Classic Musings: Persona (1966)

A first-timer's experience with Ingmar Bergman's Persona could hit them harder than they might expect, especially after its enigmatic, sensory-rattling opening: sparks generated by a projector's arc-light system, stretches of silent-era footage, and flashes of provocative innuendo-laced imagery quickly offset one's point of view. It's intentionally disorienting as a primer for what's to come, a distortion of the audience's perspective during those moments while they're trying to resolve who's the observer of the story manifesting before them. Are these clues, thematic suggestions, or merely red herrings leading into what's ultimately one of cinema's early iterations of a maze-like contraption of a film? The answer, if you want to call it that, lies in the experience itself, really, and its avant-garde intentions towards observation and interpretation. Marking a transition point in Bergman's career as his breathtaking composition and eerie existentialism further explores the psyches of two isolated women, Persona remains a mesmerizing abstract endeavor that tiptoes the line between the graspable and unknowable.

Eventually, after several minutes of jarring visual devices with little outward rhyme or reason (aside from clear references to Bergman's previous works), the story proper begins with a young nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), accepting an assignment to help a celebrated actress, Elizabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), overcome a state of being inexplicably stricken mute. Deeming the patient psychologically and physiologically fine, her doctor suggests that the pair withdraw to an isolated beach house for further treatment in a casual environment, with Alma more as a potential conversation companion instead of a medical professional. From there, Persona pivots on the details of Alma's stream of dialogue aimed at the actress, revealing more about her experiences -- her engagement, her previous sexual encounters, her ambition as an individual -- as the silent Elizabet absorbs and reacts to her chatter. Tension mounts as their time continues, with Alma herself eerily and reverently adopting some of Elizabet's traits.

Filtered through the lens of Bergman's crucial collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Persona frames the relationship between Alma and Elizabet in the director's signature stark visuals, from the sterile claustrophobia of the hospital to the airy, rocky expanses of the doctor's seaside house. The isolation and craggy landscape inform the film's expressive core, shaping the nurse's character as she bears her soul with no indication whether Elizabet will return the favor. When they're not taking walks along the Swedish coast, their closeness gets shrouded by eerie shadows within the free-flowing home, the intensity of their gazes and the creases forming in their facial expressions becoming important as Bergman's construction of their identities comes into focus. His concentration on imagery evolves into an emotionally-provocative exploration of mirror images and reflections, where some of the director's most profoundly lyrical shots -- a silhouette against the ripples of a pond; the overlap of bodies in an obscuring fog; the conscientious interruption of celluloid damage -- compliment the story's challenging grasp on identity.

Bergman cleverly lures the audience into embracing the nurse's steady admissions and submissive admiration, freely divulging her secrets and trust; he also, on the other hand, urges those watching to observe how Elizabet reacts to Alma's common flaws and Personal idiosyncrasies, and how Alma herself responds to the lack of recompense. It's fascinating to behold: Alma's vocalized interpretations of Elizabet's purely physical reactions, often in the form of accusations, might differ from the audience's, the stunted actress' thought-processes rarely a certainty as their one-sided candor gradually turns toxic. Bibi Andersson's presence evolves into layered and intense complexity as Alma's jumbled personality comes to the surface, the fire in her eyes and body language developing as the film furthers as an exercise in human observation, of repressing and avoiding one's Personality because it makes their life easier. Liv Ullmann's eerie near-silent performance, herself expressive through eyes and bodily gestures, potently validates Bergman's ideas about the power-play involved in dependence, egotism, and unspoken attraction.

Persona's solemn examination of the human disposition takes a sharp, cerebral (and, some might say, anticipated) turn into Bergman's wheelhouse of surrealist and existential considerations later on, using what's known about the two women as a medium for interpretation about their true identities. The director doesn't hold any of his creative aspirations back as disquieting imagery and abstract plays with the medium -- two sides of a face lining up with one another; the sizzle of overworked film to convey volatility; the reemergence of bizarre images from the film's prologue -- spiral the film into an analytical playground, urging those witnessing the unspooling rapport between Alma and Elizabet to question the nuance lying underneath. Like many of Bergman's films, however, Persona's challenges to the audience suffer little from pretense or futility: its clues and visual triggers, willfully contrived into being bizarre and intentionally provocative, form a cohesive mosaic that never lets the director's puzzling, cynical ambition out of its sight. It's playful, deviously so, but not without purpose.

Deciphering a concrete "solution" to what unfolds in this Pandora's Box of cinema might, perhaps, be an act of futility once everything's packed back up and prepared to leave the audience with their viewpoints. All one can really do is narrow down the assorted interpretations that Bergman puts before us: whether events through Alma's perspective manifest as dream sequences, flights of madness, or to be taken literally in the pair's psychologically turbulent time together, all of which work in context. And then there's Bergman's overarching ideas about perspective and cinema itself, seen through the rattle of film negatives and the fade of projector lights that bookend the film, maybe suggesting a correlation between the subjectivity of observing cinema and the subjectivity of comprehending someone's inherent persona. Bergman orchestrated a wealth of secrets under the surface in Persona, both figurative and literal concoctions that open up after further inspection (and introspection). The expertly-crafted psychological drama between Alma and Elizabet fascinates at first blush; the meaning built around their unstable rapport, which can evolve upon repeat viewings, is what makes it a masterwork.

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