Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Film #61: Persona (1966)

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Initial Release Country: Sweden

Times Previously Seen: once (about 6 years ago)

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Young nurse & mute patient engage in intense psychological back-and-forths.

Extended Summary (More complete plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.)

Middle-aged and prominent Swedish actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman), is inexplicably stricken dumb in the middle of her performance as the title role in the play, Electra. She is sent to a psychiatric institution, where she maintains her utter silence and unresponsiveness.

She is placed under the care of the beautiful, 25-year old nurse, Sister Alma (Bibi Andersen). Nurse Alma's gentle and dutiful ministrations elicit some positive, if mild, responses from Elisabet, but the actress remains completely mute. The head psychiatrist decides that the best thing is for Sister Alma to accompany Elisabet to a seaside retreat, where the two women can advance Elisabet's treatment. Alma expresses her concerns that the clearly willful Elisabet may be more than she can handle, but her worries are quickly swept aside by the doctor and her own naivete.

Sister Alma, a kindly nurse who has no idea of the mental trial ahead.

At the picturesque seaside house, the pairing makes a promising enough start. While Elisabet refuses to speak, she seems an eager listener as Alma fills the silence with expositions about her own life. Alma talks of her life, educational background, her fiance, and other more casual topics for several days. All the while, Elisabet lends her ears and absorbs it all.

Eventually, Alma begins to reveal much more personal thoughts and feelings. One evening, with both women rather deep in their cups, Alma shares a rather scandalous episode in her life. While on vacation with her fiance, she and another woman engage in some naked sunbathing, away from their significant others. A few young boys approach them and, following the lead of her new-found companion, Alma has sex with both boys. In an attempt to cover up this unforeseen foray into hedonism, she later has sex with her unknowing fiance. She becomes pregnant and soon has an abortion, actions that Alma is deeply conflicted over – she clearly feels guilty about it all, while simultaneously acknowledging the pure, if temporary, delight of the amorous escapade. As always, Elisabet seems to take in the entire tale without judgment, and she offers Alma the comfort of a warm embrace.

An ever-silent Elisabet calmly absorbs Alma's most personal revelations.

The next day, as Alma drives to the nearest town for supplies, she glances at a letter that Elisabet has written to a friend. In the letter, Elisabet has written a rather detailed account of the sordid tale that Alma told her in confidence the previous evening. Feeling utterly betrayed, Alma begins enacting forms of revenge back at the house. At first, she leaves a broken shard of glass on the ground for Elisabet to step on. Alma also begins verbal attacks, accusing Elisabet of being a sort of dramatic parasite and using Alma's confessions as potential acting fodder. The most violent attack is when she nearly hurls a pot of boiling water at her charge, only pulling up at the last minute when Elisabet screams her first words: “No, don't!” Alma desists, and after slinging a few more sharp accusations at her, feels remorse and asks for Elisabet's forgiveness.

Over the next several days, the bonds between the two women deepen in disturbing ways. Alma imagines that Elisabet is speaking to her and quietly visiting her in the night, even when Elisabet denies it. At another point, in what may be a dream or reality, Elisabet's estranged husband, an older blind man, shows up at the house. When Elisabet still refuses to talk, Alma takes her place as a proxy, going so far as to make love to the man, who mistakes Alma for his wife. All of this is done as a passive Elisabet looks on, doing nothing to prevent it.

Towards the end of their time together, the lines between Elisabet and Alma grow even more blurred. As the two sit across a table from one another one afternoon, Alma begins to narrate a personal event from Elisabet's life – that of the birth and life of her son, whom Elisabet has also retreated from. Alma tells a story of Elisabet, the actress, only becoming pregnant in order to become more “motherly” in the eyes of her fans and critics. However, through and after the pregnancy, none of the outward motherly emotions were real. Elisabet has always been thoroughly detached from her child, despite his unconditional love of her. It seems at this point that Alma has achieved a complete psychic transference with the woman behind the shroud of silence – so much so that she can speak of Elisabet's innermost despairs with first-hand authority.

Their strange personality shifts having run their course, the two women are undeniably, in indefinably, changed. There is, however, nothing more for them to say or do to one another. Instead, they simply pack their belongings, clean up the vacation house, and leave.

Near the end of their stay together, Alma is able to see deep into, and essentially become, Elisabet.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (My impression of the movie, based on this viewing & before any research)

Persona is another film that I have to say is an excellent artistic work, and one that was a very interesting intellectual exercise, but a film that I may never watch again. Seeing its opening shots, a viewer is inclined to feel that they are watching some bizarre, incoherent art house work. There are spliced film cells, brief images of cartoons, silent films, and animals being butchered. The montage ends with a shot of a young boy laying on a cold slab. He wakes, looks around, reads a book for a moment, and then notices a massive, blurry image of a woman who seems to be looking over him. If you're wondering what any of this has to do with the main plot or two women who develop a co-dependence on each other, you know exactly how I felt. Immediately after this odd, 2- or 3-minute overture, the story proper begins, and we are given a traditional narrative to follow.

