Saturday, January 23, 2016

Persona (1966)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Writer: Ingmar Bergman
DP: Sven Nykvist
Editor: Ulla Ryghe
Producer: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Liv Ullman, Bibi Andersson
Distribution: Svensk Filmindustri
Length: 1 hr. 25 min.

Persona is probably the most acclaimed film by Ingmar Bergman, though so many of his films are respected enough that this is a difficult statement to make. Still, Persona stands out from his body of work for other reasons. Fundamental questions of theology permeate a wide and diverse array of his films; Winter Light, The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, Wild Strawberries, and arguably The Magician are all examples of this. To be honest, I'm not a fan of the absurdist miserablism in which some of Bergman's films indulge, and his treatment of it seems kind of sophomoric anyway. but Persona is a little more palatable to me; rather than gaze into the abyss of God's silence, it remains in close contact with the physical world.

The film opens with a series of images without context; the pace at which they assail us reaches a crescendo, then slows down. They establish the film's self-reflexive aims right from the start, and also suggest horror in the world at large. Persona revolves around two women: a nurse and her patient. The patient is an actress named Elisabet, played by Liv Ullman, who has suddenly become mute. The nurse, Alma, is played by Bibi Andersson. The film lingers on their time together with Elisabet remaining silent and Alma holding one-sided conversations.

Early in the film, we see Elisabet recoil in fear at footage of a Buddhist monk self-immolating in protest. Later, Alma discusses how the physical compulsions of her body seem to contradict some of her most deeply-held beliefs. Both women are horrified by the intersection of abstract thought and the physical body; it's inflammatory, and terrifying.

The lighting in Persona is extremely high-contrast, to the point where it often divides character's faces in two, one side shrouded in darkness and the other in light. It sets the stage for the boundary between their minds to be tested, for the sharing of abstract thought to be explored. At the same time, it highlights the contours, and therefore the physicality, of their bodies. That physicality is an opposing force to the merging of minds: as much as Alma divulges her secrets to fill the silence, or as much as she's brought to play roles in Elisabet's life that Elisabet refuses to play her self, the film is always able to drag the characters back to Earth with blunt violence.

Perhaps the most striking moment in the entire film is one such moment. After discovering exactly what Elisabet has been trying to do, a distraught Alma leaves shards of broken glass on a footpath outside of Elisabet's house. When Elisabet cuts her foot on one, she stares at Alma for a moment before the frame is completely broken down when a hole seems to burn through the very celluloid the film is printed on. The sound becomes erratic, and the film takes a moment to recalibrate, returning to clips from its abstract opening sequence, as well as imagery that seems to recall early cinema.

When Elisabet cuts her foot on the glass, she is forced to acknowledge her physical form, and so the film's abstraction collapses, and we're left with the physical substrate: the celluloid. It throws the film's affective designs out of order, setting everything back to the beginning.

As Alma and Elisabet struggle to communicate, so do they begin to exchange traits: Alma becomes more disturbed, Elisabet becomes more active, and at one point, Alma even claims she is Elisabet. As an actress, Elisabet pretended to be other people and now, through her uncanny silence, she pushes Alma toward doing the same. Unfortunately for her, the body acts as a barrier to her will; her ability to conflate her own identity with others was purely abstract, as was her ability to convince others to accept the conflation, but even though they were abstract they were still only epiphenomenal; abstract qualities unique to her necessarily require a substrate unique to her. Late in the film, Alma threatens to throw boiling water on Elisabet, and Elisabet is finally forced to speak, begging to for Alma not to hurt her. Violence forces Elisabet to make a distinction between herself and Alma, because unless she protects her physical form, she won't be able to continue her pursuits in the abstract realm.

A viewer of Persona experiences a sense of profound distress at what Elisabet is trying to do to Alma, and the violence Alma inflicts in response. But I'd wager this is not due to an attachment to the story, since the story constantly subverts itself by admitting its falsity, and is somewhat opaque to begin with. Rather, I'd attribute it to the contrast between the starkly physical, hard-lit images of Alma and Elisabet and images that portray nothing physical, but visualize a concept through pure trickery. Ullman and Andersson both said that it disturbed them to see the film's images of their two faces stitched together to form one face.

But the film has us intuit that even those images are based in a material substance. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Persona is the fragility it suggests; images and abstract thought have the power to embody big things, and manifest as big changes, as suggested by the film's brief political references. But for anyone without the willpower and conviction of a self-immolating monk - and don't count on Ingmar Bergman to show us that - big ideas can easily be undone with a shard of broken glass, or a pot of boiling water.

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