Persona

In early 1965, under the influence of the French New Wave, half dead from pneumonia and subsequent antibiotic poisoning, and depressed by more than just the view from his Stockholm hospital bed, Ingmar Bergman cobbled together some ideas for a small movie about two women. Addled by the administrative headaches of his position as the head of Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre—and probably discouraged by the frosty reception that greeted his recent comedy and first color film, All These Women—he felt a small movie was the only kind he would be able to make. And so he started putting together, in his head, a modest drama. He imagined two women comparing hands. One of them, he decided, would be talking, and the other would be silent. It went from there.

So Persona is the story of two women. One of them is Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), an actress who has retreated from her profession by refusing to speak or gesture. The other is Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse who assents to a psychologist’s recommendation that Elisabet be moved out of the psychiatric hospital to a beach house, where Alma will care for her. Once the two women move in together, they fall into an easy but one-sided friendship. Elisabet listens impassively but attentively as Alma holds forth on a range of topics: faith, family, love, career. “It feels so good to talk!” she marvels, mentioning that she had always wanted a sister. Then, on a trip to the post office, Alma opens a letter from Elisabet to her husband and learns that the actress has not become her friend and confidant but is only studying her in the same way a scientist might scrutinize an insect, not without kindness, but with bemused detachment. Still, the betrayal stings. By movie’s end, Alma is waging psychological warfare, leveraging what she can surmise about Elisabet’s emotional life—especially what Alma supposes is her difficult relationship with an unwanted son—as a weapon to penetrate the woman’s defenses and lay her low.

That sounds like a pretty good Bergman movie, maybe a thematic cousin to The Silence, his 1963 drama about two sisters, one sick and one the picture of fleshy health, in a strange country where neither of them speaks the language. Yet that synopsis doesn’t begin to do justice to Persona, or to convey the enigmatic spell it casts from first frame to last. It doesn’t describe the breathtaking formal innovation Bergman brought to the process, the unforced intensity of the dreams it presents as part of its narrative or the way Bergman suggests that the whir and clatter of the film projector represents a consciousness of its own. “For the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success,” Bergman later wrote in his book Images. “The gospel according to which one must be comprehensible at all costs, one that had been dinned to me ever since I worked as the lowliest manuscript slave at Svensk Filmindustri, could finally go to hell (which is where it belongs).”

Bergman cuts all ties with convention in the opening moments of Persona, which depict the two glowing carbon rods of an arc lamp emerging from the darkness of an empty frame. Persona truly does begin at the beginning: a dark room, the sudden white glare of projection, stills gaining the appearance of motion when they materialize, one after the other, as shadows on a screen. After the lamp ignites, we next see something turning extremely quickly–I’ve always taken it to be a reel of film, but now I think it must be the shutter in front of the lamp. In the next shot, we can see a piece of celluloid snaking its way into the projector, and then the light being focused through a lens. After a few seconds of film leader–wait, was that a penis?–we start to see a primitive cartoon loop of a woman washing herself outdoors appear on the filmstrip as it runs through the projector. And then we see a child’s hands, also making washing motions. Or are they signs, the underdeveloped gestures of a primitive, nonverbal language? The screen goes completely white, as if taking some time to compose its next thought. We see clips from the silent movie-within-a-movie that Bergman made for his early Prison, wherein a skeleton and a devil chase a man in a nightshirt around his home. Another cut to white, the picture contemplating its next move. Suddenly shit gets real, as a large spider appears on screen as though crawling across glass. (Bergman fans will recognize this, perhaps with a shudder, as the spider-god described in Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light.) Next, a lamb is slaughtered, one eye open uncomprehendingly, blood draining from the wound in its neck. Cut to a crucifixion (surely the crucifixion) in close-up, nail hammered into bleeding flesh.

We are less than three minutes into Persona and Bergman has shown us the beginnings of visual thought, the building blocks of communication, the first stirrings of supernatural beliefs and religious thought, and finally outright rebellion against the creator. The themes are no stretch for Bergman, although the provocative, rapid-fire presentation is something new. The pacing of the imagery slows down a bit in the next section of film, as we see bodies in a morgue, their still hands, faces, and feet photographed from a variety of angles. Also there, incongruously, is an adolescent boy. The teenager wakes, as if from sleep, to the persistent and anomalous sound of a ringing telephone. Thus perturbed, he slips on a pair of glasses and begins to read. But something disturbs him and he looks around the room, his gaze eventually alighting on…us.

