#3 in my Ranking of Bergman’s Best Films.
Four-fifths of the way into my second viewing of Persona within a week, I placed my hands on my head and exclaimed, “I got it!”
Out of all the Ingmar Bergman films I’ve seen, Persona is easily the most difficult. Others have difficult subject matters or portray difficult situations with clarity, but Persona is the first where I thought I understood what was happening both literally and thematically but I simply could not connect with it. What convinced me to give it a second try so soon after my first foray into it on this Bergman odyssey (I had seen it once before in college) was the film’s reputation as a masterpiece and one of Bergman’s best. If the movie didn’t have that reputation, I would have pumped out a 3-star review and called it quits. Instead, I insisted on a second viewing, which I am very glad that I did. Because, you know, I got it.
In between my first and second viewings, I read a bit about Persona. I read the essay included with the Criterion Collection box set and I read Roger Ebert’s Great Movie review. Neither did the work of convincing me on their own that what I had watched was a masterpiece, but Ebert’s in particular gave me advice on how to watch.
The thing about Persona is that it is unbelievably dense. Every word, image, and cut betrays some meaning. That density invites a host of different, often conflicting, interpretations which is a lot to process when the audience isn’t quite sure what they’re even looking at to begin with.
Alright, enough of that, what’s the story?
An actress, Elisabet Vogler, stopped speaking in the middle of a performance of Electra and has been admitted to a hospital. A young nurse, Sister Alma, has been assigned to Elisabet, but Alma has doubts about her ability in the face of what she sees to be an obviously difficult task. The two end up sent to a remote house on the Swedish coast where they spend some time together. Alma continues to speak almost endlessly to the point that she confesses to an infidelity against her fiancé in rather explicit detail. The two women steadily look more and more alike and Alma seems to change. There’s a scene where Elisabet enters Alma’s room at night and the two seem to merge. There’s another where Elisabet’s husband arrives and confuses Alma for Elisabet to the point that they (probably) make love. It all comes to a head in a scene that actually plays twice in a row. Alma finds Elisabet with a torn image of the actress’s son, and Alma cuts deeply into Elisabet’s past and identifying exactly how Elisabet feels about her son (all while Elisabet had never said a word about it).
My “I got it!” moment came in that scene.
Bergman’s always been about people more than anything else. His topic and the focus of his lens is the human face. He wasn’t going to abandon that the second he decided to use an experimental montage to open his film. I referenced something that Roger Ebert wrote that helped open up the movie for me, and it was this (paraphrased): Read the movie literally. So, I watched the movie as literally as possible. I shoved aside the idea that the two women might actually be one (something that may still be possible) or everything about dreams (I take those scenes as literally happening), and I saw the story of two women finding a way to connect.
Both try to connect with the other for different reasons. Alma wants to connect with Elisabet in order to discover how to convince the patient to speak again. Elisabet wants to connect with Alma as research for a part. Neither can understand the other at first. They look different, dress differently, and (even considering Elisabet’s silence) they interact with the world differently. Quickly, once they reach the coast, they begin to dress alike. First it’s a pair of hats that are of similar styles (Alma’s extends down implying a more limited view while Elisabet’s brim is flat implying that she’s looking further out), then their clothes begin to resemble each other. There’s one point where Alma leans over with Elisabet in the background, and it’s impossible to discern where the shirt of one begins and the other ends.
When we finally get to the scene where Alma reveals Elisabet’s core issue, it suddenly became obvious. We are watching two women trying to understand each other at the deepest levels, and the only way to make that happen is to inhabit the other person completely. There’s the core of the film. There’s the emotional center that drives the stylistic and visual nuances throughout the film (in particular the moment the two women’s faces are superimposed over each other). The framing device is part of that as well. The framing device is filled with images of early cinema and finally a boy trying to touch a large face behind a glass. This implies that there will always be a barrier between people on the two sides of a screen, meaning that we, the audience, can only ever get so close to the people we are watching.
My breakthrough on the film would actually work quite well with the idea that there is only one woman and that the whole movie is actually just a split-second of time where Elisabet was frozen in the middle of a performance. I haven’t thought through the idea, though. Another viewing could bring that more to the forefront.
And that’s the other key to Persona‘s power. It’s so rich that it allows for this kind of exploration across multiple viewings. I remember reading a comment from someone on a message board about how a movie that didn’t grab him on a first viewing was unworthy of a second. I’m so glad I don’t subscribe to that line of thinking. If I did, I would have seen Persona once in college, not understood it, and never bothered to revisit it at all, much less twice in one week more than a decade later.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4