Thursday, July 31, 2008

Olde Review: Persona

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the kid I was back in the '70's a bit of a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

This is a companion piece to "The Fires Within"

"Persona" (Ingmar Bergman, 1967) As opposed to the approach Malle takes with "The Fires Within," Bergman takes a totally different tack--he lets you know right from the start that "Persona" is only a movie, not reality at all (and as an ex-projectionist, my sympathy to the fellow who has to show it Saturday night!). It is another Bergman film dealing with the supernatural. But for Bergman the supernatural does not come from beyond, it exists within us, within our personalities.

An actress
(Liv Ullmann) is admitted to a hospital when she falls silent, unwilling to speak. A nurse (Bibi Anderssonn) is put in charge of the actress' care. For therapy, the two women live at a house on the seaside, and it is at this point that the supernatural forces of the soul take over.

The two women--the nurse, talkative and light; the actress, silent and brooding--begin to resemble each other, to merge psychically, take on each other's characteristics...and I find that I really can't go on with a synopsis of the story. For at this point, what one sees in the film is almost totally subjective. You have to explain what goes on to yourself. I can't do it for you, even if I were to try.*

Bergman can be a light and breezy film-maker as is evident in "The Magic Flute" and his '50's comedies. But at other times, his films can be claustrophobic and suffocating almost beyond endurance (and I think Bergman realized this in "Persona," for at one point he lets up, forgets the story just for a moment, and explodes the creen with fast, fleeting, and irrelevent images**--a filmic explosion to relieve this build-up in tension).

William Bayer in his book "The Great Movies"*** says this about "Persona" and its creator, Ingmar Bergman.

"It is not his obscurity that is so frightening about Bergman. It is his intensity. there is such tension in "Persona" that it comes at times to be an almost unberable experience. One senses a man revealing his anguish at the furthest extremes of cold fire, compelling attention by the blazing sting of total chill. In "Persona," the faces of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Anderssonn are incandescent with this intensity. Their interchange is so intimate that at times we want to avert our eyes." "The Great Movies" (p. 190)
It is all very heavy stuff. And I'm not sure the majority of UW students will be able to understand--be able to deal--with "The Fire Within" and "Persona."

But they are a challenge.

Broadcast on KCMU-FM October 29, 1975

A little condescending there at the end, I think. Perhaps I should have said I HOPE the majority of UW students wouldn't be able to understand or deal with the movies. They're disturbing films, and they resonate more, the older one gets and the closer one gets to the Edge of the Abyss. Perhaps I should have said that. Who knew?

As for what happens in the film: is it an empathy,
a Jungian merging of souls, a familial bond, a lesbian love, possession, a psychic experience? Is it like pet-owners resembling their dogs? Is it the two women influencing each other so much that it becomes impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends?

There's a line from the wonderful "Tucker: The Man and his Dream." I've always loved the dialog where Abe Karatz (Martin Landau), Tucker's financier semi-explains why he stays with the visionary auto-maker despite the financial risks: his mother, in her poor English, tried to communicate that you shouldn't get too close to people "or you'll catch their dreams. She meant germs. But she said 'you'll catch their dreams.'"

Maybe it's as simple as that.

*It sounds like a cop-out (in the language of that day), but it really isn't--"Persona" is such a personal film, that one's life-experiences, even one's fleeting subconscious thoughts, will influence what one sees in "Persona:" is it an empathy, a merging of souls, a familial bond, a lesbian love, a psychic experience? Quite literally, your guess is as good as mine. Bergman could have come out and said something preposterous like "this is based on the Norwegian folk-tale of the two sea-nymphs who become one with nature--of warring clans who find that they have more in common with what separates them, and when you attempt to care for a tyger, you become the tyger!," but what fun would that be? We all bring something unique to the table. Isn't that what a smorgasbord is all about?

** Irrelevent? I actually doubt that, now. Film is edited together for a reason.

*** Sadly out of print, and not to be confused with Roger Ebert's series of collected essays. I can't even find it mentioned at

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