by ALEX CARNEVALE
Mrs. Vogler desires the truth. She has looked for it everywhere, and sometimes she seems to have found something to hold onto, something lasting, but then suddenly the ground has given way under her feet. The truth had dissolved and disappeared or had, in the worst case, turned into a lie.
My art cannot melt, transform, or forget: the boy in the photo with his hands in the air or the man who set himself on fire to bear witness to her faith. I am unable to grasp the large catastrophes. They leave my heart untouched. At most I can read about such atrocities with a kind of greed – a pornography of horror. But I shall never rid myself of those images, images that turn my art into a bag of tricks.
— Ingmar Bergman’s notebooks
I can’t think of Persona without remembering the numerous defenses Roger Ebert made of it.
Revisiting the film in 2001, Ebert opens his review with “Shakespeare used six words to pose the essential human choice: To be, or not to be?” It is the kind of “common-man” bullshit Bergman specifically ignored, the kind of lazy writing he is making fun of in Persona.
Dumbly, Ebert follows up this banner lede by admitting, “Persona was one of the first movies I reviewed, in 1967. I did not think I understood it,” and then spends the rest of the essay proving he still does not understand it at all. Persona lacked the kind of subtlety Ebert’s brand of criticism rarely picked up on anyway.
Persona is an insolent work, written in the days that followed Ingmar Bergman’s recovery from exhaustion and pneumonia developed while he directed the largest theater in Sweden. It will always be the most sardonic of his films, sketched out as it was at a time of high stress and possible decombustion.
Bergman wrote to himself before embarking on the project:
I will attempt to keep the following commands:
Breakfast at half past seven with the other patients.
Thereafter immediately get up and take a morning walk.
No newspapers or magazines during the aforementioned time.
No contact with the theater.
Refuse to receive letters, telegrams, or telephone calls.
Visits to home allowed during the evening.
I feel that the final battle is fast approaching. I must not postpone it further. I must arrive at some form of clarity. Otherwise Bergman will definitely go to hell.
He was cracking, and Persona‘s disjointed opening gives evidence of that.
Bergman’s journal reconstructs the film’s opening sequence from a childhood memory he had:
I imagine a white, washed-out strip of film. It runs through the projector and gradually there are words on the sound tape (which perhaps runs beside the film strip itself.) Gradually the precise word I’m looking for comes into focus. Then a face you can barely make out dissolves in all that whiteness. That’s Alma’s face. Mrs. Volger’s face.
Elisabet Volger (Liv Ullman) is a famous actress who has a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) taking care of her. Volger takes a vow of silence. Bergman remarks in his journal that “So she has been an actress — one may give her that? Then she fell silent. Nothing remarkable about that.” The empathy Ingmar extends to her is really for himself. When Mrs. Volger is presented a picture of her son, she tears it up, staring for hours at the atrocities of the war in Vietnam she sees on television.
There is a disease of overempathy that allows some of us to become easily affected by events we read in the news or see on television. Elisabet is afflicted by this as surely as her creator. Even before the internet and bbs there was still the tendency to get drawn into the suffering of others, that anguish that exists outside of us and for that reason is unchangeable. In the face of this Ingmar had become mute — so why not mute a woman, you know, as a kind of revenge?
The performance was a star-making one for Ullman. The feat of carrying an entire movie just from reaction shots had only been achieved once before, in the work of Akira Kurosawa. Ullman’s face never moves when we stare directly at it; given the task of playing a mute, every small moment in her representation seems like either an instruction or an exaltation.
Elisabet is a fallen angel and demon incarnate in herself, but at the edge’s of Ullmann’s performance, Persona feels rather thin. The production itself was troubled from the beginning. On set Bergman shot more takes than he ever had, almost to the point of compulsion; nor was he ever more difficult with his cast. Persona did not concern itself with his own external awareness, only his inner doubts. That he had them and was capable of acknowledging them would always be his unforgivable sin.
During one particular scene in the film, the two women exchange personalities. Alma spends the rest of the film imbued with Elisabet Volger’s dissatisfaction and anger, while Volger stands in repose. Eventually they are merely two sides of the same person. The images of the director and DP on Persona scouting locations provide an offscreen male corollary to the events of the film. See here:
Bergman and director of photography Sven Nykvist tried to focus on the unattractive side of each actresses’ face, so when you showed them half-illuminated in shadowy light, they would look something not of themselves. Or as the banal Ebert put it, “The two actresses look somewhat similar.” With this kind of feedback, it’s no wonder Bergman repeated this trick in every single one of the films that followed. It never fails to achieve its distinguishing effect of unsettling confusion.
Ebert’s defenses of the man who fooled him more than once continued after the aging director allowed him access for a long profile. Even when the director himself began to shit all over his past works, Ebert held firm.
The worst part of Persona is actually the scene where we see both faces; because of the dullness of the monologue Bibi Andersson delivers, and the self-indulgence of the shot.
Bergman explained where this came from to Ebert:
The most beautiful of all is that you’re close to the human face, which is the most fascinating subject possible for the camera. On TV a few days ago, I saw a little of Antonioni’s new picture, The Passenger. And you know, I am an admirer of Antonioni, I’ve learned so much from him, but I was struck by the moment they cut from his film to a closeup of Antonioni himself, for the interview. As he was sitting there, here was his face, so normal, so beautiful and so human – and I didn’t hear a word of what he was saying, because I was looking so closely at his face, at his eyes. The ten minutes he was on the screen were more fascinating than any of his, or my, work.
If Bergman is telling the truth, he is indicting himself. If he is lying, then the emperor has no clothes. It is the kind of no-win situation Persona explores as a binary theme that has been imitated in so many pictures since.
At one point Alma discovers Elisabet’s view of her in a letter she intercepts. In that bit of correspondence, Elisabet marvels that Alma’s convictions are so totally unrelated to her actions. It is no wonder Bergman felt disoriented as a filmmaker around this time.
Yet it is even worse for the critic, who is permitted no ambiguity in his judgments. Bergman describes the situation of the artist in Volger/Alma — there is always some outstanding question of seriousness, an overwrought scene can be ascribed to a joke or reference. No one ever had to ask, after reading an Ebert review, did you like the movie? The proper question was rhetorical, and ancient. Must all life be a chorus of good or bad? Have you not thought it might be something more?
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.