20 February 2006
100 films: Persona
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starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook, and Gunnar Björnstrand
written and directed by: Ingmar Bergman
NR, 83 min, 1966, Sweden
Ingmar Bergman's Persona opens with a barrage of images, none of them pleasant, designed to put an audience on edge. Or perhaps the goal is give the casual filmgoer a chance to leave before the difficult subject matter arrives. Either way, they appear to be unrelated to the narrative of Persona, or maybe they're everything. Hard to say for sure. Some of them are Freudian, some comic, some famous, and a few are just weird, but Bergman's trying to establish something here, be it a reminder that this is all just a movie, or an indication of what's to come, or a feeling of unease. Whatever his motives, it's an effective sequence, as it tends to get different reactions from different audience members, to the point that no one can seem to agree what Bergman's trying to do.
What follows is the a story of Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), a young nurse put in charge of the care of Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann), a famous actress who has inexplicably stopped talking. By all accounts she is not sick, nor is she emotionally damaged, she just refuses to talk. So Alma does the talking for her, revealing more and more until it's difficult to see the line where Alma ends and Elisabeth begins. This culminates in the film's most famous image: a split screen combination of Ullmann and Andersson, made to appear as if they are one person. Then, we get another barrage of images.
It is, to be completely honest, a little off-putting and weird.
So let's assume that's Bergman's desired effect--to put us on edge and creep us out a little bit--and go from there. What we get is a compelling dynamic between Andersson and Ullmann, two actresses at the top of their profession, in a film that can't help but showcase their talents. Save for a few brief appearances by a nurse (Margaretha Krook) and Elisabeth's husband (Gunnar Björnstrand), this is a two-woman show that relies heavily on the abilities of the leads, and they are more than capable. Andersson appears to have the more difficult role of the two, as she has all the dialogue, talking for long stretches about everything and anything, partly as a means of filling the silence, but partly, I assume, because it's cathartic. After a while, though, the catharsis is no longer enough and she begs Ullmann to speak, to say anything at all. Naturally, this is triggered by something, but more than that it's just a culmination of being with someone for weeks and never hearing them speak.
The highlight of Andersson's monologue is a story she hasn't even told her fiance, one involving a female friend, a nude beach, and two very curious teenage boys. It is a charged, erotic scene we are never shown, but Andersson is so vivid in the telling of it, that you'd swear it was done in flashback. The entire infidelity occurs while her fiance is at town for the day, yet she does not hesitate to cheat. And the film being a Bergman film, we don't spend time questioning the moral implications of her act, for it is enough that the act was committed in the first place. Live Ullmann, her audience, does not judge, does not react violently, she does not even seem mildly surprised. She just takes it all in, silently smoking and listening, a perfect sounding board.
But why? Is Ullmann studying her, preparing for her next role? Or is the entire thing a dream, and if so, who's? It's possible that the two women are actually two halves of the same person, hence the split-screen final shot. The way Ullmann plays the character, she gives the impression that she knows, but isn't telling. As does Bergman in his camera choices, which are all very clean, composed, and beautifully lit by legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist. But part of the appeal of Persona is that neither the film, nor the filmmakers, seem inclined to tell you what's going on, and that open-ended question mark adds more power than a hundred answers. Everything seems likely, even the extremely unlikely, and by keeping us guessing, Bergman keeps us watching, time and time again.
 And I love Bergman, but the images sort of creep me out.
 One thing the film doesn't really get into is the fact that a perfectly silent person can get more information out of someone than a person asking questions. This is probably how Andersson opens up to Ullmann.