Staring directly into camera, the boy reaches out with one palm as if pressing his hand against the other side of the cinema screen. The effect is electric. Bergman cuts to an over-the-shoulder shot where we see the boy is actually using his hands to trace the blurry outlines of a human face on a screen. It’s unclear at this point whether the boy is audience or auteur—whether he is attempting to consume the image as a hungry reviewer, or helping to bring it into existence. Abruptly, the opening-credits sequence begins, title cards intercut with glimpses of the boy gazing out of the screen, a small smile on his face, as well as scenes that flit by nearly too fast to register: trees, grass, a rocky shore, two different women who glare towards the camera in their close-ups. Lastly, a grace note: another shot from Bergman’s slapstick silent-film pastiche, this time with a policeman joining the madcap chase, from which the movie cuts directly to the final title card, reading simply “Svensk Filmindustri.” It’s an excellent joke, poking gentle fun at the institution of Swedish cinema and Bergman’s undeniable position as its international figurehead.

From there, the bulk of Persona is the story of Alma and Elisabet. What to make of this prologue, then—particularly the boy in the morgue? Well, the boy has at least three identities, depending on how far you want to go in the analysis. First, the film itself supports the reasonable supposition that he is Elisabet’s child, reaching out to touch a present yet frustratingly indistinct mother figure who hovers, larger than life, just out of reach. Why, then, does Elisabet’s visage alternate on the screen with Alma’s? Well, if you do much reading about Persona, you’ll soon figure out that Bergman intended the boy in part to represent the slumbering auteur, his uncertain stirrings forming the basis for a new work. Bergman himself described this section of Persona as a poem in images about the origin of the project. (“I made believe I was a little boy who’d died, yet who wasn’t allowed to be really dead,” he wrote, “because he kept on being woken up by telephone calls from the Royal Dramatic Theatre.”) But there’s another, intertextual layer to the boy’s presence: he bears a strong resemblance to the little kid from The Silence. In fact, the boy is played by the same actor (Jörgen Lindström), and the book he resumes reading here–the 1841 novel The Hero of Our Time, by the Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov–is the same one the boy was reading in The Silence. Spooky, no?

I don’t intend to dwell on the rest of Persona in such detail, but a close reading of this sequence demonstrates the kind of complex, multi-layered representation Bergman constructed here. If you can unpack the prologue, the rest seems simpler–two woman, one of them talking, the other silent. But, again, the scenario is layered with meaning. First, the women are undoubtedly patient and nurse, with the various class-based complications that derive from their status as employer and employee. Second, they are artist and audience—nurse Alma is a bit starstruck. They are vampire and victim, the artist in observational mode, fangs out, drawing insight and inspiration from the other’s guileless confessions. Finally, and especially because this is a Bergman movie, they are God and man, the creator regarding humankind with a benevolent but arrogant affection, and the sinner striking out at His silence with whatever weapons are available.

In the first of Persona‘s several extraordinary sequences, the young Alma tells the story of a sexual indiscretion–an impromptu seaside encounter with no fewer than three strangers (one woman and two boys) that culminated in her pregnancy and an abortion. Bergman has Andersson deliver the monologue without resorting to flashbacks, underscoring not merely the powerful imaginative force of a story told in plain language, but also the erotic nuances of her performance. She has a dazed look in her eyes, and her words come in breathless gasps. There are no pictures, but you can imagine the tableaux in obscene detail. Ullmann smokes a cigarette and watches with an interest that seems anything but prurient. For her, this is research. Andersson’s monologue is critical to her character, as it represents the point at which Alma begins treating Elisabet more as a friend than as a professional obligation. It was also a canny commercial move on Bergman’s part, giving Persona an erotic charge that would reverberate in European cinema. (Mireille Darc’s explicit monologue in Godard’s Weekend, released two years later, must be a direct parody).

