Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

PERSONA (1963)

Never trust an actress.  As the moral degeneracy of artists is a frequent theme in the works of Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director may be telling us to be suspicious of practitioners of the arts.  In THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961) for instance, he presents to us the case history of a writer who coldly observes his daughter’s mental collapse intending to use her disintegration as the basis for a novel.  In PERSONA (1963) the artist in question is a respected actress, Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann).  She is not so much overtly corrupt as she is mysterious and ghostly – and just a little threatening.  For one thing, she has recently stopped speaking, which not only adds an etherial quality to her persona, but also plays into another favorite Bergman theme, namely the futility of trying to communicate in the modern world.  She has given up it would seem, or perhaps she has found a better way to get her points across. 

Elizabeth is being cared for by a talkative psychiatric nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), whose verbose approach is a perfect counterpoint to Elizabeth’s mute existence.  But they both wear masks of course, as Elizabeth is as capable of speaking as any of us, and Alma uses words as a cover for her anxiety. 

In PERSONA, Bergman employs the alienation techniques used to such good advantage by French “New Wave” director Jean-Luc Godard.  PERSONA begins with a close-up of film running through a projector and ends with a shot of Bergman’s camera wheeling toward the viewer.  His aim is to make us constantly mindful that we are watching a film.  Only under such circumstances can we avoid identifying too strongly with any of the characters, and concentrate instead on the intellectual points being made.  And there are many…After the projector imagery we are assaulted by shots of a lamb being slaughtered and a hand being nailed to a cross.  We are about to witness a sacrifice of sorts – of the artistic psyche – as it is revealed.  The relationship between the actress and nurse represents that of the performer (or director) to his or her audience, and how they feed off each other.  After Alma claws herself in a fit of anguish, Elizabeth sucks on the wound, creating a bizarre alliance. 

Bergman always considered the human face to be the landscape of the cinema and cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s camera frequently lingers on close-ups of the two women.  In one mesmerizing moment, the director holds on a tight shot of Elizabeth’s face as the room slowly darkens.  We then cut to Alma applying facial cream as she prepares for bed.  One face leads to another.

As the film progresses, the two women begin to merge and Alma asks “Can you be two people at once?”  The answer comes in the film’s conclusion when the women’s faces are joined together in a startling split screen shot.  Even the denouement is presented twice: As Alma recounts the story of Elizabeth’s deformed child, the grim tale is told first with the camera on Liv Ullmann’s reactions and a second time with a shot of Andersson as she speaks. 

In the end, the sacrifice is not only Elizabeth’s, but Alma’s as well.  In any artistic relationship the audience must give up a part of themselves (a part the artist hungrily devours) and become a part of what they are watching.  PERSONA illuminates this strange relationship and Ingmar Bergman reveals something about himself and us. 

CREDITS: Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.  Photography by Sven Nykvist.  Music by Lars Johan Werle.  Starring Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Margaretha Krook and Gunnar Bjornstrand.

August 14, 2010 Posted by | 1960's cinema, Swedish film | , , , , , | Leave a comment