Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Persona (1966)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #17 (tied with Seven Samurai)

It seems incredible to think that, for a director as internationally esteemed as Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, only one of his films made the cut on Sight & Sound's decennial list. It's even more incredible that that film is perhaps the densest in his filmography. Bergman certainly never shied away from ambitious thematic material; many of his films dealt with the relationship between the sacred and the profane, and many focused on the fragility of life. However, films like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Cries and Whispers were also accessible to the general public; they could just as easily be taken as entertainments as they were treatises from Bergman's perspective.

Persona, on the other hand, is decidedly more abstract. Elisabet (Liv Ullman), an accomplished stage actress, has fallen silent, incapable of speaking even though she hasn't been diagnosed with any ailment. In the hospital she falls under the care of Alma (Bibi Andersson), a young nurse who, under the suggestion of the administrator (Margaretha Krook), takes Elisabet to a beach house for treatment. Though Elisabet continues not to speak, Alma carries on a one-sided conversation with her, and the women's relationship becomes more and more intimate. However, when Alma reads a letter that Elisabet has written the administrator, their relationship is deeply fractured.

It comes as no surprise, then, that there have been multiple interpretations as to what the meaning of the film is. The most interesting of these is that the film is about film itself, examining the relationship between filmmaker and audience in the artistic process.

More after the jump.

The film begins, appropriately enough, with close-ups of the interior of a movie projector. The first sequence in the movie is almost completely made up of erratically placed shots that flash across the screen, including brief appearances of an erect penis and a crucifix - a cheeky nod to Bergman's favorite theme of the profane and the sacred. This self-reflexivity continues throughout the film, but this particular sequence seems to be the most referential. It concludes with a young boy, silent like Elisabet, watching a projection of Andersson's and Ullman's faces as they meld into one another. It establishes the tone of the entire film: this will be a challenging, self-reflexive work of art.

Within the story itself, Alma and Elisabet take on the roles of the filmmaker (storyteller) and audience, respectively. Elisabet is a silent observer, but she is also an active participant in the story, since Alma is directly dialoguing with her. Alma, on the other hand, is the driving force behind their relationship. Despite Alma doing all of the talking, their relationship is hardly one-sided. Alma begins to reveal more and more in her conversations, eventually divulging a very personal story about a menage a quatre with two (implied underage) boys and the abortion she had performed so that her fiancé would not know her misdeeds. And Elisabet provides her with a sounding board, listening to her confessions while giving no feedback or criticism during the conversation. It's not unlike the relationship between filmmaker and audience: the filmmaker cannot directly converse with the audience, but instead tells their story as the audience takes it in.

When Alma and Elisabet's relationship is fractured, Bergman tellingly has the image freeze and the filmstrip rip in half, the celluloid destroyed by Elisabet's betrayal. It's perhaps a very literal interpretation of the action onscreen, but it serves the larger purpose of the thematic relationship as well. Alma and Elisabet's relationship has become emotionally intimate, with Alma pouring out her soul for Elisabet in her conversations. But when Alma reads a letter that Elisabet has written the hospital's administrator, she is crushed to learn that Elisabet references Alma's personal details and rather dismissively refers to her role as "studying" Alma. The privacy of their relationship has been violated by this piece of writing; a "review" of her story being made public, and a rather detached one at that.

It's here, perhaps, that Bergman has now cast himself in the role of Alma. In this interpretation, he seems to be using Alma as a mouthpiece to voice frustration with the reception of his films in some circles, or perhaps simply his frustrations with the filmmaking process in general. Alma feels unappreciated for her work with Elisabet, who she believes is simply taking her for granted and is being callous about her own experiences. After spending years in the film industry trenches, Bergman likely felt the same about his critics and audiences, and it's possible to read the film as an act of wish-fulfillment in the guise of a free-form art film.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Elisabet, an actress, has pronounced reactions in the film to different forms of media - laughing derisively at a radio program Alma puts on, breaking down emotionally to television footage of a self-immolating Vietnamese monk, and staring blankly at photographs from the Warsaw Ghetto. She's desensitized, no longer responding to provocation the same way. It's not hard to imagine that Bergman might have felt the same way about his audiences.

Complicating this reading of the film, however, is the presence of the young boy at the beginning and end of the film. Whereas Elisabet is an active participant in the film's narrative, the boy is a passive observer, not to the narrative itself but to abstract images of Alma and Elisabet blurring into a single entity. What role is this young boy playing? Perhaps the best assumption to make here is that he could be standing in for future film scholars and audiences viewing the film years removed from its initial creation and release. With the ability to evaluate the film from beyond its contemporaneous setting, Bergman's theoretical scholars and critics would be able to make theories as to what is film is about, engaging with it as a work of art rather than simply a narrative. Perhaps Bergman had the foresight to believe that his film would stand the test of time, eventually being considered one of the most important films ever made?

There are no definitive interpretations to this film, and perhaps that was Bergman's ultimate goal. Every viewer will take something different from the film, and develop their own interpretation of Bergman's intention in creating it. Which only further reinforces the reading of the film elucidated in this essay: Alma is the filmmaker, Elisabet the audience, the relationship forged on a false intimacy that's nonetheless earnest in origin. It's cinema about cinema, the camera gazing upon itself and trying to understand.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" The 400 Blows (1959)

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