Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Persona is perhaps Ingmar Bergman's most abstract picture. In a filmography that moved toward
minimalist psychological expression, it's his most focused work. It's also plainly his most "arty,"
a stack of visual conceits and gimmicks that rarely allow a narrative to play without the director
intruding, almost visibly pulling the strings. It wasn't the King of the Headscratchers (that was Alain
Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad or the ultimate in alienation (Antonioni,
L'Avventura) but it sure beats both
of those titles for distilled Swedish navel-gazing.
With the hynotically interesting Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson on board, it's just too visually
riveting to not hold one's interest. Of the show's 83 minutes, 50 must be of held closeups of the
two Nordic actresses.
Actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman) undergoes a mental rebellion. She's lucid
and composed but refuses to acknowledge people, respond to their questions or speak. Her doctor
(Margaretha Krook) doesn't think the actress belongs in a hospital and dispatches her along with
private nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) to the doctor's own beach house for a period of recuperation.
Once alone, Alma does all the talking, opens up to the beautiful, silent woman and a process of
personality assimilation begins. Dreams become confused with reality, emotions get out of hand and
Alma begins to think her charge is robbing her of her identity.
In 2004 terms Persona looks exactly how a European Art film is supposed to look. There are cuts to
extraneous visuals of obscure meaning. There are even flash cuts to disturbing content. 1
The show opens and ends with the symbolic and self-referential visual of a projector's
carbon arc firing up
and various filmic subjects - a naughty cartoon, a Mélies-like fright show - unspooling as if
reality were awakening by going through a Philip K. Dickian film evolution. There are a number of
stylized two-shots during the course of the show that have been imitated ad infinitum by perfume
and fashion ads - you'll recognize them when you see them. They're very arresting but have lost
some of their shock value.
The hospital is blank walls and empty rooms of the kind that would drive sane people mad. The doctor's
beach house is a similar structure that becomes similarly nightmarish during Alma's dreams: Elisabet
glides in from a grossly overlit room, "integrating" as she walks out of the harsh glare. It's not
a time record, but we're invited to stare for quite a long while at Ullman's reclining face as
darkness falls around her.
Alma and Elisabet very closely resemble each other in basic facial physiognomy, and soon it seems
that the silent Elisabet is a Pod, studying the human whose body she will soon be snatching. Alma
is a knot of frustrated sexual desires and can't help relating to Elisabet through sensual dreams.
Elisabet smiles knowingly and allows Alma to keep talking. It's an idyllic existence, an artificially
unlikely situation (if my doctor would send me to her beach house, I'd stop talking too!) that Bergman
has confected to play his visual games.
Empathizing with someone, caring for them and identifying with them can be an unhealthy combination,
and soon Alma is getting too close (even the non-dream interplay is unprofessionally intimate) and
talking too much. Alma recites a pornographic incident she and a girlfriend had with two teenaged
boys on a beach, 2
a confession that Elisabet casually exploits. Alma loses her detachment and her nursely control of the
At this point the story sort of breaks down into Bergman's filmic experiments. His films of this
period focus on psychological deterioration, and here he definitely expresses it in blunt cinematic
One soliloquoy lasting several minutes is repeated verbatim, by running two camera closeups one
after another - first the listener, then the speaker. It isn't as revealing or riveting as the
experts claim. Alma apparently dreams that Elisabet's husband (Gunnar Björnstrand) arrives,
but in the dream she has become Elisabet, and kisses him passionately while the real Elisabet stares
blankly in mannered compositions.
Horror fans will react immediately when one woman cuts her arm, and the other immediately starts
kissing and sucking the blood. Elisabet is behaving like nothing less than a vampire, and the blood
analogy is direct, if a little too obvious. Bergman would never stoop to make a commercial trifle like
a real genre picture, one that could posit its personal meanings and musings only indirectly.
