Monday, August 19, 2013

FI: Persona

Sweden, 1966
Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Though more commonly known for his intimate, personal dramas and minimalist spiritual musings, Ingmar Bergman was as much of a cinephile as anyone from the nouvelle vague, and occasionally that love of movie-making led to self-awareness within his films. In Persona, there are several moments that remind the audience that they are watching a movie. Its intro calls attention to film projection and rapidly cuts in frames seemingly culled from silent films. Later, near the climax, the physical film itself appears to tear and burn and blow out to white. What all of this means, exactly, and how it relates to the meat of the film, is open to interpretation. Given all of Persona's commentary on doubling and transference, perhaps Bergman is just saying "This is a film, and though it may look like reality, it is just reality's double." Or perhaps not.

As for Persona's story, it concerns a nurse, Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), tending to a post-breakdown actress, Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), who is cleared as physically and mentally healthy, but who stopped speaking during a performance and hasn't said a word since. The head doctor sends Alma and Elisabet away to her summer house by the sea, where the nurse can see to the actress's recovery in a more comfortable, less anxious environment. From here, the film becomes a two-woman show, with Alma chatting almost non-stop and Elisabet reacting, at first politely, then more intimately as the pair become friendly. If the tone of the film and the tenor of Alma's monologues have you questioning just who is in therapy, well, maybe that's the point. Bergman uses the women's closeness and physical similarity to play out ideas of transference and duality.

Bergman's images, brought to life by Sven Nykvist's stark, high-contrast black and white cinematography, are among cinema's most copied. A famous shot, with Ullmann facing the camera and Andersson in profile, their mouths aligned, is one of the most striking visualizations of the women's merging personalities. Both actresses are superb; though Andersson's emotive speeches give her slightly more opportunities to shine, Ullmann nonetheless dominates in spite of being functionally mute, which is some feat. If I said I know exactly what Bergman is trying to say, I'd be lying. There are comments and incidents that suggest a critique of the roles women are societally expected to perform, but that's only part of the story. Yet I was fully engrossed, to the extent that questioning what it all "meant" was secondary to simply experiencing the film as it is.

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