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Ingmar Bergman's mystifying masterpiece, Persona, opens with an image of
light from the lamp of a film projector and then the film running through
the spools. This is followed by a series of images that includes a spider, a
montage from silent comedies, a spike being driven through a man's hand, and
faces in a morgue. The film then cuts to an enigmatic picture of a young boy
watching women's faces appear on a giant screen directly in front of him.
Are these strange images reminding us that we are only observing a film, not
As Persona begins, Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse, is assigned to care for an actress, Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman) who suddenly ceases to speak in the middle of a performance of Electra. Alma learns that there is nothing physically or psychologically wrong with Elizabeth. She just refuses to communicate verbally. Alma and Elizabeth retreat to the head physician's summer cottage on a small island to complete her recuperation. Although Alma is the only one who talks, the relationship grows and Alma is happy that she has found someone who will listen to her sympathetically. She begins to share with Elizabeth some of her most vulnerable moments. A high point in the film is Alma's detailed description of a sexual encounter she had with two teenage boys while sunbathing on a beach in the nude. Elizabeth appears to be an attentive listener who, by facial expression, encourages Alma to reveal more and more personal details.
Alma, however, is deeply hurt when she opens Elizabeth's unsealed letter to her doctor. In the letter, Elizabeth reveals how she is using Alma as a "study" and finds her infatuation "charming". Feeling betrayed Alma lashes out in anger, first berating her patient, then begging for forgiveness. As soon as physical and emotional violence is depicted, Bergman stops the narrative and repeats images from the opening sequence, adding a close-up of an eye as if to remind us again that we are merely prying observers. The relationship of the two women now becomes a struggle of wills. Alma grows more desperate as Elizabeth gets stronger and more dominant. Sensing this new power, Elizabeth seems to transfer her personality to the weaker Alma. Every nuance of emotion is unforgettably conveyed in the facial expressions of these two remarkable actresses.
Persona is filled with surreal images and dream sequences in which it is very difficult to distinguish between illusion and reality. In one scene, Alma sees Elizabeth entering her room at night, then exiting. When Alma asks her the next morning if she was in her room, Elizabeth shakes her head no. We do not know if she is simply not telling the truth, or the event did not occur. Bergman does not offer help. The same is true for scenes when Mr. Vogler appears or when Elizabeth looks at a picture of her son that she tore up at the beginning of the film. Being left on our own to make sense of these discontinuous elements, we are forced to discard thinking in traditional linear ways.
I can't say that I fully understood Persona. It may be suggesting that the persona we assume is merely a mask to cover our fears and insecurities? It seems that Elizabeth is playing a role as actress, wife, and mother. She wants to abandon this inauthentic role by refusing to speak. Alma, on the other hand, acts like a dutiful wife and supportive nurse, but secretly yearns to be what she perceives Elizabeth to be: strong, independent, and self-reliant. In a memorable scene, the faces of the two women are morphed into one composite in a classic overlapping shot, an image that says to me that underneath the roles we play, we are all the same.
After successive viewings, however, I realized that Persona's greatness does not lie in understanding, but in its unbearably intimate and poetically realized images, magnificently conveyed by cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The raw power of this film totally drew me in and allowed me to get in touch with my own feelings of hurt and desperation in trying to reach people in my own life who cannot or will not respond. Persona is not just a classic I objectively admired, but a very powerful personal experience.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When talking of Bergman, critics and viewers usually name Wild
Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, Cries and Whispers ahead of Persona.
While those films are all amazing and stay very high on my list of all
time favorites, for me, the truly unique and inspirational s 'Persona'
- Bergman's enigmatic masterpiece.
The story is seemingly simple:
"A nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), has been assigned to care for a famous actress, Elizabeth (Liv Ullman), who suddenly stopped speaking during a performance of Electra and has remained silent ever since. When they go to stay in a seaside house owned by Alma's psychiatrist colleague, the apparently self-confident nurse gradually reveals more and more of herself in the face of Elizabeth's silence, and is shocked to read a letter the actress has written implying that Alma is an interesting case-study. The two women seem almost to exchange identities, or to become one (strikingly expressed visually in a famous shot); in a dream sequence (or perhaps fantasy), Elizabeth's husband comes to visit and seems to think that Alma is his wife. Finally Alma, back in her nurse's uniform, catches a bus to go home, leaving the almost-mute Elizabeth alone."