The most visually arresting moment is when Bergman superimposes the two women's faces next to each
other, half & half. The match is so good, it looks like one of them - no, the other - no, some strange
kind of morphed third entity. Yet it comes off as the kind of gimmick Weegee would pawn on us.
Alma finally gets her patient to speak just one word, that, true to Bergman's M.O., reeks of studied
pessimism and bleakness. Nothing much is settled; the show ends because the director's bag of
tricks runs out.
Persona has power because Bergman employs two of the most powerful faces in movies; we can't
help but feel involved in Ullman and Andersson's problems, even if we don't understand them. He trots
atrocious footage of a Vietnamese monk immolating himself to horrify Elisabet - gee, is the pressure
of a cruel and oppressive world the cause of her rebellion of silence? She also studies that famous,
terrible photograph from WW2 where a group of Jewish refugees stands on a sidewalk, and one lone
child raises his hands in confused, terrorized surrender. The communal guilt of the crimes of the
horrid human race is too much for Elisabet as well, I guess. All of these intellectual themes seem
like bad cinema compared to the honest believability of Bergman's actresses. The movie does have
a rare dimension of emotional intimacy that's not to be found anywhere else, not even in Bergman
films. It's a lot of people's favorite foreign Art film.
MGM's DVD of Persona is one not affected by the recall that spoiled the February release of
their boxed set, which will now debut in April with Hour of the Wolf and Shame remastered
from different transfers. Those two were incorrectly put out with 1:66 mattes, when they were
officially meant to be 1:33. 3
Persona hasn't been recalled even though the transfer has been overcropped somewhat (not much),
the effect of which one can see by viewing the trailer included on the disc ... which shows more around
the periphery of the images. (It's also matted to at least 1:85!) MGM already had flat transfers at the
ready to correct the other two, but waiting to retransfer the entire film of Persona wasn't in
the cards. So this is how it's going to be ... my monitor overscans so much that until heads are
chopped off, I've stopped becoming concerned about such things.
Unfortunately, all the well-intentioned Web outrage will probably result in MGM steering clear of any
more High-Art special editions.
The image quality is great, and it's nice to be able to remove the subs to enjoy some of the
classier camera moves on these two blonde ladies without the distraction of words popping on and
off the screen.
The extras are good. Once again, Ingmar Bergman biographer Marc Gervais may know Bergman inside and
out, but when he's on camera, he can't seem to speak a coherent sentence about the Swedish
master. He's almost embarrassing in the short docu, A Poem in Images. On the other hand, Ms.
Ullmann and Ms. Andersson are spectacular, giving us the full lowdown on the show in lucid detail.
Ullmann openly admits she didn't understand Bergman's story in the
slightest, which was okay by her. Andersson is a wise beauty, sagely observing that the beautiful
young woman in the film is mostly a different person than the one she is today. But she's still
proud of her youthful self on screen.
Both ladies have separate interview featurettes. Ullmann's is a complete rundown on her affair with
Bergman and how it broke up both of their marriages when they decided they had to continue their
lives together. Pretty Confidential stuff.
There's the trailer I mentioned, some photos, and an English track for those who can't bear to
hear foreign dialogue.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Excellent, but slightly misframed
Supplements: 2nd English audio track, Commentary by Bergman biographer
Marc Gervais, A Poem in Images featurette, Interviews with Liv Ullmann and Bibi
Andersson, Photo gallery, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 13, 2004
1. Even an erect penis in
the odd opening sequence. It's only a couple of frames long, but to modern eyes used to watching
modern movies, it seems to be up there for two seconds! This was, I am told, snipped out of earlier
video versions of the film.
2. The storytelling session is another uncensored addition to this DVD,
even though there's no new footage. Previous subtitles had fudged some particulars in the erotic
encounter on the beach, and the new subs are luridly accurate.
3. - But like all foreign films, routinely shown at between 1:66 and 1:78 ...
I've seen the 35mm prints with burned-in subtitles, and they're HIGH in the frame, so as not to fall
below the lower masking!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.