Sweden 1966 : Ingmar BERGMAN : 81-90 mins

Bergman’s movies all have their moments – moments of inspiration, surprise and emotion. But they also all have other kind of moments – moments of ineptitude, pretentiousness and tedium. And plenty of them. Persona is a case in point. A prominent, thirtysomething actress named Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann) suffers a severe crisis on-stage. Suddenly disgusted with any kind of artifice or falseness, she withdraws into muteness and is looked after by a nurse in her mid-twenties, Alma (Bibi Andersson). As she convalesces in a beachfront house, Elisabeth listens to Alma as she talks about her life, her dissatisfactions, her desires.

Gradually the tone shifts from realistic to something more mysterious. We aren’t sure whether what we’re watching are dreams, fantasies, or psychological projections. Are the two women’s personalities (or rather their “personas”) fusing into one? Does the nurse actually exist? Does the actress? Why, when the actress’s husband (Gunnar Bjornstrand) comes to visit, does he address the nurse as his wife?

Of course, Bergman has emphasised from the very start that nothing we see over the course of the movie is actually ‘real’. The film begins with a jarring, first-year-film-studentish montage of clips making this point in various ways. The very first image is of the inside of a cinema projector as it slowly heats up and starts casting out its images. We see a nail being driven into a man’s hand – presumably a prelude to crucifixion – and what looks like a sheep having its throat cut. A cartoon plays, then freezes, then starts again. Halfway through Persona itself the film seemingly ‘catches’ in the projector and appears to break up before our eyes. At the end we’re back inside the projector again, this time as it cools into darkness.

Why say the same thing in so many different ways? Surely nobody watching Persona, or any other fictional film, mistakes what they’re seeing as actually real. What, if anything, is Bergman trying to say here? By the end of the film his intentions, if he has any, remain frustratingly opaque. All we end up taking away is the impact of Andersson’s terrific performance – the actress pretty much is the movie, with Ullmann’s affected silence as grating to us as it is to Alma – and the distinct impression that we’ve witnessed a rather tiresome, self-indulgent, pseudo-intellectual exercise.

15th April, 2003
(seen 6th April, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)

click here for more on Persona and the status of Ingmar Bergman

by Neil Young