Thoughts on Persona (1966)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the Golden Horse Bergman Centennial Retrospective.

Apparently, Ingmar Bergman’s elevator pitch for Persona (1966) to Kenne Fant went like this: “It’s about one person who talks and one who doesn’t, and they compare hands and get all mingled up in one another.” Though not inaccurate, it’s a bit like pitching Before Sunset (2004) as “the story of a guy and a girl who meet on a train, walk around chatting all night, and agree to meet again.” I’m not a fan of metafiction and think discussions of identity (outside of hegemonic oppression) are much ado about nothing, so I only have a few things to say about this Mount Everest for film critics. (The record for best climb is probably held by Roger Ebert’s Great Movie review, which draws blood in the first paragraph.)

At the core of the film is silence. Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) takes a (silent) vow of silence in condemnation of the world, just as Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn) does in Tarkovsky’s film of the same year. Here, silence attracts garrulous nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), who gradually sees in Elisabet the ideal listener. But a peek at a letter Elisabet writes reveals her hidden judgment of Alma, leading the latter to conclude that Elisabet’s condemnation of the world includes her specifically. She starts to really think about Elisabet and her vow, and in the climactic scene she demonstrates that she, too, understands the other woman, in her own way. But she refuses to turn empathy into identity, choosing instead to leave. Elisabet, in turn, is knocked off her high horse when she breaks her vow to prevent Alma from dousing her with boiling water, thereby conceding her continued embeddedness in the world she condemns. In this way, the two women approach each other asymptotically.

Silence also constitutes the film’s outer boundary. At key moments, Bergman splices in metafictional shots of celluloid, even a shot of the film crew mid-shoot. By cutting the legs off of the audience’s suspension of disbelief, he seems to be saying that, no matter how moving and authentic a scene is (and Persona has quite a few), it’s all fakery, illusion, and manipulation; at its core, cinema can truly say nothing. Bergman’s cinema is aphasic.

And yet, after the film and its artifice is over, those affecting scenes linger still in the mind. Though products of manipulation, the emotions are real. Cinema speaks in spite of itself—and in spite of Bergman.

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