Persona ★★★★½

For whatever reason, Persona is my first Ingmar Bergman film. It won't be the last.

I suppose a person who has seen over 2,500 films, according to what I have remembered to log here on Letterboxd (although quite a lot of those are wrestling), should be expected to have watched at least ONE film from a director who is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential of all time. Then again, he is far from being the only director in this approximate and reported class from whom I have, or had, seen no films.

I really and honestly couldn't come up with a plausible reason why it's taken me this long to watch a Bergman film. I certainly haven't been running scared from his work or even viewed it with suspicion. Like I say, for whatever reason I have somehow conspired to never have seen any of his films to date. I guess it's not as important as the fact that I finally got round to it.

I suspect Persona is somewhat of a difficult film of his to start with, or at least it seems to be judging by some of the articles and reviews I have read about it since I finished watching it. More interesting to me was the fact that I watch this at a time in my life where it says rather a lot to me personally. Difficult or not, maybe this was the right film for the right time.

I particularly felt this to be the case in the nighttime scene where Bibi Andersson pours her heart out to Liv Ullmann by explicitly referencing a sexual encounter she had when she was younger, leading to her breaking down momentarily. It had me asking the question as to whether you are at your most vulnerable when the other person isn't saying much or anything at all?

That vulnerability is almost certainly what therapists and counsellors are looking for if you have sessions with them discussing your mental health - but can you almost say too much when the other person cannot or will not contribute anything? During my worst periods, towards the end of last year, I almost became like a broken tap on several occasions - seemingly unable to switch myself off from talking, ultimately saying too much or saying it in a way that was wrong or ill-conceived.

Scenes where both Andersson and Ullmann seemingly struggle to react in what would be widely regarded as appropriate ways to violent imagery on TV also resonated with me. I recently joked on my blog that a couple of people refusing to get off the swings in a playground I had taken my daughter to riled and affected me far, far more than any of the current humanitarian crises or disasters that have occurred or continue to occur in certain parts of the world.

The recognition of myself in these scenes to a certain extent were not my only reasons for connecting with Persona but the way Bergman, alongside his two extraordinarily gifted actors, brings these issues to the surface is remarkably subtle and beautifully done. This is the case with Andersson's seemingly deteriorating mental state through the film as well.

We have all seen films, even truly great ones such as The Shining, struggle enormously with the pacing of the portrayal of a character slipping into insanity or further into mental impairment. Yet here is a film, at just over 80 minutes long, that seemingly has no problem at all.

It does help that Andersson is clearly already concerned about her own state of mind before she even meets Ullmann. She tells a doctor that she does not believe she should be involved with this patient, knowing that she will not be strong enough to deal with such a seemingly complex case, and it seems as though she is right. The subtlety, again, is sublime.

However, it is perhaps none more so during the scene where Andersson volunteers to read a passage from her book. She asks Ullmann if she agrees with the sentiments that she had just read out and Ullmann says she does - yet Andersson informs her that she does not agree with them, leading us to ask why she would have written them in the first place. The first signs of Andersson perhaps losing grip on her own persona and seeing it meld with Ullmann's?

I quite adored the way this film constantly asked questions of me as a viewer but actually allowed me time to draw a conclusion before I was faced with the next scene or question. Yet I also enjoyed the way the film was not so complex and impenetrable that should I choose not to provide those answers, or should not be able to do so, that Persona was not lost to me.

After all, a scene where Ullmann suddenly could be talking to Andersson and warning her about falling asleep on a table is framed in such a way that sees Ullmann have her back to the camera - so we just can't be sure. I had no answer to that scene, nor the film-based heart-stopping opening scene and the two other scenes that seemingly choose to expose the possible artificiality of what we are watching.

Thought provoking, stunningly performed and intensely directed and closeted filmmaking. Persona is a film I could easily continue to write paragraph after paragraph on, but drooping eyelids and the prospect of a 6:45am wake-up call have defeated me. The start of my Bergman journey is one that has proved to be a memorable and personal experience and one that I will certainly revisit before very long.

Steve G liked these reviews