Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/27/09 w/ Additional Edits.
Written, produced, and directed by Ingmar Bergman, Persona tells the story of a successful actress who suddenly becomes a mute. After this traumatic period, the actress is now in the care of a nurse as the two connect during a period where the two live in a secluded home. A film that explored identities and self-exploration, it's one of Bergman's most provocative yet seminal feature films that would influence directors in the years to come. Starring Bergman regulars Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, and Gunnar Bjornstrand. Persona is an eerie yet mesmerizing film from Ingmar Bergman.
After a performance of Electra one night, actress Eilsabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) has suddenly become mute. Now ill, Elisabet is now in the care of a young nurse name Alma (Bibi Andersson) under the orders of her head doctor (Margaretha Krook). Alma believes she can help Elisabet but the state of mind of the theater actress forced the doctor to make a drastic move. The doctor makes the decision for Alma to accompany Elisabet to the doctor's secluded summer home for a period of time. Things start out well as Alma starts to talk about her own life and such. Then one night, Alma talks about a vacation in which she recalls an affair with a married man and another sexual encounter with a friend and two boys.
Haunted by the conversation, Alma reads a letter from Elisabet about the conversation and such where Alma is convinced that she's being used. The days become longer as Alma starts to have a breakdown, waiting for Elisabet to speak. Even as Alma tries to do things which end up being violent reactions to Elisabet's quiet personality in order for her to speak. Eventually, the relationship between the two women starts to disintegrate. Their identities become troubling when Elisabet's husband (Gunnar Bjornstrand) visits as Alma ends up playing Elisabet. When Alma starts to have another confrontation with Elisabet in order for to speak, Alma starts to mention Elisabet's son where the result would leave both women weary and unable to figure out who they are.
The film is essentially a psychological drama about a nurse trying to help a mute actress speak out. What happens instead is a nurse starting to unravel through her own persona life while both of their identities merge to the point that the nurse starts to speak as Elisabet. The film's title lives up to its name but also something more as Bergman goes deeper into his story. The film in fact, doesn't begin with that narrative but rather a collection of images into a montage which includes a shot of an erect penis, dead bodies, nails into a hand, and other things. Then it cuts to a sequence of a boy (Jorgen Lindstrom) reading a book and then looking at a movie screen. The montages appear again in the middle and right at the end with the boy looking at the screen.
Bergman's direction is definitely hypnotic from the first frame to its final shot. Its first fifteen minutes, minus the opening montage sequence, begins at the hospital which includes a scene where Elisabet watches the chaos of the Vietnam War. What happens would distress her while Alma would have the same affect into her own breakdown. The compositions Bergman creates delves into psychological, eerie tone where there's close-ups and shots that are really distinctive to the theme he's displaying. There's not a lot of moments where the camera moves except in a few scenes with tracking shots. Yet, the camera remain in stillness for its protagonists to understand what they're going through and their own reactions. The result is a film that is mesmerizing and evocative in its themes and images from Ingmar Bergman.
Bergman's longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist does amazing yet entrancing work with the film's black-and-white look. With Bergman's unique, nearly-theatrical-like setting, Nykvist' camera is truly enchanting from a scene where Alma sleeps with Elisabet appearing in a ghostly presence. The camera work of Nykvist is truly mesmerizing in times when its' moving or when it remains still. Especially as it plays to a certain darkness and needs to have light to up the mood a bit. The overall work of the late Sven Nykvist is definitely brilliant in every shot that is created as it features some of his finest work of his career.
Editor Ulla Ryghe does excellent work with the film's rhythmic cutting to go from one shot to another in a quick transition with little uses of dissolves except for stylistic use to maintain a haunting quality for its theme of identity. Production designer Bibi Lindstrom does fine work with the look of Elisabet's hospital room which has a weird, claustrophobic feel while the summer house is more open but also ghostly at night with its curtains and mirrors. Costume designer Mago does great work with the black clothes that both women wear from the black, shiny jacket that Alma wears to black sweaters and pants that both wear in an emotional, dramatic scene. Sound mixer Olle Jacobsson and crew members Lennart Engholm and Per-Olof Pettersson do great work with the sounds of wind and ocean to capture the tense atmosphere that goes on between the two women.
The music of Lars Johan Werle filled with ominous arrangements of percussions, chimes, and other hollow instruments with strings is definitely mesmerizing. Especially in its level of suspense and horror to play up to the haunting quality of the film as the score is truly magnificent.
The casting is excellent though it's mostly a small cast with Jorgen Lindstrom as the boy and Margaretha Krook as the doctor are both very good while Bergman regular Gunnar Bjornstrand is excellent in his small role as Elisabet's husband. Yet, the film truly belongs to the performances of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson. While Ullmann's role is mostly silent with a few nods, head shakes, and grunts, the restraint that Ullmann gives is intriguing and intoxicating to watch. Especially in the idea of whether or not she will speak and how she plays around with Bibi Andersson as it's a great performance from Ullmann. Though Ullmann had a more physical role, it's Bibi Andersson's performance that really shines from this naive, determined nurse to a woman who unveils herself only to go into a breakdown. Andersson's performance is more theatrical yet she manages to display every moment of emotion, even as her character becomes darker as it's one of her finest performances of her career.
Persona is an entrancing yet provocative film from Ingmar Bergman. Thanks in part to Bergman's haunting direction, Sven Nykvist's evocative cinematography, Lars Johan Werle's score, and the performances of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. It's a film that will stick with viewer with its eerie images, strange montages, and high-octane drama. Fans of Bergman will no doubt rank this high while those new to him will see this as a nice starting point. In the end, for a film that revels in identity and all of its layers, Persona is the film to go see from the late, great Ingmar Bergman.
Ingmar Bergman Films: (Crisis) - (It Rains on Our Love) - (A Ship to India) - (Music in Darkness) - (Port of Call) - (Prison) - (Thirst (1949 film)) - (To Joy) - (This Can’t Be Happen Here) - (Summer Interlude) - Secrets of Women - Summer with Monika - Sawdust and Tinsel - A Lesson in Love - Dreams (1955 film) - Smiles of a Summer Night - The Seventh Seal - (Mr. Sleeman is Coming) - Wild Strawberries - (The Venetian) - (Brink of Life) - (Rabies) - The Magician - The Virgin Spring - The Devil’s Eye - Through a Glass Darkly - Winter Light - The Silence - All These Women - (Stimulantia-Daniel) - Hour of the Wolf - (Shame (1968)) - (The Rite) - The Passion of Anna - (The Touch) - Cries & Whispers - Scenes from a Marriage - (The Magic Flute) - (Face to Face) - (The Serpent’s Egg) - Autumn Sonata - From the Life of the Marionettes - Fanny & Alexander - (After the Rehearsal) - (The Blessed Ones) - (In the Presence of a Clown) - (The Image Makers) - Saraband
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