark distinction between the socially-acceptable dialogue (“I’ll marry Karl-Henrik and have a couple of children”) and the lengthy monologues retelling sexual and shameful thoughts and experiences that the characters have buried deep within their psyches. There are the things we say, and the things we never utter.

Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that the two characters are one and the same person. But it’s interesting that this isn’t revealed all at once, like in Mulholland Drive, nor is it revealed by a cheap trick like one character turning around to find that the other has vanished. Bergman is more subtle than that, playing with small details like costume and lighting to melt the two characters into one another.

I think that there is actually one central character, Elizabet, and her history is a combination of the memories of the two characters we see on screen. So the orgy of the beach actually happened, followed by a successful abortion, followed by the meeting of the husband, falling pregnant again, botching the abortion and hating the child, and then falling into this non-responsive state.

The film feels like an intimate theatrical performance, with its small cast, simple set locations, and lengthy monologues. But nevertheless, it was essential that Persona be created within the medium of film, evoking that feeling of the lingering lens that the story requires. This is probably the best camerawork I’ve seen of Bergman’s yet. It’s also incredibly erotic at times, but never seems male-gazey. 

There are several aspects I don’t understand about the film. Much like in Tarkovsky’s Mirror, I didn’t understand the real-world footage spliced into the film. Elizabet’s reaction to the monk setting fire to himself on the television could explain her fractured mental state: one way to deal with the horrors of the real world is simply to turn oneself inward entirely. But I’m not sure if this interpretation is correct. I must also say that I didn’t have as strong an emotional reaction to this as I did to Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal, likely because I spent most of the film trying to decipher it rather than letting it wash over me. Perhaps this will change on second viewing.

In sum, Persona was a wild ride that has left me with plenty of questions to mull over, and I’ll probably be mulling them over for the rest of my life.

Scott liked this review