in Criterion Month

Persona (1966)

I knew this movie was special from the moment I heard the Persona Blu-Ray’s menu music. I popped in the disc, went over to make a sandwich and was hit with a cacophony of dissonant strings and percussive clicks. It was the scariest sandwich I ever made. Though Persona isn’t a horror movie. You could call it a psychological thriller. Or an avant-garde drama. Or all of the above. Or none of the above. This is experimental art house cinema in its purest form and must not be taken lightly. Put down that sandwich.

I’m intimidated to write about Persona. Not because of its level of critical acclaim—which makes me look like a misinformed pleb for giving it anything less than five stars—but because film historian Peter Cowie calls it “the Mount Everest of Cinematic analysis.” Which means if you’re going to write about Persona, you better have a damn good reason to write about it. My reason is that it’s Criterion Month and I wanted to see a film that so many of my favorite filmmakers love. I can’t say I have a fresh take or a unique perspective. I have John’s perspective. Which so far is very sandwich heavy.

The film opens with a bunch of crazy movie projector shit i.e. projector noise, reels of film, and footage of a spider, the slaughtering of a lamb, old-timey silent movie shenanigans, and finally a boy waking up in a hospital bed. I read that a good chunk of Persona was conceived while writer/director Ingmar Bergman was ill from pneumonia and delirious from “giddiness”. Not sure what that means but he couldn’t read or focus on TV or do anything enjoyable. All he could do was shuffle over to his hospital desk for a few hours a day and write. You might say this boy—who’s watching a blurry screen with the faces of our two female leads—is Bergman himself.

Bergman’s original plan was to make a 4-hour-epic called “The Cannibals” starring Bibi Andersson. During his pre-planning stages, Bergman was introduced to Liv Ullmann who he wanted to cast in a small role in his epic. After “The Cannibals” fell apart Bergman had an epiphany of having Andersson and Ullmann work together as two women who wear big hats, dress similar, and compare hands. Sounds insane but all that ended up in one of the greatest films in history.

After the weird art school introduction, we are introduced to Alma (Andersson), a warm and open nurse caring for Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) an actor who for reasons that can’t be explained lost the ability to speak before a play. There’s also a Doctor (Margaretha Krook) who doesn’t have any patience for Elisabet’s ailment. She goes as far as to suggest Elisabet is faking her condition to prepare for a role. Regardless, the Doctor suggests the two stay at a cottage by the sea to better care for Elisabet’s condition.

The two characters bond at the cottage, picking mushrooms and telling stories. Well, only Alma is telling stories but a kindred spirit develops between them. The downside to this is as Alma reveals more and more of herself; problems in her relationship, mistakes, and secrets in her past, she feels like she’s losing part of herself. The fact that Elisabet absorbs all of this information about Alma and gives nothing in return. Almost as if Elisabet is rather an extension of Alma’s consciousness. Or is it the other way around?

The film’s title “Persona” is derived from masks actors would use in stage performances. So are they both becoming the same person? Is one or another an extension of the other? My favorite line in the film (which I wasn’t surprised to find has been written about to death) is when Alma and Elisabet compare hands and Alma says “Don’t you know it’s bad luck to compare hands?” Almost as if comparing hands—and noticing their similarities—robs each other of their individuality.

There is a lot of other content to delve into but seeing as I’m kind of writing in circles I’ll wrap this up. One thing I haven’t talked about is how stark and haunting this film looks. The lighting and Bergman’s unique framing makes the film feel far more contemporary than most films of the time. I love how Bergman shoots a scene in as few shots as possible, but there is never a wasted frame. Every frame is beautiful and the rhythm of these scenes works perfectly with the creeping score and monologues.

It might seem like a dick move to rank this film half a star shy of a perfect rating. I do that because I don’t feel like I appreciate the film wholly from a single viewing. There’s a lot I didn’t understand and honestly, that frustrated me. Like someone explaining a difficult math equation to me and I’m just kind of nodding along, appreciating the work, but getting lost along the way. I’m a man of simple tastes. That being said even I can appreciate the craft and this is one of the finest crafts I’ve ever seen. Even if it did make me afraid of sandwiches.