Criterion Challenge #701
The release of PERSONA was a significant and historic moment in the history of Criterion Collection, even with the spine number of 701, the 700 works beforehand seem to be diminished under PERSONA’s shadow. PERSONA is one of the greatest, if not the best, work of Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director whose enormous works could be found in the collection as well. But the uniqueness of PERSONA stands out among them, the equivocal narration touching the inexplicable themes of merging and breakdown of identity, the power struggle between women, the horror and hollowness of living and being, the lesbian sexual content, and the rejection of “normalized” image of women and motherhood in patriarchal society. This 80-minute artistic work has been discussed and analyzed by numerous film historians and critics already, I don’t expect myself to find any breakthrough ideas. Coincidentally, my recent viewing of MULHOLLAND DRIVE, a film that very much reminiscing PERSONA, made me realize they are ideal companion to each other. Hence, I intended my writing to be introductory on the film itself, as well as a mini call back to Lynch’s seminal work.
PERSONA famously started with a hallucinatory prologue: two carbon arcs lightened up with heat, cut to the multiple close-up of a film projector itself, along with the most disturbing and eerie soundtrack I ever heard. Flashes of title card appeared, including inverted number counting down from ten, an erected penis, a short animation (inverted again). The images, conveniently, started with the generation of light. Association with religion was undoubtedly in my mind, as Bergman films usually tackled with the themes and imagery from Christianity (THE VIRIGIN SPRING, WINTER LIGHT). “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” Without light, there was no creation of the world, and no cinema itself. The projector is the creational source of cinema world, and the metaphor of the artist himself. By showing a series of cinematic references, a short animation, a silent comedy film, a documentary-like video of animal slaughtering, one may generate a sense of Brecht distanciation: you are not only watching a film, but also the film itself. These kinds of images would come back at the end of the film in reciprocal form, showing a cameraman working on a crane zooming-in onto an actress. Besides breaking the fourth wall of cinema, the religious images are either subtly referenced as a spider, the image of God as seen by the female protagonist in Bergman’s previous film THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961), or directly shown with the shot of a nail penetrating a person’s palm, indicating crucifixion.
The second half of the prologue comprised of a series image of bleak outside world, multiple shots of lifeless face and limbs of lying old woman and man. Then a telephone ringed, the dead (?) woman suddenly opened her eyes, and the shot cut to a pre-teenage boy (Jörgen Lindström) waking up from his bed. The boy, along with the previous hollowing images, provided a sense of emptiness and loneliness, very much echoed the background of the female protagonists we haven’t meet yet at this point, Elisabet’s (Liv Ullmann) abandonment of her son and Alma’s (Bibi Andersson) abortion. The yearning of maternal love was reinforced with the iconic image of the boy, first with him facing the spectator and holding out his hand, and then a reversal shot revealed his attempt to touch a transparent screen with a blurred close-up profile of a woman. The profile interchanged between two women (later on we would know them as Elisabet and Alma) continuously while the imagines becoming clearer and clearer. The gesture of the hand (boy) caressing the face (mother) represents an intimacy that was somehow only achieved between the two female protagonists, but not the boy himself, projecting an idea that the spectators (boy) can no more than touching the surface of the film (screen) than the core.
Psychologically, a persona is the mask that one wore to be someone that we expect people to see. As the film’s title is PERSONA, one may expect the characters’ behaviors were just their personal façade to protect their inner self. As soon as we first saw Nurse Alma entering a room to receive the instruction from the doctor (Margaretha Krook) for her new patient actress Elisabet Vogler, we were prepared to identify the nurse uniform and the well-manner behavior as a disguise, a persona that asked for the doctor’s (as well as our, the spectators) fondness and trustfulness. With her calm and attentive look, the camera first showed Alma’s left profile, than a fast cut to the right profile like a mirror image, subsequently the back of her head and a quick downward pan to her two hands behind her back, creating a cinematic representation of her inner uneasiness in contrary to her present attitude.
Elisabet sudden retreat to silence upon performing Electra on stage was told in a highly suggestive mis-en-scene. With Elisabet facing the play’s audience (which was not shown to us but was hidden in darkness and strong background lights) and her back towards us, she suddenly turned her face to the back, to us, looking confused and shocked. The film was filled with characters looking to the screen, a constant breaking of the fourth wall, notably in a later scene when Alma taking a picture (of us) with a camera on a beach. The silence of Elisabet was accompanied by the doctor’s narration. And she moved one step closer to us, what did she see? It was disturbing that there was no resolution and explanation to her sudden choice of silence; her eyes were darkened with horrors, very much echoed the scene when Elisabet later saw the self-immolation monk in the newsreel and the photo of a ghetto boy raising both of his hands in surrender. My theory is that she saw/realized the meaninglessness, the futility and the nothingness in human existence; on the stage her glance penetrate the screen, and saw us, saw the “outside” world, the reality.
