The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Persona (1966/Sweden/dir. Ingmar Bergman) appeared at #95 on my original list.
What it is • Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann) is mute, by choice apparently. An actress horrified by the world around her (represented by the image of a burning monk in Vietnam) and oddly fascinated by a photo of her young son, her silence seems an alluring mystery. And it's a mystery that we sense Alma (Bibi Andersson), like us, wants to solve. Alma is normal, chatty (she more than compensates for Elisabeth's lack of conversation), and the actress' nurse, watching over her during a recuperative rest at an isolated seashore. She tells Elisabeth all about her life and, as the quiet but intense Elisabeth - taller, enigmatic, more self-possessed than Alma - slowly starts to take over the nurse's fragile mind we don't get closer to any simple answers. Somehow, though, we do feel we're getting closer to the experience, what philosophers might call the "phenomenon," of Elisabeth's withdrawal from the world. The prolific, intensely personal Ingmar Bergman made many celebrated movies, but Persona is often acclaimed as his masterpiece - the most intense, the most personal, at once an icon of 60s art-house chic and a supremely individual expression. At no point moreso than when the babbling Alma, suffering what seems to be a mental breakdown, lets loose a stream of self-doubt and incoherent anxiety. We suddenly sense - with the shock of an epiphany - that Bergman himself is letting down his guard and telling us what it's like inside his own head.
Why I like it •
Persona was one of the first foreign films I ever saw. When I was a teenager I found a rarity-rental place nearby; between that and the local library began renting movies like The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and The Seventh Seal (that was my first Bergman, I think), films I'd been reading about in movie books for years. These movie books included avant-garde art films beside Hollywood entertainments and I didn't really see a contradiction between the two. I approached Persona less as a story being told than as a dream being experienced, and I loved it. I bring this up because often there's a perceived difficulty in bridging the gap between popcorn movies and more "difficult," "artistic" films. The gap is usually more in people's minds than the works themselves; art films are an extension of what exists in mainstream movies - as Pauline Kael put it in her famed essay on the virtues of trash, "the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer." Experimental works should be primarily visceral, acting on the viewer's imagination like a vivid dream. I value Persona for its tactile qualities, the way you notice the knots in a wooden column or the way another person smokes a cigarette, removing the tobacco from their tongue, and for the way it connects this heightened sensibility to a raw uneasiness, opening a window out of thin air through which peers the madness which shadows our daily life. I cherish the film for helping to introduce me to this side of cinema. Even when its effect on me is not as strong as that first viewing, I retain it as a high water mark of the adventures possible along the celluloid path.
How you can see it • Persona is available on DVD from Netflix. A clip from the film is featured at 4:25 in "That Total Film", Chapter 16 in my video series. I also offered a full-length review of Persona as part of my "Big Ones" series a year ago.
What do you think? • Is Persona a good introduction to either "art" or "experimental" cinema, and what do those terms mean? How does Bergman's previous work play into Persona? Does the film represent a turning point in his career? How relevant is the fact that Bergman was changing lovers at the time - from Andersson to Ullmann? Does it make sense to focus on the film essentially a personal expression, or is this losing perspective on its thematic and aesthetic elements? Why do you think Elisabeth is silent?