Whether Alma was able to get her identity back remains one of the film's many questions.
What is absolutely wonderful in the film performances from two actresses. Anderson is the one who has to carry almost the entire dialog, her voice is one of the film's priceless treasures while Ullman is equally powerful in expressing hundreds of emotions through her face and eyes. Sven Nykvist's camera, the third star of the film makes two stars shine so bright.
Each scene in 81 minutes long film is memorable, some of them just unforgettable. For instance, the long scene where Alma reveals her most intimate memories of a sexual encounter with two boys while sunbathing nude with another girl on an empty beach, is infinitely more erotic to listen to than it would have been to see in flashback.
There is so much to think about in Persona. One major question concerns Elizabeth's silence: is it elective, as happens in Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublyov" , or is it some kind of mental breakdown?. The documentaries about the war horrors that Elizabeth watches on TV suggest the former; the fact that it suddenly happens during a stage performance of "Electra" suggests the latter. I keep thinking about it. Why "Electra" of all plays? The story of the daughter who hated her mother and wanted her dead does it reflect the accusation brought up by Alma that Elizabeth did not love her deformed son and wanted him dead? Did Elizabeth become so overwhelmed by guilt realizing that her life reminded so much of Electra's story? We don't know for sure, and Bergman does not help. The identical monologue in which Alma is accusing Elizabeth is the film's resolution. We hear it twice: first time, camera is concentrating on Elizabeth's face, second time on Alma's. Is Alma talking about Elizabeth or herself or both? After that encounter on the beach, Alma became pregnant and had an abortion. The monologue may reflect her feelings of guilt and emptiness as well as Elizabeth's. Does it really happen?
Is Elizabeth a vampire sucking the life out of her victims only to use them as characters for her acting roles? Is that the ultimate price the artist is paying for being a great artist? Does he need lives and souls of others to be able to create? Can he/she love the ones who utterly depend on them and need their love? This film and later Autumn Sonata (1978) with Ingrid Bergman as a concert pianist show famous stars as selfish women who can't and don't love their children. The same question was brought up also in the earlier "Through a Glass Darkly (1961)" - in the relationship of the writer and his daughter.
Then there is the question of whether there are really two women at all; could the whole film be played out as a fantasy of one of them, or indeed of somebody else? Is there a sexual attraction between the two women? It might be or might be not. I believe, David Lynch has watched "Persona" very carefully, thought about it and used some of its ideas in his own "Mullholland Dr."
There are so many questions in this incredible film that are left unanswered. For almost forty years, viewers and filmmakers alike have been trying to find the answers. One thing is obvious this is one of the films you want to watch over and over again. I think it should be seen by any viewer. If you've seen it already see it again. You'll learn something new. If you have not seen it you are in for a great experience. See it for Sven Nykvist's camera work, for Liv's face, for Bibi's voice, for the unique and mysterious world that is Ingmar Bergman's universe.
PERSONA may well be Ingmar Bergman's most complex film--yet, like many
Bergman films, the story it tells is superficially simple. Actress
Elizabeth Volger has suddenly stopped speaking in what appears to be an
effort to cease all communication with the external world. She is taken
to a hospital, where nurse Alma is assigned to care for her. After some
time, Elisabeth's doctor feels the hospital is of little use to her;
the doctor accordingly lends her seaside home to Elisabeth, who goes
there with Alma in attendance. Although Elisabeth remains silent, the
relationship between the women is a pleasant one--until a rainy day,
too much alcohol, and Elisabeth's silence drives Alma into a series of
highly charged personal revelations.
