Friday, August 19, 2011


Silence.  That's what happened for the first few minutes after I finished watching Ingmar Bergman's Persona.  The next thing I heard was the voice of Rodney Dangerfield in my head, saying "Tough room."  I love movies, but sometimes they confuse the hell out of me.

On its surface, Persona is a surprisingly simple story.  The famous actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), has had a breakdown of some sort and stopped speaking.  It's not a physical problem, and her psychiatrist doesn't believe that it is a mental one (which doesn't sound like a psychiatrist to me, but whatever...).  Despite this, a young nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to care for her; the pair temporarily move into the doctor's oceanside cottage, hoping that the peaceful scenery will cheer Elisabet up.  It kind of works, as she becomes more responsive and engages in activities, but she doesn't speak.  Alma makes up for that lack, filling every moment with her voice.  She reads aloud and thinks aloud mostly, but she eventually is comfortable enough with Elisabet to confide in her.  As the film progresses, Alma feels closer and closer to Elisabet, even commenting on how easily they could become one another.  Things don't stay all smiles and salted licorice for long, though.
No, things get eerily similar to a Calvin Klein ad.

Beneath the simple story lies a whole boatload of directorial intent.  You know the movies that critics applaud, but Average Joe flings his poop at?  Persona is definitely one of those. The film opens with a confusing sequence of shots; you see film running in front of a camera, a few frames of an old-timey cartoon (upside down), and then a series of images that appear only momentarily on the screen, including a crucifixion, bugs, and a lamb being slaughtered.  Then a boy awakes on what appears to be a morgue cart, and we later see him approach a bizarre unfocused picture (a focused version of which appears at the end of the film and makes more sense with context).
And then the film I described earlier begins.  Later on, at a key moment, the film appears to break, and we get more of that starting-the-film bit, with the cartoon making a brief reappearance.  Even later, a scene is repeated immediately after finishing, only with the camera focusing on the other actress.  This is a movie that wants to remind you that you're watching a film; instead of creating a suspension of disbelief, the director is deliberately distancing the audience from the film.  Fans of the theater might recognize this as an application of Bertolt Brecht's theatrical performance theories, but most people are justified in asking "What just happened?"  It all probably means something, but I doubt that anyone but the director knows exactly what.
Bib Andersson, after being hit in the face with subtext.

There are other high-falutin' theories that can help explain Persona.  The concept of self is definitely at the core of this film; Elisabet's doctor muses that the actress has sort of seen beyond the veil --- she realized that all interactions in life are performances of a sort, with even the most inconsequential exchange full of insincerity.  She opts to quit the game by not interacting at all; of course, this is just another form of interacting, one that the doctor believes Elisabet will eventually tire of.  Alma's character journey also plays into this; she gives and she gives to the unresponsive Elisabet, and finds that she is becoming more and more like her patient.
What's the deal with the blending of the two characters?  I'm not entirely certain.  You can argue that one or more of the characters in this film are not real, but that is A) really, really annoying to consider and B) an easy way for people to sound smart about the film and still be clueless about it.  I want to say that there is a psychological term for what is happening between Alma and Elisabet, but I haven't been able to pin it down.  "Transference" is the closest to the mark, but reading up on that theory makes me think it's not a perfect fit.  Regardless, there are some obvious psychological overtones in Persona --- one character talks the whole time on her way to self-discovery, while the other is patiently listening, like a therapist --- even if I'm not quite sure what they all mean.
They do not mean "sexy time."  I know that much.

Persona was directed and written by the famous Ingmar Bergman.  His stuff is not always the easiest to understand (Swedish language aside), and Persona is one of his most infamously obtuse works.  From a very basic point of view, I will say that this film is obviously very well-directed.  The cinematography is gorgeous, the way shots are framed is artful, and he got two excellent performances out of his two actresses.  Considering that one character spends the entire film monologuing and the other is silent, I think that is quite an accomplishment.  This is a film that was intended to be Art, and Bergman undoubtedly succeeded in that respect.
"Yeeeaaaaahhh!": the inspiration for David Caruso on CSI: Miami

I watched this on the suggestion of Juads Pato of No Bulljive fame and followed his interesting instructions: I found it on Netflix, but purposefully did not read anything about the film beforehand, even the plot synopsis.  I went into this one blind, with no clue what to expect.  That was definitely for the best.  Even knowing how unusual, interesting, confusing and frustrating this movie is wouldn't have prepared me for Persona.  Man, when I finished the movie, my first thoughts (after the Rodney voice, of course) was "How the hell am I supposed to review this?  'I don't get it' and then draw a large question mark?"  I often have difficulty reviewing movies that treat the format as an art form, but this was the toughest review for me to write so far.

It ultimately boils down to this: did I like it?  The answer is no.  I appreciate it, sure; great direction and cinematography, good acting with difficult parts, and a script that invites analysis --- these are all traits I look for in every movie and rarely find.  And yet, I was constantly frustrated by this movie.  The capital-A Artsy aspects were too abstract, too (seemingly) meaningless, and too annoying for me to actually enjoy any of Persona.  Honestly, I'm not shocked by my reaction, since I have a history of being frustrated by David Lynch's work.  Still, I'm disappointed.  If you removed the pre-title sequence and the subsequent Brechtian "remember, you're watching a movie" moments, I would have probably given this one eight stars.  Bergman's pretentious Artsy-ness just rubs me the wrong way on a very base level, to the point where I have found myself unreasonably pissed off at times while typing this review.  Thankfully, the good Art outweighs the bad Art.  This isn't as high of a rating as most fancy folk might give it, but it's a rating I can live with.


  1. Definitely the two aspects that one has to deal with in this movie in order to enjoy it are the confusion it presents and the heavy handed-ness of ole Ingmar. I very much love movies I do not totally understand (that are done well) and am willing to trust the director that his artsy fartsyness (its a word, trust me) means something. Often the heavy handed stylings are a bit much (ref: this movie, as well as Lynch or Malick's Tree of Life), but I am willing to deal with it for the overall vision, as is the case for me in Persona.

  2. I am well acquainted with artsy and farsty as artistic terms, believe me.

    It doesn't surprise me that you really liked this movie (with your love of Lynch and Malick), just as it didn't really surprise me that the artsy farstiness turned me off.

    On the one hand, I appreciate movies that give me trouble. I like to analyze stuff, and I don't get too many opportunities to flex those brain muscles on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, what the hell? Movies are supposed to be entertaining, right? Right? It irritates me when someone ignores entertainment to make an artistic statement. The best art is fun and makes a point; it doesn't have to be one or the other.

    Oh, well. Keep me updated on other gems you find. You know I'll watch them, even if they hurt my brain.