Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Persona’: An Experiment in Existential Horror That’s Actually Entertaining
Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they celebrate a movie that violently forces its way into your mind while discussing its personal, emotional impact and contemplating the way Ingmar Bergman makes Lars von Trier look like a ray of sunshine. Plus, they foolishly try to understand why a streaming service would suggest Sex and the City as a follow-up.
In the #17 (tied) movie on the list, a nurse called Alma (Bibi Andersson) takes charge of an actress named Elizabet (Liv Ullmann) who goes mute during a performance and refuses to speak. They go to a secluded lake house and let the horror of being small in the face of massive world tragedies wash over them.
But why is it one of the best movies ever?
Scott: So, wow, I’m not sure that many movies (or any movies) are quite as immediately aggressive as this one. Bergman points his bat to the fences in the form of smash-cut montage, animal butchering and erect penises. Do you remember your initial reaction to the first sequence?
Landon: Yeah. It was like Tyler Durden’s cinematic wet dream. I remember feeling repulsed but also completely mesmerized by the beauty and the brutality of that sequence. The kid’s hand on the projected faces of the film’s two stars is such a beautiful iconic image, followed by the most aggressive beginning credits sequence I’ve ever seen.
Scott: “Script-girl Kerstin Berg” [NANOSECOND OF SELF-IMMOLATION]
Landon: Much of Persona is something that can only be described in parts with one’s corresponding emotional experience. Would you agree?
Scott: Definitely. It’s confrontational, and because of that, it’s hard not to respond to it at a gut level. And, yes, Tyler Durden couldn’t resist adding a penis into the mix.
Landon: I encountered Roger Ebert’s initial review from 1967, his first year writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, and much of his review is just coming to terms with what he saw, as if the film is too overwhelming to draw conclusions from, like it really needs time to ruminate with the viewer.
Scott: Right. Some movies are conversations with friends. Persona is the angry guy at the bar scream-asking you if you want to fight.
But it hits that perfect balance of being bizarre but still magnetic. Experimental, but still grounded in story.
Landon: That’s the interesting thing about its meta quality: the fact that it continually interrupts itself and reveals itself to be a film. It felt like it was in no way alienating or distancing like one would think it would. It seems more about the exceptional utility of cinema to convey the complex emotional states on display here.
Scott: Agreed. Even though Bergman shows cameras and goes as far as dissolving the film itself, I still sunk right into the world he created and disappeared into it. Those interruptions were more like waking from a dream only to fall back asleep. It’s not as if I was constantly aware of that broken fourth wall.
Beyond, you know, the normal capacity for telling reality from movies…
Which I can totally, totally do.
Landon: That’s a good way to put it. I felt the film was sort of like a therapy session, and not only because you have one character giving monologues about traumatic experience while the other listens.
When talking to a counselor of some sort, one is aware of the set-up. This person is not your personal friend; they’re a paid professional, and the environment created to talk about emotions is really overdetermined. One is usually completely aware of that set-up the whole time, but that doesn’t contradict or take away from the emotional intensity and even intimacy of delving into the deep recesses of your mind.
Scott: I’m seeing the parallels now.
Landon: We’re made aware of the construction (whether intermittently or throughout), but we’re capable of acknowledging both the facade and the truth at the same time.
Scott: Because humans are awesome. Does that mean you came away from Persona with a good feeling about your life? Having made “a breakthrough”?
Landon: Not really, but then again, I can’t think of a Bergman film that’s ever left me feeling assured, even those with relatively less dour endings. It was the exercise itself that still resonated most.
What about you?
Scott: I can’t say it had a Stuart Smalley effect or anything, but it was refreshing to see experimentation and norm-destruction that was entertaining. Too often (even with movies that sneak onto distinguished lists), experimentation is shorthand for ennui, pretense or gaps in filmmaking knowledge. Bergman knows the rules of story so well that he can bend or break them when he wants.
Landon: Though it would have been great if Elisabet’s one line of dialogue was “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it people like me”
Scott: And then if she had run for Senate.
Landon: Though I’ll never take back a Stuart Smalley joke, I am finding it difficult to inflect any lightness around any of this film. Though I’d seen it before, I found it a profoundly affecting experience. It’s a truly haunting film. I wonder how it must have looked to audiences ‐ even those familiar with Bergman ‐ in 1966.