Andersson’s story must be true; of that, her performance leaves no doubt. Persona itself, on the other hand, quickly becomes what you could call an unreliable narrative. By that I mean we quite clearly see and hear things on screen that we’re not sure about. At one point, Elisabet whispers to Alma from off screen, but denies it later. Shortly thereafter comes a vignette in which Alma, having retired to her bedroom, is visited at night by Elisabet, who embraces her from behind and presses her lips to Alma’s neck as if trying to find her pulse before tearing open a vein. It’s one of the few scenes from the main narrative body that isn’t naturalistic in tone. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography has taken on a soft, dreamlike quality, as though fog has rolled into the house from outdoors. The image is composed with doorways and windows creating frames within frames, the carefully-positioned diagonals of bookshelves and windows a nodding homage to German Expressionism. The scene is made up of just two shots, connected by a disjunctive jump cut. In the second shot, only the heads and shoulders of the women are visible, staring directly into the camera. On a first viewing of the film, it’s perfectly natural to think we’re meant to imagine them looking into a mirror, as Elisabet reaches up and pulls Alma’s bangs away from her forehead. Alas, nothing indicates that there’s a mirror in the room. So are they looking at us?

The image is so mesmerizing that the question might not occur to a viewer at first. Bergman forces the issue in the very next shot, a beach exterior. Ullmann rises into the frame from below, facing camera and holding her own snapshot camera, with which she takes a picture. The film’s reflexivity is amplified later, in Alma’s first episode of passive-aggression against Elisabet—she breaks a water glass on the patio and cleans up the mess, but accidentally leaves one shard behind. When she realizes her mistake, instead of removing the last piece she leaves it there as Elisabet walks around in bare feet. The tension ratchets up quickly as Elisabet paces back and forth; it could be a scene from Hitchcock. When Elisabet finally does cut herself, she locks gazes with Alma. At this point, just past Persona‘s halfway mark, the film itself ruptures and tears, ultimately catching fire and melting, leaving behind, again, the pure blank whiteness of light. We return to the silent-movie pantomime, and to the crucifixion, which appears to be posited as a parallel to Alma’s act of violence against Elisabet. Then it’s an eyeball in close-up, and then a blurred image, as though captured through an unfocused lens. After the picture does snap into focus, on Elisabet in profile, it’s back to narrative business as usual, though with a barbed edge to Alma’s lines, the nurse now seeking distance rather than intimacy.

There is more to chew on, notably a bizarre vignette in which Elisabet’s husband comes to visit but ends up making love to Alma instead, followed by a long scene in which Alma essentially psychoanalyzes Elisabet. The latter plays out in its entirety twice. The first time through, we watch Elisabet’s face as she reacts to Alma’s accusations that she’s a bad mother with an unwanted son. The second time, we watch Alma as she spits words across the table. Elisabet is lit from her left, the right side of her face in darkness. Alma, facing Elisabet, is lit from her right, the left side of her face shadowed. As Alma finishes reprising her monologue—”I’m not Elisabet Vogler,” she cries. “You’re Elisabet Vogler”—the darkened left half of Alma’s face is suddenly replaced on screen by that half of Elisabet’s face, brightly lit. It’s one of the most bizarre images in all of cinema, simultaneously highlighting the similarities between Ullmann’s and Andersson’s faces and drawing attention to their weird asymmetricality. (Bergman noted later that neither woman recognized her own face when the shot was played back in dailies, each one instead reading it as a terrible shot of the other!) And it caps a scene whose presentation draws attention to the artifice of filmmaking. (Did Bergman simply throw up his hands in the editing room, when he couldn’t figure out how to intercut the two angles?) By playing the entire scene twice, rather than alternating the two different viewpoints, Bergman has given us a time-stretching view on the performances that’s one step closer to what actually happened in front of the camera. Cinematic grammar is breaking down; Persona wants us to be aware of the filmmaking process.

