Hey Jackie Chan: fuck you. Chris Tucker? Brett Ratner? Eat my ass. It's Bergman week in Palinode's Palace. In the wake of Ingmar Bergman's death, I've gathered up a few of his films, and I'm going to watch one every evening and blog all over it.
Tonight's film: Persona(1966)
Ingmar Bergman was a man. A Swedish man. A man who died. But before he died, he made films. Dozens of films, about death, faith, doubt, redemption, salvation and sex. No one thought to stop him, and by the time they realized what was going on, no one could. His films marched out and invaded cinema, dug out a space in annexed territory and began to build strange rocky landscapes where tortured people wandered back and forth, fueling regret with bitterness, fear with doubt, acceptance with regret. Bergman's characters didn't all live in this place - Smiles of a Summer Night and Fanny & Alexander are downright charming - but for better or for worse, this is his most memorable landscape.
Even though most of Bergman's films have dropped from modern pop memory (remember The Magician? The Serpent's Egg? Me neither), Persona is probably the work that most people associate these days with the Bergman style: sparse, impenetrable, jarringly strange and preoccupied with themes of sin and character. This is a shame, not only because it does a disservice to Bergman's body of work, but it also misses much of the point of Persona, which is to keep you staring at the faces on the screen, even though there are only two characters, and one of them is mute. Film students who emulate Persona's style usually miss how entertaining the picture is.
Godard once said something to the effect that all you need for a film is a girl and a gun (the guy, presumably, being the audience, or the camera). Bergman knew that you didn't even need the gun. During a summer at a cottage in the country, a nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) tends to a famous stage actress named Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann), who has fallen mute in the middle of a performance, a condition which appears to be a conscious decision.
In the face of Elisabeth's silence, Alma begins to talk. And talk. And talk. Initially Alma seems flighty and unimaginative, but as the relationship between the two women grows more intimate, she begins to pare away her layers to reveal a person who is deeply confused and miserable about the irreparable disjunction between the whirlpool of her unconscious desires and the calm forward trajectory of her life.
Elisabeth, by contrast, has no illusions about inhabiting an integrated self. She is a succession of masks, a person who multiplies herself by taking on roles. When, out of disgust at herself, she drops all her masks, she discovers that there is nothing underneath, no persona to assume, and so she remains mute. This strategy should make her weak and vulnerable - after all, she's been assigned a nurse - but instead it makes her monstrously strong. Her silence turns her face into a complete blank, able to reflect back whatever the viewer wants most to see.
What Alma most wants, unsurprisingly, is herself, a mirror image in whom she can safely confide her secrets. One night she gets drunk and tells Elisabeth, in blisteringly candid and erotic language, about a spontaneous orgy she experienced on a beach with a friend and two "terribly young" boys. The exact age of the boys is never specified, but it's clear that they're young enough to make the act scandalous and maybe even criminal. The episode is a source of deep shame for her but also the highlight of her erotic life.
The sexual episode and the subsequent abortion have clearly ruptured Alma's consciousness, and the wound has closed so unevenly that it constantly threatens to break open again and destroy her orderly life. There are two Almas to contend with: the one who looks forward to marrying her fiancé and having children, and the one that comes out from hiding to grab pleasure and leave the guilt to the other.
Eventually Alma discovers that Elisabeth has abused her trust, and the film literally breaks, the reel tearing and burning in the projector's light. Once the story has been respliced and rethreaded into coherence, the women's roles have shifted; Alma begins to treat Elisabeth cruelly, seeing coldness and indifference in her silence where once she saw compassion and sympathy. Both women are in need of healing, but it's clear that their psyches are falling apart. In a sequence that may be a dream or a complete abdication of realism in film, Alma begins to ventriloquize, speaking for Elizabeth. It's not clear who holds the power at this point: although Alma begins to whip Elisabeth with her deepest, most shameful secrets, it's quite possible that Elisabeth is using Alma as a proxy for her own desires. In any case the differences between them vanish. The two women merge in a shot that has to be one of the most nauseating and disturbing images ever committed to film.
And then it's morning, and they're leaving the cottage. So, what's happened? I think Bergman's answer would be: a film happened. Which would not be too fatuous or flip a response. Bergman spikes the film with strange images and sequences that clearly don't belong to the narrative. The opening shot is the ignition of the arc lamp, followed by film threading through the spool. He gives the game away entirely when, in the middle of a scene with Bibi Anderson, we suddenly see Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist at the camera, craning down for an inexplicable shot of Liv Ullman lying on her back and looking into the lens. Persona pushes our willingness to take narrative at face value, injecting fantasy into reality without the standard cues that allow audiences to sort out what they're watching. The best way to watch Persona is to throw out your notion of narrative, and instead let it burrow into your mind.