It is at this point that the film, which has already be super-saturated with complex visual imagery, begins to create an unnerving and deeply existential portrait of how we interpret others, how others interpret us, and the impact that these interpretations have upon both us and them. What at first seemed fond glances and friendly gestures from the silent Elisabeth are now suddenly open to different interpretations, and Alma--feeling increasingly trapped by the silence--enters into a series of confrontations with her patient... but these confrontations have a dreamlike quality, and it becomes impossible to know if they are real or imagined--and if imagined, in which of the women's minds the fantasy occurs.
Ultimately, Bergman seems to be creating a situation in which we are forced to acknowledge that a great deal of what we believe we know about others rests largely upon what we ourselves project upon them. Elisabeth's face and its expressions become akin to a blank screen on which we see our own hopes, dreams, torments, and tragedies projected--while the person behind the face constantly eludes our understanding. In this respect, the theme is remarkably well-suited to its medium: the blankness of the cinema screen with its flickering, endless shifting images that can be interpreted in infinite ways.
Bergman is exceptionally fortunate in his actresses here: both Liv Ullman as the silent Elisabeth and Bibi Anderson as the increasingly distraught Alma offer incredible performances that seem to encompass both what we know from the obvious surface and what we can never know that exists behind their individual masks. Ullman has been justly praised for the power of her silence in this film, and it is difficult to imagine another actress who could carry off a role that must be performed entirely by ambiguous implications. Anderson is likewise remarkable, her increasing levels of emotional distress resounding like the waves upon the rocks at their seaside retreat. And Bergman and his celebrated cinematographer Sven Nykvist fill the screen with a dreamlike quality that is constantly interrupted by unexpected images ranging from glimpses of silent films to a moment at which the celluloid appears to burn to images that merge Ullman and Anderson's faces into one.
As in many of his films, Bergman seems to be stating that we cannot know another person, and that our inability to do is our greatest tragedy. But however the film is interpreted, it is a stunning and powerful achievement, one that will resonate with the viewer long after the film ends.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When I viewed PERSONA recently, I didn't know what exactly to make of
it: what was it telling me, what was its intentions, its ultimate
meaning. Not being a conventional director by far, I felt that Bergman
had deliberately left all this 81 minute of storytelling to me to
figure out... and I may have been right, but I either wasn't getting it
or this was too much of an abstract film to merit any analysis, so my
review was at face value and even ended with the sentence "this is
exactly how Bergman wants it." Seeing it later more emerges, and the
deeper story takes place even if it still seems linear: Elisabeth
Vogler (Liv Ullmann) loses her speech midway through Electra and will
not speak again (except once throughout the entire film, and in an
imagined sequence). There is no apparent reason as to why she has lost
her speech, and the only hint is the horror she witnesses on the
television as war, genocide, and destruction rage on. Other than that
it is never alluded to, her muteness.
Into the picture comes Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse who is put to her care by the suggestion of a psychiatrist. Both retreat to an isolated home. Seeing that Elisabeth will not talk, Alma fills space and time with her own erratic ramblings that take shape and form, a need to fill a void, and that void is of course, Elisabeth, who listens and listens and listens impassively yet with interest. Alma's stories are a form of confession: if Elisabeth is the mute who bears the scars of the world, Alma is the conveyor who purges inner traumas and erotic experiences, hurtful on a lesser scale. The fact she has been laid so naked to the woman she is trying to rehabilitate and the fact she learns this very woman considers her an interesting subject suddenly shocks her: from being caring, she turns vindictive. A shard of glass left deliberately to have Elisabeth step over is the catalyst: the images break, abstract images take place again, and the story re-starts. But one wonders, what if Elisabeth stepped over the glass with equal deliberateness? After all, she does need Alma. And she is an actress foremost. This moment is the one that amps up the tension between the women and even then they become closer, so close Elisabeth's husband thinks Alma is her as Elisabeth quietly allows this to happen. Is Elisabeth re-living some form of event through Alma? Is Alma the only way another secret involving Elisabeth's child can come through? Whatever the reason, Alma is clearly a conduit for Elisabeth to come forth and the merging of their similar faces is the culmination of this haunting psycho-drama that goes beyond its cinematic boundaries. No clear resolutions except the almost casual references that explain both women's return to their own sense of normalcy, but this somehow inconclusive ending is what gives it the weight of a great story and excellent Bergman. Reality here is what is so common to us: who we see ourselves as, how others see us, how self-identification becomes self-preservation through the experiences of others, good or bad or a combination of both. Pain and ecstasy are a part of our make-up, and PERSONA is the best example of the merging of the two.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I've studied Bergman's films and have seen all of them, yet Persona
stands alone as his most brilliant and indeed, the most visually
striking (thanks to the genius of Sven Nykvist).
