This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
Here is a film that is quite different from the last one in this series. The Passion of Joan of Arc may be a film “that does the work for the viewer” – one which does not need theories or code-cracking or interpretation or (most importantly) collaboration in order to cast its spell, so potent are the images themselves. Persona is very much a “meet me there” movie, its tantalizing wisps and fragments invitations (to a masked ball, no doubt) rather than letters declaring their purpose. When I mentioned this would be a film I covered, a commentator noted that Persona is like a “ Rorschach Test,” a notion that is appropriate not just to the viewer’s experience with the film but for the characters in the film itself – particularly Alma, the insecure nurse asked to look after intentionally mute actress Elisabeth in a lonely beach cottage.
Most important is the fascinating way Persona evolves out of Bergman’s earlier approaches. Film-to-film it can be difficult to see progress in Bergman’s career, as the output is too erratic (sandwiched between the two perfectly controlled masterpieces, The Silence and Persona, is a disastrous “comedy” All Those Women which just sits there on the screen like a giant turkey). Yet overall, the pattern is unmistakable – a venturing forth into an increasingly pure aesthetic, less and less theatrical over time, more and more sure of itself and less reliant on devices or techniques to fall back on. Persona is less of an “idea” film – like, say, The Seventh Seal – and more of a direct experience than just about anything that came before in his oeuvre.
Yet somehow the fact that Bergman is even shooting for something so outside his sensibility makes the gestures work; and also, if the self-consciousness of the filmmaking techniques doesn’t quite break down the fourth wall, many of the writing techniques do. Particularly effective is Alma’s spouting of gibberish and nonsensical fragments near the end of the film, following the disturbing facial juxtaposition and preceding the bloodsucking episode. I can’t say for certain what it “means” but on one viewing I had an epiphany: this was Bergman himself, speaking through Alma, almost completely revealing the ventriloquist behind the dummy with his anxious, half-comprehensible outpourings, temporarily turning the page of his screenplay into a personal diary.
In a sense, that’s this whole movie. Unlike a Rorschach test, which is made randomly, Persona was crafted in a work of conscious creation (however unconsciously motivated) by Ingmar Bergman. As his critics have sometimes complained, he is basically talking to himself here; the symbols, gestures, and statements his own monuments to a private mythology. Those of us who tag along through all the pictures, most of which express these personal concerns under the veil of a fictional narrative, can recognize many of these continuities and references in the naked light of day. But it’s like the tip of the iceberg and peering down into the water on which it floats, who knows if we’re seeing the rest of what’s there or our own reflections gazing back at us? Ultimately, we’re all like Alma and Bergman’s Persona is like Elisabeth, drawing us out, closing us off, mocking, inviting, ever-fascinating in their mystery.
Yesterday: The Passion of Joan of Arc