Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Liv Ullmann, Bibi
Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Standard 1.37:1
Features: See Review
Length: 83 Minutes
Release Date: March 25, 2014
“No...I'm not like you...I don't feel like you!”
Persona is an unnerving nightmare...surreal and human, very real in emotion and yet fancifully reminding us that nothing we see is real. It's a favorite film of mine, as well as one of the most difficult for me to analyze it. I think every time I have seen it, I've come away with a different interpretation, and have never been convinced any of them is right. Recently I read Roger Ebert's final take on the film, and his conclusion was to simply take it completely literally. I tried...and that doesn't feel like the right answer either.
Made in a period of depression, Ingmar Bergman crafted Persona as a movie that seems to operate on at least two levels. One is the very strange and compelling story of two women thrown together under unusual circumstances, a story which would weave a certain kind of spell if not for the other level, which is the film's acute self-awareness.
What do I mean? For starters, the movie begins with the old fashioned carbon arc light, where two hot items connect to forge the powerful light needed for the medium, and it ends with the two breaking apart and the screen going dark. The early montage shows film countdowns, subtle images cut in (such as an erect penis), then proceeds into an upside down showing of an early silent cartoon, with film sprockets clearly visible. This is capped by some silent movie mayhem of a chase scene (actually crafted by Bergman). We are looking at mere film, and the film doesn't try to hide the fact.
Next we see a morgue and a body that seems to jolt awake at the sound of a phone. Who is she? No matter; our next view is that of a boy on a gurney, seemingly dead but waking up, reading, and eventually seeming to caress the screen we are watching...the reverse shot shows him looking at blurry close-ups of the two lead actresses, whose stories haven't started yet.
That story is about a nurse named Alma (Andersson), who is assigned the strange case of Elizabet Vogler (Ullmann). She is a famed actress who suddenly went silent while on stage, and has not spoken since. Her doctor seems very unsympathetic, yet suggests the two stay in her summer cottage while Alma tries to help Elizabet recover.
Alma does all the talking while Elizabet merely observes. Elizabet sometimes reacts with laughter, as to a radio soap opera, or with horror, as when she sees the image of the Buddhist monk burning himself alive in Vietnam. But she never speaks a word, meaning Alma is possibly carrying on both sides of the conversation.
In one of the most striking scenes, Alma confesses a sexual encounter to Elizabet, perhaps entrusting her silence. She has a fiancee, but one afternoon she and a friend entertained two underage boys on the beach, in ways descriptive enough to possibly merit an A rating. Alma's shame is not so much in the deed, but in the realization that sexuality would never quite be like that for her ever again.
Just when you think the film has settled into a secure place, things change. Alma reads a letter Elizabet wrote to her doctor, where Elizabet speaks of “studying” Alma, as though she were research material for an acting project. Alma, who has opened herself up more and more and exposed tremendous vulnerability to Elizabet, finally becomes aware of how one-sided it is. Enraged, she leaves a piece of broken glass where Elizabet is likely to step. It happens, and as the two pairs of eyes meet in that moment...
...well, the film breaks apart, melts, and finally re-convenes out of focus for many seconds. Yes, we are reminded again that this is all a movie. Bergman constantly toys with our perception of reality. When we watch movies, we know somewhere that it is not real, yet we willingly surrender to the illusion for a couple of hours. By calling attention to the medium, and even having the actors on screen constantly seem to be looking at us, Bergman has done two things at once: shaken up the convention of reality versus fantasy, and at the same time, made us more than spectators. Somehow, we are a part of the madness and not really safe from it.
Two final scenes deserve mention: one is when Elizabet's blind husband (Bjornstrand) shows up, and mistakes Alma for Elizabet. The wife is close by and allows Alma to speak and even make love to him on her behalf (at one point, even taking Alma's hand and using it to caress his face). It's not just the subject of the scene that fascinates, but the way Bergman films it, using closeups and putting the principals way too near to each other (and us) for comfort.
The last is between Alma and Elizabet, when Alma confronts her with a secret about a child that was never wanted. It's a well-written and strong scene, focused entirely on Elizabet's face as the horrible story is told. Then, the same scene plays again, word for word, with the focus on Alma. The exclamation point is a truly unsettling shot that is half one woman, half the other, blended as one face.
What does it mean? Were the two women becoming one person? Were they ALWAYS one person? Is one mad, and if so, whose madness are we watching? Before it all concludes, there is a shot of Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist moving their camera around to capture the action. Oh yes...did I mention, it IS all just a movie?
You can see why it fascinates, perplexes, frustrates and engrosses, all at the same time. I am not convinced I will ever walk away from Persona with all the answers. But the masterful writing and directing of Bergman created a film so unique, so powerful, so frightening and yet so human, that I never mind repeating the questions.
This is a perfect black-and-white transfer from Criterion. I have owned this movie when it was put out by a different studio, but without a doubt, Criterion's high definition treatment leaves all former issues of the film far behind. Dark and light scenes play out with detail and crystal clear integrity, and the film print itself is beautiful and clean.
Though mostly dialogue driven, there are some surprising moments that lend to a little dynamic range, and right at the most key points, too. The music is strange and haunting...in fact, I'm convinced the opening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was specifically inspired by this movie, not just Swedish cinema in general. Nicely done!
There's no commentary here, but there is a visual essay hosted by critic Peter Cowie that analyzes the opening montage of the film (and a few other key moments) that is very thorough and studious. There are brand new interviews with Liv Ullmann and filmmaker Paul Schrader, discussing the film, as well as archival interviews with Ullman, Andersson and Bergman. There is some silent on-set footage from the film with commentary, the original trailer, and the full feature-length documentary “Liv & Ingmar”, about the collaboration between those two artists.
If you're the kind of moviegoer that HAS to have a clear road map from one plot point to another, Persona is not for you. But for the adventurous and the lovers of cinema as true art form, you can't ask for much better than this masterpiece from Ingmar Bergman, or than this glorious Blu-ray treatment of the film from Criterion.