“Persona” (1966)

April 14, 2009 at 1:00 am (Cinema, Reviews & Articles)

Ingmar Bergman’s perplexing, experimental 1966 masterpiece, staring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann (in her first appearance in a Bergman movie). No lover of cinema should go without seeing this film.
This undated essay comes from P. Adams Sitney on the Film Reference website (link below)… 


Persona may be Ingmar Bergman’s most consciously crafted film; it may also be one of his most enigmatic. The plot is a tour-de-force distillation of an agon between two women, Alma (Bibi Andersson), a young nurse, and Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman) her patient, a successful actress who has withdrawn into silence. The psychic tension between the two women, and the power of the silent one, reflect Strindberg’s short play The Stronger, a source many critics of the film have noted. Yet Bergman is even more daring than Strindberg, for more is at stake in his film, and he sustains the one-sided conversation for the length of the feature film.

In many ways Persona is “about” the nature and conventions of the feature film—most obviously because Bergman begins the film by showing the ignition of an arc projector and the threading of a film, and ends it with the same projector being turned off. The greatest visual shock in all of Bergman’s often startling oeuvre must be the moment near the middle of Persona when the film rips (or seems to rip), burns, and introduces strange material, apparently foreign to the story of the two women.

Actually, the material comes largely from a pre-title sequence. By the time Persona was made, the pre-title sequence had ceased to be a novelty and was on the way to becoming a tired convention. Generally, a pre-title sequence presents some bit of action preliminary to the main action of the film, but not essential to its comprehension. The pre-title sequence of Persona, however, is utterly unique. It is composed of material completely foreign to the imagery of the film itself (except for the eruption after the burned film), so that one truly misses “nothing” of the plot by starting with the titles, yet it is crucial to an understanding of what is happening in that plot.

Early in the film we see a psychiatrist who talks to Alma about her future patient, and who talks to Elisabeth, alone, about her withdrawal. Bergman uses the psychiatrist to fill us in on the background of the silent woman. Late in the film we meet Elisabeth’s husband, who may be blind, when he shows up on the island where his wife is recuperating—but apparently he cannot tell Alma from Elisabeth. By this time Bergman has laid so many clues about the imaginative or psychotic perspective of the plot that we must wonder whether the husband is himself imagined or indeed whether Alma and Elisabeth are two aspects of a divided personality. This suspicion is encouraged by a repeated shot of a composite face, made up of half of each woman’s face. It appears after a climactic scene in which Alma recites Elisabeth’s faults to her face and ends up screaming that she is not Elisabeth Vogler herself. Interpretation of the film must depend on how one regards that scene.

Without judging the reality of any of the depicted events, however, once one sees the silent Elisabeth as a figure for the analyst and Alma as the patient, one can see that the sequence of the relationship between Alma and Elisabeth neatly corresponds to the stages of transference and counter-transference in classical psychoanalysis. Even more remarkable than the correspondence is the fact that Bergman has virtually suppressed shot-countershot in this film. This in itself is a considerable stylistic innovation for a film essentially about a single speaker and a single listener. But the few times that shot-countershot does occur, it underlines the stages of transference: first, when Alma initially makes contact with Elisabeth by reading her a letter from her husband; next, and with obsessive frequency, as Alma feels comfortable enough to describe her life and confess her excitement over an orgy and her subsequent abortion. Here shot-countershot underlines the positive transference: Alma is falling in love with Elisabeth. But when reading a private letter to Elisabeth’s husband, Alma realizes that she is being coolly analyzed and her love turns to hatred (negative transference). It is when she deliberately causes harm to Elisabeth that a single instance of shot-countershot occurs and, with it, comes the ripping and burning of the film, along with all the “repressed” material from the pre-title scene. The climactic accusation is the final shot-countershot scene in the film. It is repeated twice as if to stress its importance and to show how a filmmaker constructs shot-countershot.

As a psychoanalytic drama, Persona depends upon the relationship of the seemingly chaotic image of the beginning of the film to the accusations of Alma at the height of her transference anxiety. There the abortion, the rejection of Elisabeth’s son, and the confusion over who sleeps with her husband are significant issues as are the frequent representations and discussions of love-making while someone looks on. The entire film actually turns on the perspective of a pre-adolescent male, seen waking up in a morgue in the pre-title scene, and reaching out, in the first initial shot-countershot structure, to touch the projected image of the faces of the two women flowing together. In the center of this labyrinthine film, there is a primal scene disturbance: a fantasy of intercourse as a violent act, yet exciting to watch, in which the child born out of it believes himself unwanted, even the victim of a willed destruction.

No film so systematically reflects the psychoanalytical encounter, although many films of lesser intensity (such as Hitchcock’s Spellbound or Bergman’s own Face to Face) attempt it more directly; perhaps no other film offers as many decoys to hide its psychoanalytical core. The very clues that would engage the viewer in trying to sort out what is real and what is imagined by the two (or is it one?) women are distractions from its profound concern.

P. Adams Sitney



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