Friday, March 02, 2012

Persona (1966)

Sweden, 85 minutes
Director/writer: Ingmar Bergman
Photography: Sven Nykvist
Music: Lars Johan Werle
Editor: Ulla Ryghe
Cast: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook

From its earliest images to its tidy, perfunctory ending, a span of a mere 85 minutes, Persona is determinedly difficult and modern, dense and stark. The music by Lars Johan Werle is harsh and discordant. Director and writer Ingmar Bergman borrows from the immediacy of the documentary newsreel with footage of a self-immolating Buddhist monk in Vietnam. There is an erect penis, medical photography, a live dissection, religious symbology. There are images that go by so fast we can't be sure what they are. There is footage of earliest cinema and crude animation. There are white screens and black screens.

Bergman even almost taunts us at points, I think, daring us for example to question his audaciously unbelievable premise: a famous actress of stage and screen endures an existential crisis and stops speaking. That's it. It's as patently silly in its way as the image of Jean-Paul Belmondo running across a field in his ridiculous suit after he has killed a policeman in Breathless.

Yet the minute it starts, every time, I find it impossible to take my eyes off Persona.

Currently at #45 on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, Persona occupies a peculiar and unique place even in such relatively Olympian realms of the cinema. Though its director and writer Ingmar Bergman made a good many widely hailed masterpieces, and though such exercises in severity as Andrei Rublev, Ordet, or The Passion of Joan of Arc (and perhaps Rashomon) are all proximate to it, and even though, for example, Breathless is at least its equal in self-conscious referentiality, there is nothing else quite like Persona. Perhaps the closest analogue on the big list to this point is Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which similarly plays with the flimsiest excuse for a narrative framework and bores in very hard on the interiorities of the task of making and unmaking and remaking identity.

I have no particular axe to grind in this. I know this should be a picture I instinctively keep at arm's length and regard with some suspicion, for potential aesthetic pretensions and other sins. It's so open-ended I'm not even sure it has sides. Its mise en scene, its entire raison d'etre, is charged and highly artificial, as obviously fully intended. It borrows as freely from classical and Shakespearian literature as it does from the compressed and fractured narratives of modern theater, and it makes a point, not once, not twice, but three separate times, of reminding you that you are a patron of the cinema and you are looking at an artwork that was both constructed and performed (and don't you forget it, it comes in real handy down here, Bub). What could possibly go wrong with an approach like this?

Thus, it's some testament to Bergman's powers that he pulls it off. It feels at all points like a huge movie, even at its most claustrophobic—especially at its most claustrophobic. Some of the visual innovations feel colossally influential to me now; perhaps that's hindsight. When the unexplained young boy in a very early sequence of unexplained images approaches what appears to be a giant television screen with the face of a woman and reaches out as if to try to touch it, it somehow recalls for me the apes confronting the black monolith in the opening sequences of 2001 and Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with the craft hovering above his truck, as well as a great majority of the visual design behind, say, Blade Runner, or the 1984 version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It feels like there are a hundred movies that started from that image.

And it's not just the visuals that are operating at such keen peaks here but the narrative as well, as shattered as Bergman has made it. It is built around indelible points. First there is the nature of the relationship between the two women, the actress who has deliberately gone dumb (played brilliantly by Liv Ullmann) and the nurse assigned to care for her (played equally brilliantly by Bibi Andersson). After all the foofaraw of the opening 15 minutes or so, the plot is engaged briskly and propels the movie with swift strokes as the women come to know one another, share a bond, and then find themselves instinctively attempting to rip away from the intimacy.

A key point that caught me up most the first time I saw it remains particularly effective. It's when the nurse confides to the actress, in a late-night conversation blurred by fatigue and good food and alcohol, an incident in her life in which she suddenly found herself in a light and frolicsome orgy on a beach. The story is powerful, sexually charged and strange and beautiful, and what always strikes me is all the filters through which it passes to have that effect: the story narrated by the nurse from memory, from the vantage of someone tired and drunk, and then further via speech and subtitles in English. Yet it is nonetheless perfectly mesmerizing.

I love the way that Bergman gleefully abuses the normally tiresome conceit of the psychotherapist in horn-rim glasses as all-wise healer (last seen, perhaps, at the end of Psycho). As played by to a tee by Margaretha Krook, the psychotherapist is possessed of monstrous, superheroic powers of intuitive assessment and confrontation, smoking cigarettes intensely, delivering opinions with clinical ferocity. It is an intellectual world of madness as literature and Freud and Nietzsche's spiritual human condition, rotting. Hell is Bartok played forever at 16 rpm backwards, loud, and everything else is taken care of by the hospital, with and without electroshock therapy.

Another potent element that Bergman is bringing to bear here, of course, with his extensive background in theater, are the performances, which are delicate and blunt and amazing turns. Ullmann and Andersson are just remarkable. Ullmann must do virtually everything with her face and body, primarily the former. Andersson by contrast is paradoxically hemmed and constricted by the necessity of being the chatterbox, occupying the center of our attention as well the actress's. The seesawing tensions and perspectives and attitudes and dreams shared between the two, as they wrestle with their bond and their fear of the attachment and with one another, are managed so neatly by Ullmann and Andersson that it is also a pleasure to watch like a kind of athletic competition with ever-rising stakes coming into play.

The whole thing is just great, a fascinating sequence of black and white images and harsh music and brilliant performance that is riveting start to finish. Persona is one not to miss. Did I mention Sven Nykvist is a genius?

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