Persona has been considered at great length in essays and volumes of critical commentary—my own reading of the film will be forever indebted to my old professor Bruce Kawin’s take on it, as fully articulated in his book Mindscreen. Yet after all these years, it remains enigmatic. It poses so many questions that have no ready answers. Persona accepts multiple readings, thanks in part to Bergman’s abandonment of “comprehensibility.” It can be effectively read as pure psychodrama; as religious allegory; as political protest; as an early masterpiece (or travesty) of queer filmmaking; as a meditation on the role of the artist in society; and as a Brechtian piece with repeated and unmistakable references to the nature of film as film. That last quality of Persona is the real indicator of its complexity, a signal that the finished work becomes a greater and different thing than its director or actors ever could have envisioned or intended. Another question posed by the movie’s dream sequences is obvious: whose dreams are they? What, especially, to make of the bloodletting sequence late in the picture, when Alma tears open a vein and offers it to a hungry Elisabet? It is presented naturalistically, without visual clues that it should be taken at anything other than face value. Well, we’ve left “realism” behind, and it’s no longer profitable to try and sort out what is and isn’t “really” happening. Persona is happening. It’s a film that wills itself into being and dies out once it has run out of material–an event that comprises light and shadow on a screen and sound thrown against four theatre walls, a self-contained, self-conscious universe that’s neither subjective nor objective, that dreams freely about its characters’ relationship and exists completely in the temporal space between lights on and lights off.

In Persona‘s denouement, before a short coda brings us back to the boy in the morgue and the images fading from the movie-screen in front of him, there’s a succession of quiet shots showing Alma leaving the beach house and catching a bus. Interrupting the sequence is a quick insert of a camera, on a platform, craning down with the director and DP crouched on either side. The director is, of course, Bergman, and his director’s chair is briefly visible before we see Ullmann herself, in costume, reflected in the camera’s lens. I always found that to be a unique and provocative authorial flourish, even in something as full of self-referentiality as Persona. What does it mean? I wonder. Persona is brimming with so many references to its own status as a film that this final potshot feels a little gratuitous, but I’ve read it in different ways over the years. This time through, I was thinking back to how Persona began, with a death by crucifixion followed by a resurrection, life springing out of the darkness between films. Persona revved up a new period in the director’s career, renewing his confidence and kick-starting his working relationship with Ullmann, who would be his lover in addition to appearing in most of his key late-period films. Bergman himself has said that he feared he was washed up as an artist when he started Persona, and that its success saved his life. In that context, the shot of the auteur himself dipping into frame struck me as a bit boastful, albeit in a rejuvenated, joyful way. Bergman’s back, baby, it says. How ya like me now?

THE BLU-RAY DISC
To call Criterion’s 1.37:1, 1080p Blu-ray transfer of Persona a revelation is to sell it short. It’s possible that you can’t get the full effect of this disc unless you first experienced Persona as I did, back in the 1980s, on a lousy grey-market VHS tape, or maybe on a dupey 16mm print that sported unreadable white-on-white subtitles. MGM’s original LaserDisc release was an improvement, and the DVD reissue that sported the uncensored opening sequence (the erect male member had been scissored from the film’s U.S. version, which was the only one in circulation for decades) was better still, owing in large part to a retranslation of the subtitles that went with substantially bawdier language during Alma’s boys-on-the-beach reminiscence. The image was improved, too (although an early pressing was in the wrong aspect ratio), but Persona on DVD remained a high-contrast affair with deep blacks that may have seemed for generations of viewers to accurately reflect an ascetic aesthetic strategy. Criterion’s BD release, sourced from the original camera negative, puts the lie to all of those earlier versions with its richly-textured shadows, searing whites, and twinkling 35mm film grain. Bergman’s famous close-ups might not appear at the proper scale on Blu-ray–unless your home theatre happens to be the size of a bowling alley, in which case Mazel Tov–but all of the detail seems to have been retained, including the penlight just visible in the women’s eyes as Nykvist’s camera stares them down. Svensk Filmindustri has obviously taken excellent care of the original elements.

The soundtrack, too, is in exceptionally good shape, with broad frequency response. That’s not to say that Bergman had much need for the LFE channel, but dialogue, music, and environmental effects–including those ghostly foghorns that bleat in the distance at night on Fårö island—all have a healthy presence on the uncompressed monaural track. The liner notes indicate the audio was remastered from the original mag tracks, helping explain the relatively low noise floor and detailed palette. Completists may miss the English dub that was on MGM’s DVD, but it’s certainly no great loss.