In MULHOLLAND DRIVE, the two female protagonists (same number as in PERSONA), were actresses, the same vocation as Elisabet. Their professionalism lies on deception, on pretending to be someone else, on embodying another persona. In Lynch’s film, the moment of Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) watching a singing performance in the Silcento club became the turning point from illusion into reality, as well as the moment of Diane’s realization that she was actually dreaming. Theatre and performance were recreation or projection of the living world, the persona of reality. It was no coincidence for Lynch to choose the vocation of performer for the characters.
Later on, when Elisabet moved to an isolated island for the recovery, Alma was there to take care of her. The superior side of the power struggle was obviously on Elisabet, as Alma admitted once when she requested from reliving in the case of Elisabet: Elisabet’s will to remain silence was much stronger and overpowering than Alma’s mental strength. The difference in class and hence power struggle between “master” and “follower” was presented in a similarly fashion in Joseph Losey ‘s THE SERVANT (1963), which involved the interchangeability of a masochistic relationship between two males (the master, played by James Fox, became inseparable and dependent on his servant, played by Dirk Bogarde). THE SERVANT, came out 3 years before PERSONA, was not subtle in the homosexual implication (though one may argue the characters were bisexual). In PERSONA, a lesbian love could be read between Elisabet and Alma, the caressing and even blood sucking scene were both erotic and bold. In CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972), even Maria (Liv Ullmann again) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), sister to each other, had a moment of sexual intimacy reminiscent to PERSONA. The difference was, for Elisabet, she had the weapon and the shield, her choice of silence. As a result, even though thematically Alma dominated their space with words, Elisabet still maintained her controllability on Alma through invisible thread of one-sided communication.
In my opinion, Alma’s words were the self-reflexive mechanism in dealing her own fragility and uneasiness. She had a desperate need to fill up the silence: a soliloquy when she was alone, or a confession to Elisabet on the sexual encounter she and her friend experienced with two young boys. The latter scene was masterfully executed and lit with sensitive contrast with black and light by Bergman and his long term cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who later won two Oscars with Bergman in CRIES AND WHISPERS and FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1984). When Alma recalled her sexual past on the couch, a medium shot was used with light focused on her body. A bright lamp was placed on Elisabet’s side with her lying on bed in the background. Once Alma moved to the bed besides Elisabet and recalled her abortion, she was under the dark shadow, thematically representing her dark and formidable past. Without the use of flashback, the verbal power became much stronger. Bibi Andersson’s performance was simply superb and unforgettable. Alma’s abortion was juxtaposed with Elisabet’s uncaring, and almost a fear, towards his own son, who was only briefly shown in a photograph. One may imagine the boy in the prologue somehow related to the lack of maternal love in Elisabet’s son. The consequence of an artistic mother not fulfilling her child emotional love request, and hence failure in motherhood, was later used as the major theme in AUTUMN SONATA (1978), with Ingrid Bergman as the musician mother and (once again) Liv Ullmann as the daughter.
The first half of the film after the avant-garde prologue was mainly told in a linear and naturalistic narrative. Until the appearance of a dreamy sequence when Elisabet came to Alma’s room at night, both standing in front of the mirror (as the film screen), with Elisabet caressing Alma’s forehead, and subsequently their head overlapped, creating the most iconic image in the entire film: a union of two human, two souls, and two identities. This moment was erotic and sexual, in contrary to the horrifying and shocking split image of Alma and Elisabet later in the film, one side of their face joining together with strikingly close resemblance, almost like a unified single person. Alma began to adapt the personality and identity of Elisabet in another hallucinating scene. Elisabet’s husband (Gunnar Björnstrand) appeared, almost like a blind person (literally or figuratively?), took Alma as his wife Elisabet. Alma rejected at the beginning but soon embodied the identity of Elisabet willingly. PERSONA was filled with equivocal close-up of characters profile, often with one character face positioned perpendicularly to another character, which kind of became the signature composition in Bergman’s films.
The concept of identity disintegration was reinforced with a sudden shot of a burning negative in the mid-point of the film, like the projector was on fire and the “film” itself burnt. Once again reminding the spectators we were watching a “film”, a product of artificiality and objectiveness. In contrary to the opening shot, the last shot of PERSONA was two carbon arcs burning out and cooling down gradually, and then light was out. No light, no film. In-between all these scene, the story of the two female protagonists was indefinable as either reality or dream. This ambiguity could also be found in MULHOLLAND DRIVE, with its linear multi-characters storylines suddenly turned into a rabbit hole with characters persona rearranged. In comparison, MULHOLLAND DRIVE was like a logical game of disillusionment. PERSONA, on the other hand, occupied a unique realm. It is a eulogy to the permeable boundary between cinema and spectators. There was no film like it before and no film like it ever after.
Film score: 5/5
Criterion release: 5/5
The contents of the Criterion release are more than perfect, it is one of the best example of “film school in a box”. It even includes the 2012 feature documentary LIV & INGMAR. This is a seminal work, both the film itself and the treatment it received from Criterion. It’s one of the short-lived dual-format releases; go get it before it is rereleased into Blu-ray and DVD separately, because the current package is simply phenomenal! I just can’t find enough words to praise it.