The Horror of Ingmar Berman : Persona


“I have always admired him, and I wish I could be a equally good filmaker as he is, but it will never happen. His love for the cinema almost gives me a guilty conscience.”
Steven Spielberg on Ingmar Bergman

For this reviewer, the jury is very much still out on Ingmar Bergman. Having seen three of his supposed masterpieces in cinemas over the past few months – Wild Strawberries, The Hour of the Wolf and Persona – I must confess to having my doubts about the legendary Swedish auteur, who has just returned to film-making after two decades’ absence with the forthcoming Saraband. Every critic I respect – Pauline Kael, David Thomson, Danny Peary – assures me that Bergman is one of cinema’s great artists, a master craftsman whose enigmatic works say much about the human condition. Trouble is, this doesn’t square with what I myself have seen. I can remember being very taken by The Rite and The Virgin Spring many years ago, but perhaps I was simply young and impressionable. Now the balance of evidence is tilting me towards a more heretical view of Bergman.

There are certain off-camera details than I find hard to put out of my mind: Bergman’s messy private life, with five wives, numerous mistresses and countless children; his tangles with the Swedish tax authorities which led to a few years’ exile in Germany; his ostentatious – and supposedly permanent – retirement to an island in the Baltic after Fanny and Alexander. It’s from there that he issued his astonishing claim that Lukas Moodysson is a “young master” – an assertion that sounded foolish enough after Together, and now seems positively absurd following the crass, offensive mess that is Lilya 4-Ever. Then there’s the issue of Bergman’s own celebrity fans: does anyone think he’s been a positive influence on his acolyte Woody Allen, for example? And surely glowing praise from so creatively suspect a source as Steven Spielberg must surely be taken as a ‘reverse’ recommendation.

Spielberg was, of course, part of another adoring chorus, the one that propelled Stanley Kubrick from being a no-nonsense churner-out of tough B-movie thrillers into some kind of omniscient magus: a tragic waste of what could and should have been a major, Sam Fullerish talent. And watching his films today, I do wonder whether Bergman has suffered from the same, very weird fate of being diverted from his true, relatively ‘lowbrow’ path by excessive worldwide veneration. When Bergman made his international breakthrough with The Seventh Seal in 1954, the concept of ‘arthouse’ cinema was just taking off – and what was needed was a pantheon of great cinematic artists. Bergman’s movies – foreign, very serious, technically immaculate, brilliantly acted – seemed to fit the bill perfectly. But try as I might, I can’t bring myself to think of the man behind The Hour of the Wolf, Persona or Wild Strawberries as a great director.

They all have their moments, of course – 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 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 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 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.

It’s as if so many people told Bergman that he was a great thinker, a great artist, that he felt as though he needed to match to their expectations – how startled and delighted he must have been to find whatever he came up with only furthered the cult even more. Persona works best when it aims lowest – those harrowing images of animal death and crucifixion at the start are like clips from a brilliant, austere horror movie, and much of the music is appropriately dark and unsettling. The trick-photography split-screen used to blend Andersson and Ullmann’s face is also viscerally disturbing – recalling the many macabre interludes in both Hour of the Wolf and Wild Strawberries.

Perhaps this is the answer to the Bergman enigma – perhaps it’s no coincidence that The Virgin Spring was remade by Wes Craven as grind-core classic The Last House on the Left, or that Persona‘s basic set-up resurfaced decades later as the more lurid Single White Female. And, come to think of it, isn’t The Rite fundamentally, a claustrophobic exercise in psychological horror? Could perhaps Bergman have found his true metier working in a Roger Corman-type set up in the US, or for Hammer in the UK? This wouldn’t have necessarily been any kind of slumming – Bergman’s Danish predecessor Carl Dreyer was responsible for Vampyr, just as F W Murnau remains best known for Nosferatu. And there’s at least as much psychological and sociological depth in, say, Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General or Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (which starts with an explicit Seventh Seal homage) as in any of the three Bergmans I’ve seen in the last few months. Perhaps I’ve just been unfortunate – but Roger Clarke, a very reliable critic with whom I usually agree, says of Persona “if you see only one of [Bergman’s] films, this is the one.” How many more will I have to endure before I somehow see the light, and stop thinking of Bergman as the greatest horror director who never was?

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

click here for the shorter review of Persona.

by Neil Young