Criterion has tweaked the subtitles, too, but only a little–I didn’t notice any substantive changes, just a word or a turn of phrase here and there. My only complaint about the presentation of the movie proper is that the new closing credits are out of place. I’m sure they were attached during the 2011 digital restoration by Svensk Filmindustri, but it doesn’t feel right to see end titles roll after that arc light is extinguished. Moreover, these credits have the cheek to positively identify Jörgen Lindstrom’s character as “Elisabeth’s son”–perhaps a helpful clarification, but also one that was never before available to the film’s viewers.

The disc’s lengthiest supplement, offered in full HD and DD 5.1, is Liv & Ingmar, the feature-length (84 minutes) documentary released in 2012 that offers a detailed look at the tempestuous, borderline exploitative love affair that blossomed between Bergman, the great director, and Ullmann, the muse he would describe as his Stradivarius, during the making of Persona. The 70-something Ullmann narrates in English, from front to back, giving the film an emotional tenor to match the intensity of latter-period Bergman film clips chosen to help illustrate her stories. She reads passages from her 1976 memoir, Changing, in addition to responding to the expected questioning from an unheard, off-screen interviewer. Director Dheeraj Akolkar doesn’t sugarcoat the titular relationship, exactly, and you do get a strong sense of what it would be like to live alone in a remote locale with Ingmar Bergman. (“His jealousy was violent,” she says at one point. “I mean more psychologically than using physical force, because he knew how to say things that would stay with you forever.” That line that made me shudder as much as anything I’ve ever seen in a Bergman film.) The overall aesthetic strategy is fairly cloying, however, with a score comprising stately, tinkling piano and soft, tasteful strings bowing slowly to and fro over contemporary landscape shots with preternaturally intense colours. “Only when it was all over did we become true friends,” Ullmann says, and the score swells to fill the room with treacle. The glossy, overtly sentimental mood feels inappropriate. But Ullmann seems content with the way her story turned out, and it makes a fine extra. Where else are you going to come up with an archival clip of Liv Ullmann flirting with Johnny Carson?

Criterion has done independent homework for this release, offering the 16-minute “Elisabet Speaks: Liv Ullmann on Persona“, a fantastic interview segment complete with making-of footage (much of it redundant), glimpses of typewritten screenplay pages with strikethroughs and handwritten rewrites plus sketches of film frames showing faces in close-up and in profile. Ullman talks about the genesis of Persona, working with Andersson, and Bergman’s relationship with his actors and cinematographer. Regarding the craft of acting, she suggests you can’t really rehearse, or plan ahead the details of a performance. When she played intense scenes opposite Andersson, she recalls, she didn’t prepare and then execute her reactions, but rather inhabited a character who was reacting in her own way. “It is Liv in a way, but it’s not only Liv,” she says. “It’s Liv allowing Elisabet to react to Bibi.” She does allow that one scene may have rung false—she faults her reaction to the televised footage of Thích Quảng Đức, the Buddhist monk who burned himself to death in protest of the Vietnam War. “This was not really part of [Elisabet’s] agony,” Ullmann says. “She sees this man burning himself, and I acted to that—and I still feel bad about that—to really show how shocked I was. It was Liv being ‘shocked Liv.’ What a bluff. And I don’t know why Ingmar accepted that.”

In addition, Paul Schrader gets 11 minutes to expound on Persona in full film-crit mode. “The power of Persona is not that it was the first shot in a revolution, but that it was the second shot that sealed the revolution,” is his opener. He goes on to trace the beginnings of “meta-cinema” in Godard and Rohmer, then credits Bergman with taking the self-conscious tics of the French New Wave to a different, more self-exploratory level. “Our notions of storytelling had graduated to a level where they already were in painting and in literature and in poetry,” he says. “We weren’t there yet in film. And now we were there.” Schrader came at Bergman from a strict Calvinist background, of course, and he marvels that in Bergman’s religious-themed films, he saw the entire world of cinematic possibility open up before him. In addition to the macro stuff, Schrader offers brief but useful observations on Bergman’s unusual framing and editing techniques.

