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.
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 situation.
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 terms. 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 out some 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,
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!