Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” is like a lucid dream; the images are so vivid long after you’ve left it, but it feels impossible to describe even as it’s happening. It’s a shocking, intense masterpiece that I am not yet fully equipped to write about.
Bergman’s films always connect on a gut, spiritual level. His early masterpieces “Wild Strawberries” and “The Seventh Seal” are both deeply religious and symbolic works of art, and his later masterpiece “Fanny and Alexander” is a more down to Earth art house feature, one that is tender and disturbing at once.
“Persona” is rooted deeply in both approaches, and yet its starkly avant-garde styling and free-form, utterly pretentious story and editing makes it an extremely perplexing watch. Somehow though, Bergman is a talented enough director to overcome the idea that his film is pretentious at all. “Persona” is raw and deeply emotional, an extremely gut wrenching story that embodies the naked existence of man and of art.
It follows two women and their emotional and mental love affair together. One is Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who suddenly on stage stopped talking and has not resumed. Doctors claim she is in perfect mental and physical health, but they assign a nurse, Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), to her bedside.
They escape to an ocean retreat together, and although Elisabet does not speak, she communicates deeply with Alma and listens. In an early scene we become lost in Elisabet’s frozen gaze, the camera filling the frame with her face at an oblong angle and introducing shadows until what remains of her is skin, curvature and two black globes where her eyes once were. She has expressions and characteristics, but Bergman exposes this character’s naked self.
Her comforting presence leads Alma to confide in her an unbelievably vivid story of an orgy on a beach. We sit and listen and are deeply engaged in faces, and over the course of a few minutes and a handful of darkly evocative shots, we’re staring into this tortured woman’s soul. The sex seems so real and, for lack of a better word, penetrating. It is intensely affecting.
I began to think of how many movies touch on the themes of humanity and existence Bergman grasps so gracefully. “The Master” somehow seemed like an apt comparison, with the nature between Alma and Elisabet eventually becoming not as clear as it seems. A dream sequence involving Elisabet’s husband seems Lynchian in nature, but then even David Lynch has never made a film that felt quite like “Persona.”
Shots at the beginning, end and quasi intermission of the film allude to the omni-present nature of the camera. We see Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist filming it all in one quick glimpse.There’s a cartoon of early cinema reflected obliquely on a wall. The film in the camera itself burns and is reset by hidden hands. A famous shot of a boy placing his hand in front of a giant blurred face looking in and watching him is one of the most haunting and memorable images in all of cinema, and in a way it’s a fine, surreal example of how three-dimensional depth without any depth at all paints a powerful picture.
Yet most films that break the fourth wall seem to do so out of a sense of irony or satire. Even when Francois Truffaut shatters barriers of cinema and still achieves tender emotion in “Day for Night,” his tone is comedic. Bergman is there as a creator, not as a pundit with a statement about the nature of life. What matters is that they have made this, and there is no separating themselves from this part of their lives.
Is this is even beginning to scratch the surface of what “Persona” is like? I imagine not. The only real way to know it is to experience it for yourself, watching the whole thing laid open and bare.