Not rated, but this one is pretty offensive. I see that Lars von Trier kind of got some of his technique and attitude from Ingmar Bergman. I've seen a lot of Bergman. Bergman is really good at playing up the uncomfortable sometimes. I don't think he's ever gone as far as he has with Persona. There's nudity, sometimes only in flashes. There's a story that's told that is wildly explicit to the point where I could consider it pornographic. The movie also plays it pretty fast and loose with abortions. Not rated, but for adults only.
DIRECTOR: Ingmar Bergman
I've seen a lot of Bergman. A lot of Bergman. But I also should point out, rarely does Bergman bring me back for a rewatch. Bergman's a genius and I'm always kind of mesmerized by what I see. But he's not there for a good time. He had to know that he's not a fun director. He makes things uncomfortable and introspective for a reason. Not all film has to be fun. In fact, some film shouldn't be fun. I'm coming away from Persona with a very specific attitude. I really want to analyze the cool things, but I also am challenged to re-evaluate Bergman for a reason. Bergman plays with the sexual in a way that I wasn't really prepped for. Also, while Bergman has always been the forefather of avante-garde at times, this one also feels like Bergman trying to out Bergman himself. I tend to think of his aesthetic and directorial choices as his language. But he seems mad as heck in this movie. It's still a work of genius, but Ingmar Bergman seems to be having a bit of a temper tantrum with this film.
It makes sense. Bergman always makes his audience question themselves. That's just part of who he is. But this one has a direct cause-and-effect reaction. I don't think he's ever worn his frustration on his sleeves before. Including images of the self-immolating monks has been the most on-the-nose I've ever seen him as a director. He couples this with people being led off to the death camps in World War II. He made this complex movie that has all of these layers and that's super rad. But he made this puzzle box that he wants everyone to watch. It's such this odd choice. I have all kinds of theories about the messages of this film. But having those moments, the moments with the images of global horror. Honestly, I'm breaking an entire film down to two shots. But those shots are so indicative of reactions that I am amazed that the rest of the movie plays it close to the vest. Okay, not as close to the vest as some of his other works. Bergman plays with visual choices probably way more intensely than normal. His images normally speak for themselves. The stark black figure against a background is the extend of the imagery I'm used to seeing out of Bergman. But you know that art house parody that we're used to seeing student film? I don't know if this is its origin point, but it was hard to take it serious in 2019. I'm sure that it was powerful at one point. At this point in history, Fight Club has already done the single frame of genitalia. The entire intro ties into the film. But I can't think of the necessity of the intro and conclusion, bookended by the intense imagery. The beginning and the end are there for tone. It's not supposed to be a story of two people talking. Instead, this imagery intentionally pulls us out of our comfort zones. We can't be too invested in the story because these moments exist. Okay, I get that. But I also think of the economy of film with these inclusions. Are they safety nets? Are they what is needed? This is why I call it a temper tantrum. Instead of allowing the narrative / counter-narrative to do the heavy lifting, Bergman uses imagery that is instantly jarring. The whole film doesn't support that. We have that break in the middle that reminds us that the film is meant to be jarring. But why include this stuff. I guarantee that if I tried making Persona or if anyone else tried making Persona, people would call the director out on those choices.
But this kind of leads to the interpretation of the film. SPOILERS: I'm sure that someone has a definitive answer for what is happening with the film, especially when it comes to relating the events to the title of the film. I have at least three theories of what is going and, fingers crossed, all of these ideas have interpretations of what is actually going on towards contributing to a single idea. The title, Persona, is intimately tied to the theme of identity. But what identity we're actually experiencing is pretty confusing. Bibi Andersson, for shorthand, will be referred to as "Alma" or "Sister Alma". Liv Ullmann, for shorthand, will be "Elisabet". I may have to address them by the actresses' names because things may get really confusing. I want to go with my leading theory of what is happening with the movie. I feel like such a chump writing things out like this because I feel like I'm minimizing the film into a puzzle box when the interpretation is far more important. But I'm also secure enough to state that I don't understand the nuance of Persona on the first watch. The most probably answer was that Alma / Andersson was the actress the entire time. She took on the role of Elisabet, explaining why Elisabet is so quiet. To be clear, I'm saying that Elisabet was the nurse for the majority of the film. She is there to listen. I thought it was weird that Alma would be so personal about her life. There's the scene that I consider borderline pornographic. It's going into this troubling narrative about sexuality that makes rape sound sexually pleasing. But almost out of nowhere, Alma volunteers this to Elisabet and it's a troubling thing to have in this film. From that moment, Alma starts spiraling out of control. This is kind of confirmed with the arrival of Elisabet's husband. Andersson has to say that she is both not his wife, yet follows through with kissing him and promising that she will be home to see their children soon. This is where I feel really dumb, but is Elisabet's husband blind. The hold on the sunglasses is an odd choice. When he takes the glasses off, he doesn't appear blind. But it is also in that moment that Andersson acts like she is his spouse. Is there a metaphor of that shift opening his eyes. He is blind to the mental illness of Alma, only to think that he sees when she acts normal. This also seems to be confirmed by the visual cue of the split face, the most interesting element of the whole story. The reason that it doesn't hold all of the water is because the end of the film. Alma is still the nurse again. She puts on the clothes. Those clothing choices keep shifting, which only makes me question the whole thing again. Again, I hate to link Persona to something a little more gimmicky like Memento. (Please don't yell at me. I haven't watched it in years, but I absolutely adored Memento.) So what is the message there? Tie it back to the grounded elements of watching horror in television? Do we run from our lives? From problems? Is the very nature of entertainment an escape from what we should be really doing? By showing images of horror on television, it shows that we want to go to the beach. We want to imagine that our problems are most horrific and unsolvable. If Andersson was the actress the whole time, she sees her blessed life as the worst imaginable, despite the fact that we have the image of the monk on fire. Giving the nurse the narrative of sex object, it shows that we think strongly of class and what must be happening in their lives. Big surprise, this interpretation is pretty depressing.
