Saturday, April 12, 2008

Target #206: Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman)

TSPDT placing: #32
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Written by: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook, Gunnar Björnstrand

Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966) opens with a bewildering montage of sounds and images, a frenzied newsreel of sex, death, cinema and comedy. The sequence is so far removed from my previous experience with the director that its effect is jarring, shocking; I momentarily wondered if I'd hit a wrong button and started playing Buñuel's Un chien andalou (1929) by mistake. I question Bergman's motives for including such an uncharacteristic opening, for it appears to have very little to do with the narrative that follows. Is this montage - an account of the sickening and concealed horrors and desires of society - a possible explanation for Elisabeth's continued silence? Even so, it all seems somewhat exploitative, as though Bergman was simply going for shock-value, obliterating any notions of subtlety with which I had begun to associate him {though I'll admit that the strength of The Seventh Seal (1957) arose from its not-so-subtle representation of Death}. The opening scene concludes with a young boy awakening in the morgue, his hand outstretched towards the vague image of a woman's face. Elisabeth's unloved child? Alma's aborted fetus? An amalgamation of both, perhaps?

An endless line of critics, it seems, have celebrated Persona as a masterpiece, and among the greatest films ever made. I'd hate to be the lone voice of dissent, but the film is certainly the lesser of the three Bergmans I've hitherto seen, if only due to the noticeable absence of the good-natured humour to be found in both The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957). If, indeed, I were to describe Persona as a masterpiece, it would be in regards to the visuals, which, photographed by long-time Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist, are beyond description in their detail and intimacy. The film takes particular interest in the human face, and entire conversations of words and emotions are played out through the communication of the eyes, and the glimmering hint of a smile on the lips. There is one immortal moment in the film when Bergman juxtaposes the faces of each woman onto the screen, merging Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann) and Alma (Bibi Andersson) into a single entity.

Persona also includes one of the most vivid depictions of sex that I've ever seen. Though the film shows us nothing, Alma's whispered description of an intimate encounter on the beach is staggering in its effectiveness; her words allow the viewer to formulate their own visuals, every emotion and nuance perfectly incorporated from the rich story we are being told. Though I may exhaust hours spouting the merits of Ingmar Bergman's film, I can't escape the fact that watching Persona felt very much like a chore. The film boasts a relatively short running time, but it never seems to attain any comfortable sense of rhythm, and, by the film's end, I was left wondering just what the film was trying to get at. Bergman includes various allusions to Bertolt Brecht's "Verfremdungseffekt" effect – highlighting the inherent artificiality of the cinematic medium – with the film at one point appearing to burn; but, unlike in Fellini's 8½ (1963), these self-referential flourishes seem to serve little foreseeable purpose. Am I looking too far into this film for meaning? Or am I not looking far enough? Even just hours afterwards, another layer of meaning has unfurled itself. Maybe it'll get better.

Currently my #4 film of 1966:
1) La Battaglia di Algeri {The Battle of Algiers} (Gillo Pontecorvo)
2) Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo {The Good, the Bad and the Ugly} (Sergio Leone)
3) The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder)
4) Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
5) Torn Curtain (Alfred Hitchcock)


ressot3 said...

I myself haven't seen Persona, but I have seen the Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly, and Winter Light, and I certainly wouldn't call any of them easy watches. Simply put, I'm not jumping to see any more Bergmans. So I wouldn't be much surprised if this had the same sort of slow pace.

Winter Light is pretty cool, though. You should check it out.

ackatsis said...

Thanks for the comment, once again!

I certainly haven't turned off Bergman yet - "The Seventh Seal" is in my top 100, and "Wild Strawberries" in my top 200.

If nothing else, I think that I can always rely on Bergman's films to have incredible cinematography, which is more than enough incentive to keep watching.

I'll check out "Winter Light" as soon as I can.

ressot3 said...

Yeah, the cinematography is usually pretty groovy.