Scott: In what way? It resonated personally or it challenged you on a cinephile level?
Landon: The first time it did the latter. This time, because I knew what to expect, I felt like I dug a bit deeper into the former. I found the themes about the different performances we give in life, and how that can disrupt a coherent sense of self, to be really quite resonant. As well as the desire not to feel. I love the moment where Elisabet watches the self-immolation. In any other film later on, that would be a statement of how alienating TV is from actual experience ‐ here Bergman sees value in the overwhelming presence of the image itself.
Scott: Landon Palmer ‐ Lover of Self-Immolation.
Landon: Ahem, “love” does not connote “enjoy” there.
Scott: I know that Dunst and Gainsborough talked about it for Melancholia, but I couldn’t help but think of Antichrist while watching. The black and white, the chapters, the forceful entry into the world. The one-sided relationship struggle and the question of identity being reflected by another person.
Landon: That’s a fascinating comparison, especially as Bergmn and Von Trier each said they made these respective films as a means of survival
Von Trier made Antichrist to get out of a depression, and Bergman said of Persona, “At some time or other, I said that Persona saved my life ‐ that is no exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up.”
You really feel something is being exorcised in both cases. Call it cathartic filmmaking.
Scott: Purging. And this is probably a necessary component of that: Bergman said this was the first time that he didn’t concern himself at all with how a film did commercially. It turns out he was legacy-building instead.
Landon: Yeah, this was such a definite shift for him. Here you don’t have legible symbols like playing chess with death in Seventh Seal. The more abstract images here are a bit more inscrutable, if they’re meant to mean anything at all. I think some of these images Bergman used without particular consideration of their meaning, as a form of free association.
It really is a perfect melding of avant-garde, art cinema, and narrative. I can’t think of any film quite like it, with this combination and balance.
Scott: Which is why it’s so powerful. Every NYU film student (sorry, man) needs to watch this 20 times and fill up notebooks with ink. Or maybe just find a chalkboard to write “It’s not a sin to infuse abstraction with a plot” 100 times.
Landon: Only 18 more times to go for me!
Yeah, I can imagine someone thinking the first 5 minutes are bullshit when they happen, but I can’t imagine someone retaining that position by the end. Also, about the performances in Persona: Bibi Andersson is incredible. You have to wonder what she had to go through in order to do all those things onscreen. It reminded me of a dialogue-heavy version of Maria Falconetti’s performance in Joan of Arc.
Scott: Now with smaller eyeballs!
Landon: And 100% more slapping!
Scott: You’re right, though. She’s fearless ‐ another element that disappears into the framework. For all Bergman did to alienate, I never once thought of her as being an actor in a movie.
Okay, at least until those final shots where Bergman and his camera smash their way back in. That juxtaposition was a bit hard to ignore.
Landon: The man certainly loved theater and acting. He arguably re-imagined his childhood as that of a thespian life in Fanny and Alexander. He seems to feel acting and theater permeates everyday life. That said, I feel like I need something light to come down from this film. Where’s my DVD of Melancholia…
Scott: Hahaha. Leave it to Ingmar Bergman to make Lars von Trier feel like a palette cleanser.
Landon: Hey, “It tastes of ashes” is a pretty hilarious thing to say about a friend’s dinner
Scott: That always brings down the house at Thanksgiving. Maybe you can check out The Seventh Seal 2: Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.
But on a serious note of digression ‐ my streaming service of choice suggested The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and (ahem) Sex and the City as “Movies Like Persona.”
Let’s pretend it’s not just a bad algorithm and accept the challenge. What do you think the connection there is?
Landon: Carrie is very much Alma. Have you seen how much time she spends recounting events in her her sex life?
Scott: Not that I saw every episode, but I missed the one where Sarah Jessica Parker described an underage four-way.
Landon: People would always say “you’re such an Alma” or “you’re such an Elisbet” until 1998. That’s the legacy Bergman was going for.
Scott: Oh, Landon. You’re such an Alma.
Landon: You’re way too talkative to be an Elisabet.
Scott: And there’s a lot Lena Dunham can mine from Persona. But seriously. This movie is incredible, profound, transformational and vital. And just barely less depressing than Sex and the City.
Landon: Yup. Way too talkative.