I’ve deliberately avoided reading much analysis about one of my favorite films of all time. Persona stands as one of the canonical art house films of its time, and you'll find (from what little I’ve read), that the film is usually considered a kind of visceral and tonal response to the avant garde cinema of the time…..Bergman’s “anything you can do I can do better” response to the Antonionis, Godards, and Fellinis of European cinema. Of any reading I’ve done, perhaps it was Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review that spoke to me best where he comments that “Persona is a film we return to over the years, for the beauty of its images and because we hope to understand its mysteries.” In my own life, I tend to return to this film every couple years just for these reasons. But, in a way, I’m not sure I ever truly hope to understand the film, even if it was possible to do so. Maybe it’s why I don’t read much analysis of the film. I want it to remain a thought process for me, a bafflement but an emotionally grounded bafflement at that. It is the constant hoping for understanding but the comfort of not truly understanding that makes me return to it…. that and the overwhelming beauty (and sometimes terror) of the images and the acting.
Bergman’s plot to Persona, on a literal level, is about a nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) who is charged to care for a patient named Elisabet (Liv Ullmann). Elisabet, a famous actress, has suddenly and without warning, decided to become completely silent, refraining from all forms of verbal communication. All indications are that she has a husband and a young child. Alma, based upon the recommendations of the lead doctor, takes Elisabet to a secluded home near the coast where healing and rest can take place. Over time, the two women seem to bond, as Alma bears her soul to the silent Elisabet, conveying past sins and regrets and a whole host of expressions. However, one day when Alma is taking some mail to be delivered into town, she reads a letter that Elisabet is writing to her husband, whereby Elisabet admits that Alma is an interesting person to study. Alma becomes bitter and feels used by Elisabet. They begin to clash, with confrontations becoming increasingly violent and vitriolic. One day, the two women seem to have some kind of epiphany, where they seem to become one individual. From then on, it's open to interpretation on what it all means.
The number of films that I would consider to be visually overwhelming, such that the frame is filled with a kind of immersive attempt to convey an obsession of intimacy to thus achieve a heightened emotional response. Only The Passion of Joan of Arc and The Double Life of Veronique come to mind, in addition to Persona. No more prevalent was this feeling than when I watched it last night on the new Blu-Ray Criterion release. I was struck by just how much of the film is shot in close-up, even extreme close-up. These large and detailed images of the faces of the actresses, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman, strike an intense awareness of intimacy for us, with a power appropriated to the images by us as we are not used to being this close and intimate with anyone in our lives….. except lovers or family members. If you are close enough to see every pore on someone’s face for an extended period of time, it is likely you are in some kind of close and intimate relationship. Indeed, Bergman and master cinematographer Sven Nykvist achieve a kind of orgiastic and sensual obsession with the human face. At the same time, there is a duality of nature to these beautiful images, though, in that they appear almost otherworldly, ghostly, horrific or even abstract. Thus, we are simultaneously drawn to and taken aback by the same images. One example of this occurs as both women’s faces look into the camera as they embrace during the dream sequence at night (ghostly), and then later in the film where their faces merge into 2 halves of a whole (horrific). I suppose the early sequence where the boy is face to face with a large and blurry screen with alternating faces of the actresses may also qualify here (abstract). He reaches out to touch the image in a queasy, sickening kind of love caress. I’m not sure if I’m able to articulate the intensity of feeling that the images of the faces convey, but there is something so shocking and intense about being so close to these images. You can show me a close-up of an animal or an object and I may respond mildly….but show me a close-up of a face and there is suddenly an intimacy, or even a voyeuristic projection from the audience into the images, especially if the images are only viewed in one direction, with the audience being in the position of anonymity.
I don’t come to surmise exactly how the film ends or what it all means, but there are moments where I believe I’ve got it all figured out. Moments of mistaken identity, and duality of nature seem to lead to conclusions whereby the women are two halves of the same self. I suppose this reading is enhanced if you view the end of the film when Alma leaves the house all cleaned up and boards the bus by herself, with no trace of Elisabet. I’ve felt on more than one occasion that Alma is perhaps the physical and Elisabet the psychological side of the same person and this would be my preferred interpretation. I suppose it’s also possible that they are two separate individuals, but that Alma is developing some kind of schizophrenic personality, or that they merge into one being, hence they arrive as two, but leave as one. But does it really matter? Part of the allure for me, as I mentioned before, is not understanding it, but experiencing it. Even if someone were to explain the film in totality, it would not add to the appeal for me. Bergman's masterpiece stands the test of time because of the imagery and the performances, not the structure per se. Liv Ullman’s near wordless performance in her first film strikes notes of openness and compassion despite her silence. Bibi Andersson gives the performance of her career here, and is likely one of the greatest of turns by any actress. Her voice, her facial expressions and her changes in tone from loving to hateful run the full gamut. Nykvist’s camera is the other star. Probing and framing with impossible perfection, the natural light and curvatures of the women’s faces in Persona is one of cinema’s greatest expressions of beauty. And maybe that’s what the appeal of the film boils down to. Nykvist is able to capture the beauty and texture of the faces while Bergman is able to command and utilize the inherent intimacy of such imagery for deep dramatic and emotional effect. That’s why the film is so powerful for me.