[Film Review] Persona (1966)

Persona poster

Title: Persona
Year: 1966
Country: Sweden
Language: Swedish, English
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Director/Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Music: Lars Johan Werle
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Bibi Andersson
Liv Ullmann
Margaretha Krook
Gunnar Björnstrand
Rating: 7.7/10

Persona 1966

PERSONA is Bergman’s seminal work, an identity shifting psychological study centres on two women, nurse Alma (Andersson) and actress Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann), the former is assigned to take care of the latter, who is seemingly suffering from aphasia, but later one might argue, it is a voluntary unresponsiveness towards the exterior world.

From its opening scenes with sharply interjected montages, PERSONA signals to be one of the most experimental and recondite work for Bergman, a minimal narrative entirely thrusts between Alma and Elisabet, one is talking obsessively while the other is selectively mute. Firstly, a hovering question is: what is wrong with Elisabet? Not until we realise her silence may out of her own volition, being an actress, she is intensely aware of the deception of words, not only to others, every time one says something, it is also a betrayal to one’s id, which could be a tentative reason behind her behaviour. Then, the focus changes towards Alma, she takes the job as a challenge to sway Elisabet’s resolute, bring her back to norm, she befriends her, ministers to her daily life (from the ward to a seaside cottage), involuntarily divulges the most personal secret to her (about her sex adventure, a ménage-à-quatre fling behind her boyfriend’s back), only to illicit even a glimpse of her responsiveness.

All the apparent harmony shatters when Alma reads Elisabet’s letter to the hospital, in which she finds out that herself is subjected to a “specimen” for Elisabet to study, a sudden feeling of disappointment and betrayal sends her act aggressive and hostile towards Elisabet, from there, Bergman tranquilly strips the story off any normal procedures of coherence, daringly obfuscates the concrete distinction of reality and imagination, where Alma’s conducts become more and more irrational and frantic, glass shards, boiling water, harsh confrontations, role-playing and the repeated elucidations of the anguished relationship between Elisabet and her son, until it comes to a bang when Alma and Elisabet’s faces merge into one, everything is absolutely perplexing, through the juxtaposed close-ups, the ethereal cinematography and the out-of-context words, it is simultaneously frustrating and scintillating, a trademark syndrome from Bergman school.

Starring Bergman’s two muses, PERSONA signifies Ullmann’s rising and Andersson’s waning in Bergman’s oeuvre, nevertheless, Andersson is still getting the upper hand here, thrilling in dissolving herself into various emotional states, then absorbing all in with unflustered apathy, as if nothing happens, competently consummates the dreamlike structure which keeps viewers wondering. Ullmann’s no-lines arrangement effectively underpins her childlike visage, soul-reaching gaze and fragile state as a woman distraught with some unnamed grief.

Upon a first-viewing, I must be honest and keep my reservation to this accepted masterpiece since instead of getting a soothing catharsis, my mind is clobbered with too many question marks, and a feeling of malaise, I shall give this another try in another time.

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