One of the most complex films Ingmar Bergman ever made was one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s favorites, which basically tells you everything you need to know. The subject of numerous academic analyses the film has become an enigma to solve, but Bergman himself thought too much had been made of it and refused to contribute – he thought the audience should have an emotional reaction to the film and not be influenced by the director’s own explanations. One thing is for sure. It will linger in your mind.
The famous stage actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) has an incident in the middle of a performance. She stops moving and speaking and is confined to a hospital where doctors try to figure out what she’s going through. A nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), is hired to care for her. One day, Alma reads Elisabet a letter from her husband; it also contains a photo of her son, but the actress tears it up. Still, she won’t speak. The doctor (Margaretha Krook) suggests that Alma should go with Elisabet to live in an isolated cottage by the sea for a while; perhaps that’s a better place for the actress to recover.
Their time together starts out well, with Alma opening up and telling Elisabet things she hasn’t told anyone before… but a letter changes their relationship.
Sharing a physical resemblance
This project started with Bergman becoming fascinated by Andersson and Ullmann; the latter was a new acquaintance, but he realized that the two actresses shared a physical resemblance. He had been in a romantic relationship with Andersson and would fall in love with Ullmann during the making of this film, so no wonder that Bergman was intrigued by them. Andersson subsequently claimed that the director wanted to get inside of their friendship. Bergman started writing the script while he was in hospital recovering from pneumonia, but didn’t finish it, leaving open the chance of improvising during the project.
Persona was to become his most daring film, opening with a montage of images depicting a crucifixion, a spider, a lamb being killed and (if you’re not watching a censored version) an erect penis, among other things. Much of what follows will have you scratching your head and pondering the meaning of what’s going on in that cottage. The two women’s identities slowly merge, even if it is the nurse who does all of the talking; there’s still an analysis of the actress emerging, one that complicates her role as a woman, wife and mother. Together with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Bergman creates a sense of dread, unease and at times even horror, especially near the end as Nykvist illustrates the women’s relationship in haunting ways. Shot on the island of Fårö, some of the visuals are sharp, others smoky and blurry, brilliantly reinforcing the impact of a dream. The director clearly offers a lot of food for thought, as there are hints of lesbian love, the potential psychological horrors of motherhood, the dissolution of one’s identity, and schizophrenia.
As the final moments of the film make clear, this is also a comment on the actual process of filmmaking. In other words, there are endless opportunities to get hooked by what you’re seeing here; it’s like Bergman is offering the complete fireworks of his mind.
There are not many actors in this cast, but they all offer superior performances. It’s hard to beat Andersson though, the nurse who suffers humiliation when she realizes that Vogler is taking advantage of the situation, but who ends up her moral superior in spite of a very graphic, sexual encounter early in the film.
Persona 1966-Sweden. 85 min. B/W. Produced by Lars-Owe Carlberg. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist. Cast: Bibi Andersson (Alma), Liv Ullmann (Elisabet Vogler), Margaretha Krook (The Doctor), Gunnar Björnstrand.
Last word: “I reflected on what was important, and began with the projector and my desire to set it in motion. But when the projector was running, nothing came out of it but old ideas, the spider, God’s lamb, all that dull stuff. My life then consisted of dead people, brick walls, and a few dismal trees out in the park.” (Bergman on creating the montage, “Images”)