My second theory holds a little bit more weight, but I don't like it as much. The second theory is that Andersson has slowly fallen apart over the course of the film. Because Ullmann is so silent, she grafts a personality onto her. Like the letter says, Andersson has a pretty intense crush on the person that she thinks that Ullmann is. The silence has slightly driven her mad. This is the interpretation with our obsession with celebrity. There's a lot backing up this idea. At one point, Andersson actually says this. She states in her apology that she was just caught up in the limelight of having a celebrity around her and not knowing what to do. After all, Andersson's nurse has had a fairly mundane life, shy of that very graphic sexual experience. The note, in that case, holds a lot more weight. When she sees that the note treats her as a lesser person, she finally loses what value she had. What I like about this interpretation is that it could be Bergman pulling a Stardust Memories. I don't care what Woody Allen says. That movie is about him and there's no way you can tell me otherwise. It's telling because Andersson is the creepiest form of sympathetic in this story. Ullmann has every right not to talk to Andersson. Andersson is under her employ. It just so happens that the two of them are in paradise, and the lines of employer and employee have been blurred. It's why celebrities are so cold. Any sign of warmth and boundaries tend to be crossed. One person knows so much more than the other and that creates an imbalance that tends to be misconstrued as friendship. It could explain why Bergman has a different style for this film, because it is so personal. But it also doesn't allow for a bunch of different things that happen in the film. The fact that the film is named Persona is a little weak with this interpretation. Similarly, some of the trippier elements don't work. Why doesn't the husband react when Andersson kisses him and claims that she'll be home for her child soon? It doesn't quite fit, despite the fact that it is the most grounded answer.
My final theory is probably the most underbaked, but that's because it treats the film as underbaked. It is far more meta and that doesn't really bring me a lot of comfort. Bergman seems to be the guy who doesn't like clear interpretations. While there is a message that he is going for in the story, it shouldn't be easy to break down. It might be a combination of theory one, theory two, or a smorgasbord of many theories. There's a very real possibility, in an attempt to not minimize his message, he is intentionally sabotaging traditional narratives. Every time you think you get it, he wants to make you feel uncomfortable and disprove your concept of "the one thing." To interpret this, which seems wildly inappropriate and ironic, the film acts as a Rorschach Test for the viewer. This explains the more esoteric choices to the film. Showing random images without context forces the audience to bring their own cognitive biases to the film. Without story setup, we have to imbue these objects with ourselves. If we sympathize with Ullmann, we see Andersson as unhinged, possibly with a breakdown of her own happening. The objects become troublesome and polarizing. If we associate with Andersson, we see Ullmann as a master manipulator, causing Andersson to lose focus on grounded reality. The objects are part of her master plan and a reflection of Andersson's fragile psyche. I give this theory some credence because I never really understand Bergman completely. I have moments of "a-ha!", but that tends to vanish and I have to pretend that I really get what is going on. I suppose that is ironic and appropriate because my own cognitive biases hope that everyone else only gets a fraction of the imagery on screen. If Bergman is making a film that is intentionally supposed to destabilize the framing narrative, then all interpreations are right and all interpretations are wrong. The only thing I would have right in this analysis is that I'm probably wrong.
I liked this movie, but it also seemed way more in-my-face than I'm used to seeing from Bergman. I always kind of shied away from Lars von Trier and this reminded me too much of his works. I'm not saying that is bad. I'm saying that it definitely put me in an uncomfortable place. I can say that I'm happy that it got me thinking. That's the point of film and I always appreciate a cinematic challenge.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.