The story of Sister Alma and Elisabet Vogler is highly intriguing for anyone interested in psychology and its probings into the darker recesses of human personality. The Elisabet character is rather unique – one who speaks only three words and whose silence turns her into a blank slate of sorts onto whom the young Alma projects her own feelings and desires. This element aside, one is left to puzzle out exactly what shocked Elisabet into her self-imposed muteness. The film gives hints and suggestions, but with a vagueness that allows the viewer to fill in the blanks. Some may find this frustrating, but I found it engaging.

One of the iconic images of the bizarre opening montage of Persona.

The tone seems perfect. By making the setting a quiet, peaceful beach side house, an eerie tension is built between the two women. It's not hard to see how the cheery Sister Alma goes from seeing Elisabet as trusted Mother Confessor to betrayer to emotional vampire. The final phase, in which Alma seems to virtually become Elisabet in a way, seems somehow organic. This is even more amazing when you realize that the film is a mere hour and 20-odd minutes.

The ever-morphing feelings of the two women are communicated even more clearly thanks to the camerawork. With a starkness that I last saw in the German film The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band), the many black-and-white still shots are incredibly effective. The isolation of Alma and Elisabet is palpable. When Alma reveals her past moment of unbridled sexual abandon, the dark shadows in the house, the quiet of the scene, and the authenticity of the performance are remarkable. It reminded me of a similar scene in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, when Nicole Kidman's character does something similar, sending her husband into the mental anguish that propels the rest of the story. Bergman built up the same kind of power, without color and three decades before in
Persona.

One of the many haunting and quiet images that blur the line between reality and dream between the two women.

So it should be clear that I found plenty of intellectual food for thought and that I think that the film is executed brilliantly. So why do I say that I would probably not watch this movie again? Because it's rather painful in its rawness. This was something that Bergman seemed to veer towards in the latter parts of his long career. Years later, he would go much further with the horrifyingly emotional Cries and Whispers. Persona is not nearly the trial of this later movie, but the discomfort is still there. And when Bergman approached such subjects, there was nary a second of comedic relief. He went at you hard, and didn't dilute the tale with anything that didn't fit the overall sensations he meant to draw out.

The closing scenes of Persona echo the first ones – the young boy, the roughly edited footage, and a film reel burning to its end. However, by the end of the movie, it seemed to make much more sense to me. I may be way off (my further research will probably tell), but it seemed that the fractured images are meant to reflect the mind of Elisabet Vogler. She, as an actress, can be seen as a paid, professional liar who has forsaken any real, human connection for her own success and fame. When this realization strikes her, it sets off the events of the film and results in the fallout for Sister Alma. This is just one theory of mine, however, and the film offers many avenues for more. This is what makes it fascinating, if not exactly pleasurable.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research)

It always feels good to know that you weren't completely missing the point, eh?

In reading several essays and writings on Persona, I found that I did, for the most part, “get it”. However, this may not be something that the average viewer could or would want to do. It would seem that a fair amount of familiarity with Ingmar Bergman's pre-existing body of work goes a long way. This original review in TIME magazine shows how that reviewer, knowing of Bergman's iconic film images, was able to see the underlying structure of the film right from the strange, fractured, opening shots. Well, that's great if you're an aficionado or just know Bergman's films, but what if you aren't privy to these things? Confusion galore. That's what.

It seems that Persona was very much a major turning point for Bergman himself. He had apparently gotten very ill shortly before making it, and his experience in the hospital served as the inspiration for the story. He even said in a later interview that he had been suffering so much emotional distress that, if he hadn't made Persona in order to release his anxieties, he probably would have fallen apart. When one watches the film, it's not hard to see the existential angst that pervades all of the film's basic conflicts.

Another of the best-known shots from the film. Within context, it can be one of the eeriest, most sensual, and thought-provoking scenes you can see. And not a word is spoken.

One other tidbit that I found interesting, if only for the fact that it didn't strike me while I was watching the movie. For 1966, this film was incredibly daring. In particular, the scene during which Alma is recounting her sexual escapade on the beach. Bibi Andersen, Ingmar Bergman, and numerous critics have pointed how people will often recount this part of the movie as if it were actually shown on the screen, and not just relayed through Sister Alma's recounting. Such is the power of the scene. When I think about how forthright and honest the description is, it's not surprising to find out that several edited versions of the film were cut up for American audiences (we're always the prude ones).

Whenever I come across such an editing incident, it reminds me of just how Puritan our culture is, at root. Bibi Andersen's telling of the story as Alma is so authentic, and the story so incredibly believable, that most people would find it uncomfortable. Yet, most countries didn't feel the need to cut it out. Why? Because that's reality, folks. Sometimes the sweet, naïve, pretty nurse decides to throw caution to the wind and have some unprotected sex on the beach with some strange boys. Alma made a decision to dive into the unbridled sensual life for an afternoon, and Persona shows her reliving it through the retelling, with more circumspection and introspection than actual remorse. That's what Persona gives you – plenty of complex actions and emotions for mature, meditative humans to think about.

That's a wrap. 61 shows down. 44 to go.

Coming Soon: Closely Watched Trains (1966)


I'd never heard of this movie, but here's the summary on the DVD, verbatim: “Surrounded by but seemingly removed from the violence of Word War II, a naïve railroad apprentice working at train station in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia carves some excitement by exploring his own sexuality.”

Now I ask you – how could I top that, and how can I not watch this film?! Come on back to see how this little “adventure” goes.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.