The story concerns a cracked actress (Liv Ullmann-Bergman's long-time lover), in hospital for treatment under the guise of a rather insecure nurse (Bibi Andersson). As the tale of care- giver and patient plays out, the nurse, Sister Alma, fills the void left by Liv Ullmann's complete silence and regression by offering a series of confessions on her own life. These confessions, most poignantly, consist of Alma's infidelities to her husband, a secret abortion and a unwanted pregnancy to please her husband. Through the course of the movie, set mainly in a summer retreat, the two women, left in seclusion, seem to drift into one another's personae. However, Bergman's dialogue turns more to first person confessional and not a tale of two women. Eventually, the viewer comes to the realization that the two women are actually two sides of the same person. Liv Ullmann represents, in pop-Freudian terms, the superego as Bibi Andersson is the ego or in other words, the 'actress' is actually the nurse and Liv Ullmann, the caretaker/observer.
Elisabet Vogler is actually Bibi Andersson's persona; the one who answers to the external world, whilst shutting out the sensitive, introspective and broken inner persona, Liv Ullmann. The movie comes to a sad conclusion, wherein the actress wins out over the delicate, fractured woman deep within. As the lines in the movie say, they agree to "nothing", keeping the facade intact to the rest of her reality and keeping distant from her older husband and abandoning any attempt to love her son, born to please her husband.
A line in the movie states blatantly that everyone has two personae; the one external and the one internal. This movie is one of the greatest human dramas with a psychological force rarely, if ever, seen today. Along with Casavetes' "A Woman on the Verge" and Lynch's "The Elephant Man", Bergman and Nykvist commit to film one of the most introspective studies of mortality, sanity and the human condition.
persona n 1: an actor's portrayal of someone in a play; 2: Jungian
A personal facade one presents to the world, a public image is "as fragile
as Humpty Dumpty"
personas pl: The role that one assumes or displays in public or society; one's public image or personality as distinguished from the inner self.
The above definitions help, at least a little, to understand or define the experience of Ingmar Bergmann's 1966 film "Persona".
"Persona" is an experience. And "Persona" IS experience. Indescribable not because it wants to be, but indescribable because it is. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who are we comfortable being? Who do we need to be? And why? Some of the overlapping questions in this reviewer's mind during and after this engrossing and occasionally haunting work include, just how does this event and that event happen? Is it live, or is it memorex?? Most notably, Bergmann's skillful black-and-white film, which stars Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, raises complex and interesting questions through the simplest images and minimum movement of camera and actor. The visual psychology is remarkable, powerful. Sven Nykvist's textured cinematography vividly brings the power (and subtlety) alive. Close-ups of the two lead actors' faces, and their symmetry, blend to make strong suggestions about what is transpiring between the two characters.
The two characters, Alma the Nurse (Andersson) and Elisabet Vogel (Ullmann), a stage actress, share very little. Alternately, they might share quite a lot. Much more perhaps than they want to. Elisabet gives new meaning to the expression "silence is golden", and that expression serves the film perfectly. "Persona" is "Fight Club" before "Fight Club" -- without the noise, dizzying effects and backgrounds of David Fincher's 1999 film. In "Persona", everything, from the very beginning to the very end, happen for a reason. The minimalist aspects, the editing, the continuous metaphor laden within dialogue, movement, time and space; the fact that the film is in Swedish language with English white-text subtitles, and with surrealism engulfing the viewer, makes Bergmann's "Persona" a pleasure personified (excuse the pun). Indeed, "Persona" is explicit in feel, mood, tone, dialogue, revelation and imagery.
