Reintroduction #1: Persona (1966, Bergman)


Reintroduction #1: Persona:

In recent days, I have made an important and permanent decision regarding my viewing habits. My constant drive to expose myself to new films has shifted into a more balanced determination to revisit films I have only seen once or twice. I recall little from many of these films. Many I consider favorites and yet have seen a measly single time in my teenage years. I never denied the importance of getting to know a film beyond an introductory how-do-you-do get-together. But my priorities always lay with a greedy desire to taste things I hadn’t before. My tastes have changed quite a bit between my fourteenth and twenty-fourth year and films I did not like, liked but did not love or loved very much must be revisited. No; it goes backwards, past revisiting, past re-familiarizing. I speak of basic reintroductions. And while a lot of these films are essential canon works and have been deconstructed to their limits, every once in a while I would like to jot down some thoughts on a few of these re-watches (let’s officially call them ‘Reintroductions’ when it fits), as well as keep track for any readers which Reintroduction films, whether I write about them or not, I have been spending time with.

So far this year I have re-seen: Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, Ugetsu, Rashomon, The Night of the Hunter, Three on a Match, Alien, The Navigator and Persona.

Persona is a difficult film to write about. First, because its initial elusiveness has made it that much more a target for analysis. Second, because at its core it is an intuitive poetic experience that almost defies words. At a certain point, despite all discourse being entirely justified, it scrapes away at the film’s core profundity.

The first thing I thought after the film was over was that, to a considerable degree, it makes all the praise I heap onto other films seem like overblown hyperbole by comparison. Persona is the rare film that can never wear out its welcome. Each viewing seems like it would be a slightly, and maybe even radically, different journey for the viewer. A rejuvenating quality amidst its construction makes room for viewers to inscribe individual meaning, to interpret freely and to bask in its black-and-white bliss.

Time, memory, and a sense of self slipped away from me in considerable chunks during Persona. This is not something that often, or ever, happens.

There may never be a more striking or memorable use of black-and-white. The great Sven Nykvist forms a union with the film’s other qualities. The minimalist sets and costumes, the beach that surrounds the seaside cottage, the postmodern narrative and formal techniques, and the dependence on Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman’s faces. These all come together through Nykvist. Stark yet sensuous and uncomfortably honest, he creates a majestic palette where basic truths may be questioned.

What do we know of the two central characters? Alma is a nurse, looking towards marriage and kids with a ‘preordained’ acceptance. She is increasingly unable to reconcile her perceptions with her actions, which Elizabet points out in her letter. Elizabet’s presence is causing her to fall apart at the seams. Her identity and self-understanding cannot handle the scrutiny of Elizabet’s silence, judgment and questionable sincerity.

Elizabet is an actress who has chosen silence as her form of expression. She rejects the roles of wife, mother and actress, reducing the fact of her life to an invigorating simplicity. She did not want her child and is assumedly hyper-aware of the part she plays towards him. Where is the line between being an actress in work and in life? She spends her time studying Alma and she has trouble coping with catastrophe in the world.

Based on only a second viewing and some reading about the film, some questions that Persona seems to raise come to the forefront. What is real when it comes to the individual sense of self and the cinematic medium? In life, can we stay true to ourselves? Is it possible to retain authentic identity despite the constant self-betrayals daily life perpetuates? Can you truly reconcile this and how do we do so? Do responsibilities define us? Can you get at truth within a medium, or any medium for that matter, when it is all construct? That Persona also grapples heavily with female identity, an issue that almost fifty years later is grossly underexplored, only adds to the film’s treasures.

There is so much more. Who knows what I will see and feel the next time I watch it? Some of those questions may not make themselves known and new ones will sprout up. Maybe there is a possible answer or two to be found. Maybe a clearer interpretation of the narrative will gel. Maybe an understanding to the rhyme and reason with which Bergman uncharacteristically pushes and plays around with the form itself.

Most essentially I look forward to the fresh and previously unformed gut feelings and new experiences to be had. As I said before, at a certain point all dissection must be let go in order for this film to be simply felt.

And then there is the act of losing oneself in the expressions of Bibi Andersson and especially Liv Ullman, whose face here is elevated to the honorary position of being its own medium. Both lead performances are raw, vital and erotically charged. But Ullman is a work of art within a larger work of art. Like said larger work, Ullman is tantalizing and impenetrable, but only up to a point, otherwise she and the film would be distancing where the opposite is in fact true.

To conclude my thoughts with the somewhat obvious and unoriginal statement; Persona is an endlessly mesmerizing and challenging masterpiece. As I go through life, I have a feeling that few films will end up meaning more to me than this one.

Edit: After watching it a third time, Persona has made its way into my all-time top ten favorite films.

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5 comments

  1. I had so many questions after watching this that my mind could barely keep up but I wanted more! I’ve never seen anything else quite like it and I would wager there will never be another film that comes close. Even just reading this makes me want to watch it again because I know my experience today will be different from even just a few months ago.

    My write-up about it if you’re interested: http://andywatchesmovies.com/2012/03/21/persona-31912/

    1. Nice job! I definitely agree that every time one watches it will be a slightly different experience. I ended up going back and watching it again within the same week and it was exactly what happened.

  2. In just this last year I started watching Bergman movies, and so far I have enjoyed so many of his movies. I purchased Persona but have not watched it yet. (I will be soon, thanks to your review.) One of my favorite things about Bergman’s movies has been the cinematography. Sven Nykvist has blown me away. If Persona really is some of his best work I can’t wait. Thanks for the thoughts. (and the reintroduction.)

    1. I really hope you like it. Its different from any of his other stuff. A lot of the director’s signature touches are there but it is overall very unique within his filmography. Nykvist’s work here really did blow me away. Deceptively simple but actually extremely complex work from him.

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