Long time readers of the blog may know that for the last couple of months I have opined the lack of a single movie that I’ve felt was worthy of the elusive score of an A+. Yes, I’ve given several books that score recently, but not since I reviewed Gary Oldman’s directorial debut and cinema verite masterpiece, Nil by Mouth, on August 5th has a movie received top marks. As a matter of fact, we are less than a month away from the one year anniversary of this blog’s existence with almost 170 movie reviews (out of my 441 posts), only 7 films have gotten that elusive score. Well, leave it to the Swedes to finally get me to number 8. During my first review for a Federico Fellini picture (the understated La Strada), I mentioned three names as being arguably the most influential in foreign cinema. Those men were Federico Fellini (Italy), Akira Kurosawa (Japan), and Ingmar Bergman (Sweden). Lo and behold, those three men are now responsible for three of the best movies I’ve watched for this blog (and none were films I had seen at any point earlier in my life). Fellini Satyricon has come to symbolize for me the A Clockwork Orange of historical epics, and Kurosawa’s Ran was an absurdly delightful (and visually stunning) amalgamation of King Lear and samurai. Ingmar Bergman’s 1967 classic Persona is much harder to categorize. Alongside David Lynch’s Inland Empire, it is perhaps the most overtly intellectual and symbolic film I’ve watched to date, but at a perfect running time and a marvelous minimalist presentation, Persona had its claws in me from its disorienting beginning to its even more puzzling conclusion.
To describe the plot of Persona to newcomers (such as myself just an hour and a half ago) is to walk a less than metaphorical minefield. Anything short of a scholarly analysis of every scene would belie the inherent complexity of the tale beneath its seemingly simple shell. Bergman’s muse Liv Ullmann plays actress Elisabet Vogler, an actress who has suddenly and inexplicably developed a case of complete mutism. She is assigned a beautiful young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) to take care of her. After a brief stay at a local hospital, Elisabet’s doctor decides that it would be for the best for Elisabet to get some fresh air by the ocean, and so Alma and Elisabet move into a secluded beach house completely apart from the rest of the world. As Alma shares every last intimate detail of her life with the wordless Elisabet, the women develop a deep (and dangerous) bond, and Alma slowly grows viciously jealous of any attention and affection the mute Alma could potentially show to others. Without wanting to ruin anything for fear of spoiling the pleasure of this truly classic film, the line between reality and fantasy (and even reality and the film you are watching) slowly begins to unfurl, the tightening bonds between these two women threatens to hurtle them both over the edge.
Bergman (alongside Fellini and possibly Goddard) is responsible for so much of the iconic imagery and shot composition of the last 50 years worth of artistically ambitious cinema. Whether it is extreme and intentionally uncomfortable close-ups of the actors’ faces (so that every twitch and pang is painfully visible) or the oft-parodied shot of one actress facing the camera directly while the other sits at a perpendicular angle or the combination of a spartan set direction with high contrasts of shadows and light such that half the shot is nearly invisible while the other half is washed out in sunlight, this film was obviously made on a pittance but it remains both a visual powerhouse and one of the most stylistically influential films from one of the most influential directors of all time. David Lynch famously recreated the shot of the two heroines’ faces merging in his neo-noir psychological thriller Mulholland Drive. Similarly, this one of the earliest films I can remember watching where a director clearly reminded the audience that they were watching a film. The movie begins through the lens of a projector and brief flashes of old silent films. Whenever possible, Bergman reflects cinematic artifice right back at the audience in order to strengthen the over-all themes of the fleeting nature of reality even going so far as to have the film completely come apart at the seams during a moment of high psychological stress.
There are only five characters in the film, but only Alma and Elisabet are ever on screen for more than a minute or so. Much like Giulietta Massina for Federico Fellini (who was his wife and long-time inspiration), Liv Ullmann was one of Bergman’s most recurring stars and despite speaking only a dozen words or so the entire film, it was immediately apparent why she was able to inspire one of the most creative minds in cinema history. With just her impressively emotive face (often framed in a jarring close-up), she is able to evoke so much pain and tragedy (as well as a tough resiliency) easier than most actresses could do with spoken words. There is a moment towards the end of the film where Alma delivers a lengthy monologue but the shot is framed squarely on Ullmann’s face, and even more than Alma’s scathing indictment of Elisabet’s life, it is the sheer hurt on Ullmann’s face that makes the scene. In no way do I wish to discredit Bibi Andersson’s performanec. She is forced to do virtually all of the speaking of the film. And her characterization of the role constantly reveals hidden complexities in her character through her inhibitionless retellings of past indiscretions and a youthful broken heart. She also channels all of the jealousy and dangerous attachment with the right amount of build-up and eventual explosive intensity.
Discussing the themes of the film is just as tricky as a concise summation of the plot for anything too detailed runs the possibility of ruining the surprise for first-time viewers (though the surprise may not even exist for some viewers and may only be my interpretation of the plot). At its core though, the film was very reminiscent of the David Lynch film Inland Empire (I want to take back the Fellini comparisons I made in that particular review and replace them all with Bergman references) in that is about the artificial nature of storytelling and the various roles we inhabit whether as a person or as someone in the entertainment business. At one point before Alma and Elisabet leave for the beach, Elisabet’s psychiatrist supposes that Elisabet’s mutism is the result of her being tired of being split between so many different personalities and that her silence is the only way for her to achieve the truth. While that may be true on some level, there are also increasing levels of guilt and shame for obliquely referenced problems in her past as well as her inability to deal with human tragedies (signified through allusions to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War). Similarly, sexual guilt plays a heavy role in both women’s lives and a prolonged discussion of an exhibitionist sexual experience from Alma’s past proved to be one of the turning points of the film.
This is art house cinema at its artsiest. Often films like that can be mentally exhausting (eventually one’s mind stops being able to cope with Inland Empire during its epic three hour run), but at less than 90 minutes, Persona manages to keep your brain (and heart) fully engaged for every frame. Even when the film is at its most inscrutable (mainly the moments when it completely demolishes the proverbial fourth wall), it is a cinematic delight and the work of one of the true geniuses of the medium. For anyone with even the most passing interest in foreign cinema and intellectually demanding movies, this is must-watch. I’m now ashamed that I’m nearly 23 years old and still hadn’t seen an Ignmar Bergman film until just now. Without a doubt, this one of the best films I’ve watched for this blog, and it has actually inspired me to go back to a more regular movie watching schedule rather than the seemingly endless television and books that have taken up most of my writing for the last month and a half. Because if there are movies this great out there and I still haven’t seen them, I need to get back to my cinematic roots.
Final Score: A+