Persona (Sweden 1966)

Elisabet and Alma

This was the key film in the Leeds International Film Festival’s short retrospective of films directed by Ingmar Bergman and set on his adopted home Island of Fårö. This seems to me not only the finest film ever made by Bergman but also one of the outstanding masterworks in World Cinema. It parallels other films that address their own medium of cinema, like Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (Otto e Mezzo, 1963) and Chris Marker’s La Jetée, [a proposed title early in the project was Cinematography]. This is an intense character study involving two very fine actresses, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson.

The film opens with an avant-garde montage of film – including the cinematic apparatus and apparently disconnected images: at least some of which do relate to the narrative that follows and some to other films by Bergman. Film as the subject re-appears near the middle of this work and again at the end with another montage which returns us to the cinematic apparatus on which the film relies. In between the narrative is presented in a more conventional style, which at the same time employs rigorous mise en scène, cinematography, sound design and editing. The film is graced by outstanding craft inputs from Bergman’s regular collaborators, Sven Nykvist, Ulla Ryghe, and P.O. Pettersson: and with more extracts from Bach on the soundtrack, [his Violin Concerto in E major]. There is also judicious accompanying music from Lars Johan Werle. And there is [once again] the influence of Strindberg.

The film offers a tight focus on two women characters, Elisabet Vogler (Ullman) and Nurse Alma (Andersson). We also meet a doctor who specialises in mental or psychological illnesses and the Elisabet’s husband .And we hear in the dialogue references to several characters including Alma’s fiancée. Bibi Andersson dominates the narrative because we learn most about the characters through her dialogue. For much of the film Ullman’s character is silent. There is a marvellous moment when we [think that we] hear her speak: reminiscent of the imperceptible movement after continuous stasis in La Jetée.

Whilst there is a tight focus on the two women, the Island of Fårö is important and it is recognisable from earlier films. There is a splendid long tracking shot as the two women walk along the beach. Much of the film occurs in the interiors, [mostly shot in a Stockholm Studio]. Later in the film there is a wonderful sequence running about eight minutes in length which consists of a long take that opens with a dolly, followed by a brief transition shot and then another long take in reverse shot, three increasingly large close-ups and then carefully crafted composite shots. What makes this sequence even more daring is the dialogue. The writing and delivery are impressive. There is an earlier monologue which relies almost completely on voice and tone – and it is far more erotic than many a visual sequence. Whilst near the middle of the film there is a brief male voice over

This is certainly a challenging film: a friend at the screening reckoned that one needed to see the film two or three times to fully comprehend it. It is also a richly complex film that pays the repeated viewings. This was my fifth or sixth screening of the film and I was still noticing aspects or noting possible meanings and references. We were fortunate to see the film in a good 35mm print: the cinematography benefits from the characteristic of the traditional medium. The Festival provides slips so audience members can vote on a scale of 1 to 5 – I ticked 5 on two slips and handed them in together.

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2 comments

  1. Sam Broadhead

    I agree this is my favourite Bergman film. The shifts in power and desire between the two women are well expressed. The sequence where we think she has entered the nurse’s room, then only later to doubt our perception is really intriguing. It demonstrates how silence can be about controlling a relationship. I also wonder if the film references Lacan’s psychoanalytical theories in relation to language and formation of the self.

  2. keith1942

    Some critics do see the film in terms of the ideas of Freud and Lacan: the article by P. Adam Sitney in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers (1997) takes this line.
    I don’t cotton onto Freud that much and certainly not to Lacan, but I can see that psycho-analytical critics will have a field day with this film.

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