Lost in the Movies: Persona


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.

What do I see in the ink blot? Appropriately enough, something a bit different each time, though the overall shape and contours remain consistent. Persona was one of the first foreign films I saw, when I was a teenager, and I cottoned to it right away. Some have noted a dreamlike quality to the film but I get there more from the similarly-themed 3 Women and Mulholland Drive; Persona has something more lucid about, something more reminiscent of heightened awareness during waking hours. Bergman can get pegged as an overly cerebral filmmaker, but I think he’s always grounded in sensuous experience – an engagement with the environment (acutely expressed through the evocative soundscapes in his movies).

To me, his movies always start from that sensation you feel, usually in a location closer to nature – the woods, a field, particularly the beach – when no particular tasks at hand, nothing to consume or distract your attention from the immediate unfolding of moment-to-moment reality. In this state, you notice the knots in a wooden column or the way another person smokes a cigarette, removing the tobacco from their tongue. It’s a heightened engagement with reality facilitated rather than disrupted by introspection – a mood more often fueled by an immersive few hours reading fiction than watching a movie. You move within and then when you return to the outside world, it feels more alive. Bergman’s films seem to exist in this state of being, at least to my eyes.

Ironically, however, there is always a thematic element subverting this sense of engagement – stylistically present in the tension between the lucidity of the observation and the constant stream of talk that threatens to fog up the clear view. The theme is actually rendered quite explicit in, appropriately enough, the dialogue: it’s a marked trace of anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure or perhaps, anything at all. A coldness, numbness, a lack of engagement with life or oneself or especially others. It’s like a hidden secret beneath the howls of pain and the expressions of neurosis and the fear of madness: the terrible truth that these emotional states are speculatory, elusive and that worse but familiar is a ferocious emptiness, the paradoxically anxiety-inducing lack of feeling. Like chasing a trace of something or someone that just left the room before you came in.

At the end of Persona, I see Elisabeth, guided by Alma, attempting to make peace with this. “Nothing,” coos Alma, encouraging Elisabeth to repeat after her. The whole film is spare, pared down, not empty exactly – there are plenty of those wooden columns and cigarettes to fill the frame (in many ways, this is a movie of objects) – but simplified. The aesthetic takes on this quality in relation to the thirty or so films that came before; though Bergman was only forty-eight when Persona came out, he already assembled a lifetime’s worth of work. Persona boils cinema down to its essence, but then lets that essence mutate.

Watching it several years after conducting a personal Bergman retrospective (I watched as many of his films as I could track down, including extreme rarities, though this still left a third of his work untapped), I now feel as if I’m only experiencing a part of the work, the work being the totality of his career. It’s a film that really repays an auteurist investment. There are the little touches like that silent comedy (first featured in The Devil’s Wanton, a bizarre little melodrama from the late forties) to the child actor (fresh from The Silence, three years earlier). There’s the personal element – the film takes on a slightly cruel tinge when you recall that at the time Bergman was switching lovers, from Andersson to Ullman, just as the latter’s personality usurps the former’s over the course of the movie.

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.

At the same time, despite the sense of development and focus in Bergman’s career arc (at least up to Persona, afterwards he slowly settled more into narratives, albeit with a retained sense of cinematic mastery), there is a sure consistency of character from film to film. In Persona, he engages with the “meta” concepts of the time, attempting to remind viewers that they are watching a movie. But, in a rather charming way, the gestures are still completely immersed in the sheltered universe of Bergman’s refined craftsmanship. That tear in the film halfway through is quite crisp and clean, the shots of the arc lights are perfectly photographed, and the random montages are coolly, punctually cut. Bergman doesn’t quite have it in him to be an all-out experimentalist, that raw penchant for reality that Godard or Rivette cultivated seemingly effortlessly. Even the marvelous repetition of a sequence (once for each angle) has a professional, polished feel to it which takes off some of the subversive edge.

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.

Persona appears at 4:25 in "That Total Film", a chapter in my video series"32 Days of Movies".

Tonight: Playtime


Jon said...

"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."

Joel you've outdone yourself in this essay. I found this to be one of your best pieces and I only hope to write something half as good on this film someday. You wrote many brilliant paragraphs, but I know you are definitely right when you talk about Bergman's self being such a part of this film, like most of his films. One does need to have a greater understanding of his body of work to even attempt to "get" Persona. As I've seen more of his films, I find something different in Persona everytime I watch it. I've seen most at this point, save for some of the hard to find titles. He's my favorite director and this one of my favorite films of all time. Like you said, I love the sensuous quality of the film. It is rather carnal without there ever being sex, if you know what I mean. The last time I watched it, I felt like Elisabeth was the body and Alma was the mind or something along those lines. But, then I would decide I was wrong about that after watching the next scene. Ha!

Joel Bocko said...

Great comment Jon, and thanks for the compliments. I don't know that I feel one "has" to have seen more Bergmans - I think it was only the second one I saw, but I agree that the more one sees the more complex and intriguing the film becomes. I've always wanted to write a piece comparing it to 3 Women and Mulholland Drive, but I never got around to it unfortunately.

Jon said...


Yeah I know what you mean, you don't have to have seen all the films, but I find it a richer experience having more context. There is more than a kinship with 3 Women and Mulholland Dr. Major themes and images are shared for sure. That would be a nice comparison in an essay.

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