Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31 Number 14. June 25, 1968
Films — Ingmar Bergman's Persona
Ingmar Bergman's Persona
Released by United Artists.
Accusations still linger over the enigmatic, self-indulgent, non-communicable spiritual anguish, baroquial Ingmar Bergman; and those who have applied it after seeing, especially, The Virgin Spring, Naked Night, The Seventh Seal, So Close To Life, Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence, will receive a severe shock when they see his latest film to be released in New Zealand, Persona.
Not only do I sense that Bergman has woken up at last, and renovated the thought-processes about his serious-private-confessional-displays-made-public, but he has distilled and refined the cinema to such a degree and made a masterpiece, understandably public, so that we can share with its intimate and moving ways, as in no other of his films.
Bergman's love of theatre is well known. Half of these so-called accusations centre around that the "comedies" are staged dialogue (in cinematic terms), beautifully presented by the Bergman family, and hardly meaningful (or -less) to our cinema existence, which matters to some of us—if we think like that.
In a recent article on Bergman's latest film The Shame he says: "It was a source of great sorrow and disappointment for me to hold the opinion that I could live without film but not without theatre, and I feel that, now, theatre is perfectly meaningless . . . and I can do nothing about this feeling."
After seeing Persona, I could see this most clearly. It is unlike any of his other films. Some of the more familiar themes have been re-represented, shuttled-forth-with, discarded, but it is the first time I have seen film used as an object, for we are watching in Persona a film of a film: it is the cinema reflecting itself.
Persona begins with darkness, and gradually we see two carbons of an arc lamp grow brighter, and suddenly emerge into a brilliant white light. The sound of a screaming projector engine, portions of leader flash by uncontrolled; the sight of various bits of the engine, film spilling through gates like a silver river. Suddenly a cartoon appears sideways, tinkly music. The film jams in the gates, sprocket ripping noises, then back on the tracks. Then a series of images, very quick: a ghost and policeman silent comedy, a large spider, a nail being hammered into a curling bleeding hand, a sheep's eye and tissue being gouged out, slow forest scenes, faces of bodies in a morgue, and then a small child lying on a table covered by a sheet.
He puts on some rimless spectacles, and begins reading. It is Jorgen Lindstrom, the boy in The Silence. He reaches out into the lens of the camera as if inspecting the safe distance betwen reality in the audience and his own. Then a face behind his emerges, and he tries to touch its blurred mirror surface. It is the two women of the film, their faces alternating.
The credits are banged out (a post-serialist score by Lars Johan Werle) and interspersed with flashes of scenes to come: the child, a female sex-organ, the women, and many others too quick to comprehend.
We are in a hospital where a female psychologist is telling the story of how an actress, Elisabeth Vogler (The daughter of Herr Vogler in The Magician?) (Liv Ullmann) stopped speaking during a performance of Electra, and had remained mute ever since. A friendly talkative nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) is put in charge of the actress and both are sent to a seaside cottage to perform their extraordinary relationship, which is the major part of the film.
The psychologist has told Elisabeth that she is shackled by a sense of her own falseness, by the growing difference between what the world thinks of her, and what she knows of herself. What else can she do? Suicide would be too vulgar, so Elisabeth chooses silence, and so, in effect, stops lying.
And with narrator Jarl Kulle pleasantly chatting, we see the two women in broadbrimmed hats, dipping into mushroom patches, and humming away, completely happy in the pearly luminesence of the seaside.
Through Alma's monologue in Persona, she describes her happy life—with a husband to be, an orgy on a beach with two boys resulting in abortion (the censor has excised three chunks of dialogue here, blast him!) and slowly we are aware of her coming closer and closer to Elisabeth's barrier, until all of a sudden, after reading a letter by her (to her husband?) she realises she has been made a toy of Elisabeth's silence. Elisabeth has been making an amusing study of Alma, during their harmless days of her talking and their love-play.
