Monday, September 8, 2014
Although one of the greatest of film makers, Ingmar Bergman was primarily a man of the theater. He distinguished himself directing plays and operas both before and after his film career. Bergman's allegiance to theater is evident in Persona (1966). The film is preeminently the record of a two-person theater-piece, an experimental play conceived and written by Bergman. The artistically discordant elements of Persona, the aspects of the film that don't seem to cohere, are its most explicitly cinematic elements -- the film's bravura opening sequence, the famous moment when the image is entrapped in the projector to blur and burn, and several shots in the picture's last couple minutes. Bergman's use of effects to superimpose the images of his actresses, his split-screen juxtaposition of their faces, and similar optical devices are also unnecessary, over-emphatic and feel contrived. Paradoxically, a film famous for its meta-narrative devices and cubist compositions is most effective when it cleaves closest to its source material -- an austere theater work featuring two great actresses, one of whom never speaks. Persona's premise is simple enough: a famous actress has suffered some kind of mental breakdown during a performance of Elektra. She refuses to speak and languishes motionless in a psychiatric ward. A young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to care for the actress (Liv Ullmann). Alma doubts her competency and seems uncertain as to her own identity. After a prelude in the mental hospital, the actress is transferred to a remote, and, apparently, abandoned island for the summer. Alma accompanies her to the island and, as time passes, becomes mentally and emotionally unstable herself. The actress' silence is so daunting that Alma begins to perceive it as willful, obstinate and, even, aggressive. And the film suggests that Ullmann's character is, perhaps, simply playing a role, acting some kind of sinister part or, in the alternative, seeking refuge in her silence to self-indulgently avoid her responsibilities as wife and mother. (The actress has an adoring older husband who we seem to see once in the film -- his apparition, however, is probably a fantasy or vision; similarly, the film is bookended by scenes of the actress' son poring over a huge image of his mother as if hoping to understand why she has abandoned him.) Ullmann's performance is suitably enigmatic -- she seems either catatonic or frustratingly remote: sometimes, she laughs at Alma, her face shaped into a puzzling Mona Lisa smile that sometimes verges on a cruel sneer. In many shots, Ullmann's character, with her hair severely pulled back and wearing a black outfit, is a dead ringer for the pale and melancholy Death that beset the Knight on the rocky beach in The Seventh Seal -- indeed, the imagery of empty skies and a stony beach backed by dwarf trees under the midnight sun is very similar to the landscape in Bergman's earlier movie. The film has something of the character of a forbidden experiment -- the close association of two women in complete isolation, one of them garrulous and self-revelatory, the other mysteriously silent, yields madness: the nurse imposes her thoughts and fantasies on the blank screen of Ullmann's character and, ultimately, the identities of the two women blur until they are indistinguishable. (Bergman, perhaps, suggests that the white screen on which movies are projected and that images themselves -- for instance, a monk burning himself alive in protest at the Vietnam war, a woman's motionless face, a field of stone on a cold beach -- are neutral and indifferent fields on which project our own fantasies and desires. The meta-filmic aspects of the movie are, perhaps, best interpreted in light of the concept of projection -- just as a film is projected, the nurse projects her own concerns onto the vacant and mysterious actress.) Shot in immense unflattering close-ups -- the primary difference between the two beautiful women in the film is the character of their skin: Liv Ullmann's complexion is pale and smooth as porcelain; Bibi Andersson's skin is more granular and porous -- the film often resembles Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc. Everything is highly theatrical, artificial -- the nurse speaks in extended soliloquies and Bergman suggests that the actress' existential crisis is intrinsic to reality: the world's cruelty and indifference is inescapable and, once this is grasped, the only refuge is silence, exile, and madness. We sense that there is something wrong with this world early in the film: the nurse is shown leaning over the bed of her patient and we can see quite distinctly that she is wearing spike high-heels. This clue, I think, alerts us to the theatrical nature of the experiment, that the movie is a kind of filmed play, and that all of the meta-filmic or overtly cinematic elements are designed, perhaps, to conceal the fact that the action really could be performed on stage with no sets, no costumes, no beach, and no sky. Two long speeches demonstrate Bergman's unique and feral savagery -- one of them details an orgy in a justly famous and explicit monologue; the other speech, even more ferocious, indicts the actress for despising her son, the poor hapless child that we have seen in adoration of his mother's image in the opening sequence of the film. The nurse's description of the orgy is suitably Scandinavian, Lutheran, and dour: in Italian films like La Dolce Vita and The Great Beauty orgies are cheerful occasions to meet future business associates, plan dinners at exquisite and expensive restaurants, and forge valuable friendships; the nurse's orgy ends with her requiring an abortion and in a flood of tears. Persona is only 85 minutes long and there are many things about it that are astounding -- but I am unconvinced by the film; somehow, it seems to lack authentic inspiration and is too obviously the product of much labor and cogitation.