Together, Bergmann and Nykvist produce beautiful artistry. There are moments of deconstruction within the film to distance its audience, and this is an artistic statement designed to formulate questions in the viewer's mind, rather than to baffle the viewer. The moments of deconstruction of narrative/medium at the beginning, middle and end of "Persona" are what one might call psychological, not "special", effects, as audiences today are accustomed to. The black-and-white film stock of "Persona" symbolizes the gray areas residing around, within and between Alma and Elisabet. Seeing this film in a theater is a treat, and although it has been available on video for many years, it is amazing to experience on a big screen. With the artistry and visuals working to perfection to ingeniously challenge the audience, one is inclined to almost forget the great performances of Anderson and Ullmann.
Cinema, when articulated through films like "Persona", is never better.
Writing from a hospital bed (as he did with Wild Strawberries, two of
these being films strung out from anguish), Ingmar Bergman put down
almost anything that was in his head to start with (the first five
minutes- some of the most startling and thoroughly symbolic minutes
he's ever directed), then transposed into a story of two women, or one.
This was one of the landmark 'art-films' of the 1960's, with hints of
the horrors of war (in one memorable scene, Elisabeth looks at a
television screen at images of death), introspection regarding sex and
identity, existentialism, and what it means to be an actor.
Some of the more famous directors in history have a kind of 'notorious' film, by which many people who may not know the bulk of their works know them by one particular work (with Hitchcock it could be Psycho, Lucas' Star Wars, Bunuel with Un chien Andalou, Breathless). This could, arguably, be the one for Bergman, despite a couple of others likely also holding claim to that title. In other words, this could be a good place to start with the director if you're not familiar with his films, or it might not be. But keep this in mind- it's one of his most unique departures as a filmmaker.
Two of his leading ladies (and, ahem, loves), Bibi Andersson and 25 year-old Liv Ullmann, star as a nurse and an actress, who for the bulk of the film are at a Doctor's cottage as the nurse tries to help and likely cure Elisabeth of her ailment (froze on stage, silent but incredibly observant). In the meantime, Alma the nurse, in a role that gives Andersson more talking-points than any other film she's been in, goes through some hurtful parts of her past, and just tries to understand her counter-part. At one point, a vein of existentialism is ruptured thoughtfully, when Alma gets Elisabeth to say "No, don't", when she threatens her. When I first saw this film, I knew this scene would come after reading Roger Ebert's review. But I had no idea it would hit me like it did. There is such a great, compelling tension between these two that Andersson and Ullmann convey that it is what makes the film work. Any lessor actresses might fumble up the whole lot of it.
While it isn't my favorite Bergman film (though it is unfair to pick favorites sometimes when it comes to someone as huge in the cine-consciousness as him), there are many things that had me come back to it after being a little awe-struck on my first viewing last year. For one thing, there's Sven Nykvist, with one of the strongest, most varying eyes in all of European cinema.
In the first five minutes, of course, there is some fascinating stuff, but even in the scenes of long dialog and monologue (i.e. the unforgettable speech about being on the beach from Alma), where the lighting is so delicate and sharp with the shadows that you really feel like the weight of this situation is closing in on the characters. Or, of course, when the two actresses' faces are super-imposed, which can be interpreted in more ways than one (either as a grand statement, or as pretension, or something else). I was also very moved by the pace of the film, how it fills each minute (it's not a long movie) in ways that some movies just float minutes by.
Now, this is the kind of Bergman film that can't be turned on any time (not to make it sound un-watchable, it certainly isn't). But it does ask to be viewed when in a certain frame of mind- if you're looking for a movie to show off to your friends, like it's the Euro/avant-garde version of Fight Club minus the violence, look away. It poses a good many questions for a viewer, especially one who knows of Bergman's themes he's explored before and after this film's release. How do we feel, or know we're feeling? What keeps us closed in? Why do we hurt? And are we only one person at a time?
It's all the more puzzling that Bergman's climax isn't a very easy one (not as doomed as with Seventh Seal but not as cheerful as Fanny and Alexander), as Alma has another monologue with Elisabeth, about her son she hasn't seen in a long while- this famously seen from two different angles, one after the other. Furthermore, it is arguably Bergman's most self-conscious film to date (the commentary on the DVD carries it well), however it may not be as off-putting as with some of Godard.