The title of the featured video essay, “Persona‘s Prologue: A Poem in Images” (21 mins.), is a misnomer, as it considers Persona more or less in totality as opposed to confining itself to the opening sequence. Scholar Peter Cowie is given 20 minutes to pore over the movie’s images, bringing in some context from Bergman’s career to explain his mood at the time of Persona‘s release, noting its fairly obvious self-reflexive qualities, and finding parallels for its imagery elsewhere in the Bergman oeuvre as well as in Bergman’s autobiography. Cowie ties Bergman’s experiments to the French New Wave and brings Jungian psychology into the picture. It’s a pretty good ‘Persona 101,’ even though many of his assertions represent conventional wisdom in lieu of taking a fresh look at the picture. For example, he repeats the common claim that Elisabet’s husband is “blind” despite that the character can be seen on screen, looking directly into Alma’s eyes, as Cowie speaks. Peter Cowie’s been Criterion’s Bergman Guy since 1986, when he recorded a laserdisc commentary for The Seventh Seal, and I kept wondering if it might be time to let someone else speak.

Well, we do hear another voice when Bergman expert Birgitta Steene, author of the exhaustive tome Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide, narrates 18 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot, both on set and on location, beginning with her own take on the conditions that led to Persona‘s conception and proceeding to recount the progress of the production, the rapport that developed between Bergman and Ullmann, and Bergman’s savvy promotional instincts. “Bergman was cautious not to reveal anything but pleasant moments in the studio,” she notes, explaining that he had earned the nickname of “the demon director” for on-set flare-ups that must go undocumented for the ages. Notably, the footage reveals that the climactic moments of the film’s doubled monologue were photographed with the women sitting side by side, separated by a black curtain, their faces lit from opposite directions. She also asserts that more than half the movie is made up of retakes shot on Fårö after Bergman was dissatisfied with early footage captured on a soundstage in Stockholm. Steene’s brass-tacks knowledge of Bergman’s methodology is encyclopaedic; her presence is more than welcome.

Onto the archival footage. Clocking in at 20 minutes is a vintage (1966) segment in which Andersson, Bergman, and Ullmann, seated on a couch, take questions from an interviewer. Bergman is the confident, serious artist here, Ullmann endlessly charming, Andersson quite poised and focused. Ullmann and Andersson talk about being directed by Bergman (“I’d heard so many terrible things about how fiendish and gruesome he was,” says Ullmann, while Andersson muses on “growing up under Ingmar’s whip”), but this segment is dominated by Bergman. “I don’t feel so concerned about the audience any more,” is his opening salvo. “I’m making my films now primarily for myself.” As this sort of PR goes, it’s pretty good stuff, at least once Bergman loosens up. Asked about references to the French New Wave in Persona, Bergman shrugs them off–although he allows that there may be an unconscious homage to Buñuel. “If I see something good, I steal it and make it my own,” he says, before considering the question further. “I find it hard to imagine traces of Godard in my work,” he continues, “because I dislike his work immensely.”

A real find is the eight-minute segment, dated to 1970 and excerpted from an interview for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program “Man Alive”, featuring Bergman discussing his newfound atheism. (The context of his comments is not entirely clear from the clip reproduced here, but you can dig up the rest of the interview on YouTube.) He talks about what he says were his formerly unhealthy ideas about God’s perfection that made him feel “like a dirty snake” in the inevitable comparison. Abandoning the ideal of a faultless deity, he concluded that what’s important in life under an “empty heaven” is other people. “I don’t feel lonely anymore,” he says. A happy ending!

Also on board is a three-minute U.S. trailer for Persona itself, which the studio sells by cherry-picking a critic’s endorsement of its “terrible knowledge of our loneliness, our estrangement, our inability to reach one another.” See how far that gets you at the local multiplex on a Saturday night. For what it’s worth, all of this video-based supplementary material is in 1080p. The handsome Blu-ray/DVD combo package additionally includes a new booklet essay by Thomas Elsaesser; an excerpt from the crucial Bergman interview text Bergman on Bergman, originally published in 1970; and a revealing except from a 1977 interview with Bibi Andersson. Some Criterion cultists had expected Bergman’s 1979 Fårö Document to show up as an extra as well, but apparently that’s being held back for another late-period Bergman release from the company. No matter–this set combines a fantastic HiDef transfer of a flat-out masterpiece with a well-curated set of extras that illuminate the darkness without trying to shine light exhaustively into the corners. For Bergman fans, it’s just about the greatest thing ever.

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