In an extraordinary 3 1/2 minute still-take, Alma leaves a piece of broken bottle for Elisabeth to cut herself on. The shout is heard, pain expressed and Alma's face becomes covered in scratches. But they aren't facial blemishes, they are film scratches. The soundtrack mumbles to a halt, the film (Alma's face) burns . . . . white arc light. A screaming voice horrifying heard backwards, snappy scenes from the ghost/policeman film, the nail and the hand, an eye, a male sex-organ in erection, and an out of focus Alma coming into a room, freezed, then a jump to normal focus. The film continues untouched.
Alma at a pitch of hysteria threatens Elisabeth with a pot of boiling water, as if physical pain will cause her to speak, but Elisabeth is vaguely heard mumbling: "No! Don't hurt me."
There is an incredibly long tracking shot, with the two women running down the beach. Alma is hysterical crying, but it still has no effect. Elisabeth visits Alma during the night; it is a sequence of rare distilled beauty. They meet and seem to blend into each other. Of course Elisabeth denies the meeting the following day.
The blind husband (Gunnar Bjornstrand) arrives and thinks Alma is Elisabeth, and makes love to her in front of the other.
It is our turn now to wonder if these really aren't the same woman, and only until a 4 minute sequence of Alma telling Elisabeth about the son (camera focussed on Elisabeth) and then repeating it entirely, though it takes on a more complete and definitive meaning, snowing Alma's reaction, with the two faces suddenly merging into one, do we know what is happening. The face-amalgam titles read; "I am Elisabeth Vogler/I am not Elisabeth Vogler."
Because of this modification of identity, there is a transfixed state in the later scenes as to really who is who; Their physical resemblance in real life gave Bergman the idea for the movie.
When Alma scratches her arm Elisabeth sucks the blood, and forces Alma to shriek: "I am not you!" She screams at her meaningless words, phrases and suddenly, quietly some time later (perhaps?) she will prompt Elisabeth to say her only word: "Nothing." It is all we can expect. The chairs are packed up by Alma dressed as the nurse, and Elisabeth dressed as Alma leaves on a bus for, where?
We see a gigantic ugly bust of a shipfront, dissolving into the Electra scene, a shot of a tracking camera (Resnais directing Seyrig in Marienbad?), the boy is reaching up to the mirror surface of the faces, the soundtrack hisses, the carbons disconnect and die away. The most beautiful of Bergman's films is over.
So much has been written about Persona, especially the enormous article (6 pages) by that gifted young lady Susan Sontag in Sight and Sound, which I thought laboured and pompous, after the second viewing of the film. At least Miss Sontag makes a point that the film is not so obscure (and everyone seems to treat it as obscure), but it will certainly promote discussion more than any other film in recent years.
Jean-Louis Comolli says in Cahiers du Cinema: "Never was the screen a more faithful mirror. We are in front of it, and what it shows us in the back of us. It and we— transparent phantoms.
Alma equals Soul. Persona is latin for mask: faces merge—crack—identity changes, yet everything is separate. They are intertwined "parasitically, even vampiristically." I am not going into this; it will make its point when you see it.
The film is so beautiful (Sven Nykvist as always) and one reviewer commented that it recalled the work of Dreyer and Godard—"its extraordinary transitions from warmth to coldness and back again."
The film is full of faces. Bibi Andersson's nurse face is hard and lined, later it is gentle and beautiful.
Liv Ullmann's is always quizzical and strange. (In some of the stills she resembles Hayley Mills!) In an early sequence in the hospital she is giggling to a ridiculous play (Bergman's own?) then one of the longest shots I nave seen of a face full up, as she listens to the slow movement of a Bach Violin concerto. It lasts anything up to 4 minutes with the shadows eventually falling into her features.
She is confronted by a television programme of a buddhist monk incinerating himself; the commentary is unrelated to the scene, and she shies away in terrors. Another indication of the duplicity of language.
To see these two beautiful women on the screen, acting their relationship of identity (not fully lesbian as some said) is a profound and satisfying thing. There has never been such a perfect interplay between two women ever before.
Persona is due in Wellington (at the Lido) later in the year. Finally I want to quote the eternal magician with these words: "There are painters who will never paint since they close their eyes, and, in the shelter of their closed lids, imagine the purest masterpieces. There are cineastes who live their films and who never will squander their talent to give them materiality, reality."