To put it another way, there are two sides to the subject matter, the film, the director, and the audience.
There are few motion pictures that rely on bodily expression and imagery as
most films depend too much on dialogue and speech. Persona(1966) is one of
those raw movies that succeeds almost on a metaphysical level. Its about
the relationship between an actress who broke down during a stage
performance and the nurse who is assigned to take care of her. Bergman's
camera has a fascination with Ullmann's figure as most of the film's closeup
shots are on her. Liv Ullmann does an outstanding job in playing a
character that hardly utters a line of dialogue.
There are a few scenes where the image dominates the screen in a manner that hasn't been done successfully since the silent film period. The director, Ingmar Bergman did an excellent job in presenting powerful images with the use of natural sound. Persona(1966) is a triumph of acting because both Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann are terrific in their perspective roles. There is hardly any movie music and this adds to the tension between the two women. Its a film that was deserving of a Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1966.
One scene that was wonderful is when Alma describes her life to her patient. Another excellent scene is when Mr. Vogler mistakes Alma for his wife(its as if he too has suffered a breakdown and has failed to recognize his own wife). Finally, the sequence where Alma and Mrs. Vogler's image blends together to form one person. Its an errie image because they cease to exist as individual people. Persona(1966) would influence Robert Altman very greatly when he directed the film, Three Women(1977).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In the early '60s, Bergman's visual and narrative style became ever
more austere in focusing on tormented souls seeking guidance and
comfort from an empty heaven, thus paving the way for a stark foray
into extreme close-up in the enigmatic "Persona."
A modernist masterpiece, the film initiated an introspective trilogy about the ivory towers built by artists as a defense against the horror of existence It was Bergman's first completely innovative work, acknowledging itself as artifice through the regular insertion of non-narrative images such as projectors burning, film breaking, fragment of silent movies
"Persona" depicts the vampiric relationship between a talkative nurse and an actress who refuses to speak or work after a traumatic realization of the futility of creation in a loveless world surrounded by war Psychology, philosophy and social comment are mixed to brilliant effect in a complex, clear interrogation both of filmic illusion and of the illusory values of modern life
From its opening, seemingly random B&W images, Ingmar Bergman's
"Persona" screams intellectualism. The film is cold, clinical, and
abstract. It induces deep, philosophical questions that lack answers,
or questions that provide for a multiplicity of emotionally
About eight minutes into the film, the story begins. In a hospital, young Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to care for Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who, for no apparent reason, has ceased speaking. Concluding that there is nothing physically or mentally wrong with Elisabeth, the hospital exports her to a seaside cottage, where she is to be cared for by Nurse Alma. Most of the rest of the film is set at the cottage, where the two women get to know each other. But throughout, Elisabeth does not speak. She communicates only with facial expressions and body gestures.
For all of Elisabeth's silence, the film's script is remarkably talky. Nurse Alma talks in long monologues: asking, probing, recalling. She tries to build a relationship with Elisabeth, by vocalizing her own memories and emotional pains in life. Certainly, the film's curious narrative has a lot to "say" about the art, or rather the artificiality, of human communication.
The best element of the film is the artistic, B&W cinematography by Sven Nykvist. Lighting trends toward high contrast, with stark boundaries between light and darkness, a feature that contributes to the film's cold, intellectual tone. There are lots of close-up shots, even extreme close-ups, of the two women. The film's production design is ascetic, unadorned, austere. And this, too, enhances the analytic, abstract feel of the film.
Bergman conceived "Persona" while he was confined to a hospital. And I am inclined to think that the film is a cinematic expression of his own inward psychological struggles during that period of his life.
In other words, "Persona" communicates to us as much about Bergman's mindset, and his ideas of suffering and reality, as it does about any deep, universal questions in a post-modern world, although to some extent, the two dimensions intersect and overlap. Bergman is telling us that, ultimately, the film is not real. It is "nothing". It is an artificial human construct. That is, it is art, a perception that approximates, but does not replace, what we experience as reality.
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