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).
|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.
|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.