Persona (1966)

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona has been on my radar of films to watch for years.  I have heard that it is a beautiful movie, that it is inventive, artistic and emotional.  While all those things are true, I find myself seriously conflicted hours after watching Persona. Did I enjoy it?  Did it annoy me?  Am I missing something?  Persona was a chore to watch.  I found myself struggling to follow along with what was going on, yet I was completely entranced by what was presented on the screen.  This was an entirely new and unique viewing experience and I am still trying to dissect how that makes me feel.

Young nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) has been assigned to watch over Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann), a successful young actress who one day decided, in the middle of a performance on stage, that she was no longer going to talk.  Since her condition is mental and not physical, the doctor suggests Alma and Elizabeth retreat to a beach house for relaxation and reflection.  While at the beach house, Alma does all the talking and Elizabeth does all of the listening.  As time passes, their relationship becomes stressed and their personas begin to merge.

Persona is a beautifully filmed movie.  It is almost entirely filmed in close up and long shots to show the levels of intimacy between the two women.  Cinematographer Sven Nykvist did a great job with all the camera work, showing a minimalist and sterile hospital and a vast yet intimate beach house.  Ingmar Bergman had a very specific idea for the film of two women becoming one, and he and Nykvist worked well together in bringing that to the screen.  Bergman wanted this film to be viewed like a mirror: you can observe what is happening, but the true meaning of the events fails to make it back to the viewer.  The results can be quite confusing, but I believe Bergman wants the audience to focus more on the relationship of the two women.  Alma and Elizabeth start off with a very warm and trusting relationship, humming together at the kitchen table and going for long walks on the beach.  However, after Alma drunkenly recites the most vivid tale of an embarrassing sexual encounter, the mutual trust and respect fades away. There is a blurring of identities: Elizabeth had always been the strong one, but the power balance shifts in Alma’s favor and soon they find it hard to tell who is who.

This film is unapologetically avant-garde and I am still trying to decide if that is a flaw or a strength.  The beginning of the film is six minutes of terrible tribal music and random shots of meaningless objects — a sequence that is so jarring and weird that I almost turned off the movie.  If Bergman was looking to shock his audience, it certainly worked on me.  He calls this opening a “poem of images,” and it unfortunately returns again briefly in the middle and at the end of the film.  Viewers and critics are constantly trying to find meaning in these random shots; honestly, I don’t see the point, as I just think Bergman was trying to make art. A fairly large amount of the movie is quite artistic, but I don’t think you can put that label on everything.  We’re already confused by what is going on with Alma and Elizabeth; there are possible dream sequences, and a random appearance by Elizabeth’s husband; and the screenplay itself at some points just seems like a jumble of random words. All these things made an already confusing movie more difficult to understand.  Confusion and difficulties aside, though, I really enjoyed the performances by Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann.  Bibi practically carried the entire movie as she had 90% of the dialogue, and the intensity and facial expressions that Liv demonstrated in each scene were captivating.  Watching these two women interact, despite the confusion, was still quite satisfying.

At no point while viewing Persona did I completely understand what I was watching, but it still remained beautiful.  It was such a unique experience that I am still trying to figure out if I enjoyed it or not.  I find myself thinking about it hours after I watched it, and can find little else to occupy my mind;  I suppose that is exactly what Ingmar Bergman was looking to achieve.  He created a work of art that sticks in your head and makes you unsure of your own opinions, which I greatly respect. And while I am not entirely sure of my own feelings about this film, I find myself longing to watch it again.

The stats:

Persona landed at #639 out of 1352 movies on my Flickchart.  That converts to a rating of 2.5 out of 5 stars or 53%.  It is ranked #36 out of 63 movies I have seen from the 1960s, and is ranked #12 out of 15 movies I have seen so far in the challenge.

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