{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Tuesday, May 31, 2005


There are times when I want to write about a movie and feel deterred by very thought of it. Needless to say that the movie in question was an intense experience but apart from it, its an experience which I am not able to understand in entirety, and there lies a certain beauty in all this obtuseness of the art. This film is true art in that sense, you can get lot of things out of this movie, every time you expose yourself to it, sometimes you feel bare-all feeling after seeing it and the other times the fear of claustrophobia, a very personal intensity is what Persona delivers.

Bergman's films are not about plot or external details. They revolve round characters, or more so around the close-ups of their faces, the faces that are dissected thread by thread, till they they show all their hidden fears, all the ugliness, all the obscure beauty. Every contour is traversed, and every line of the face is read over and over again. Camera stops at the face, almost gets trapped in the eye-contact and shamelessly undresses it.

The plot details are rather simple. A distressed actress, Elisabet (Liv Ullman), who has inexplicably stopped communicating, comes to a hospital and a nurse named Alma (Bibi Anderson) is assigned to her. On the advice of hospital psychiatrist, they both move to a remote and tranquil seaside cottage. While taking care of and helping the patient, Alma tries to open up with her, telling her some secret and strange stories but finds that the actress' persona is meddling with her own and revolts to this intrusion or rather imprisonment. So with this story that seems more a tale of identity crisis, what Bergman actually want to say or more precisely what we are supposed to infer. Some pondering on this takes us into the two main characters, their persona, an intriguing minimalist character study and study of their imbuing.

To understand this, we can look into like this. Sometimes when we watch a movie or read a novel, we get involved with the characters and almost experience their pain or pleasure. Their Persona takes hold of us. Like wise in a dream, we transpose to someone else, something imaginary but really ourselves, find ourselves in some odd situation and want to get out it. The real self want to get out of something imaginary. Persona also starts with dreams like images and the images which say, Hey its a movie, beware!

If we just extrapolate it to come to real life, Persona shows the horrors of opening up, the fear of being emotionally naked in front of someone and probably give the other person an opportunity to point at the our dark secrets. Fear of losing ourselves to some stranger and probably the expectation of same warmth and frankness from the other side. Persona also hints at the malleable nature of human personality, the illusion of existence and the film image itself.

Persona works on a rather visceral level, to rationalize it will not result in anything substantial and tangible. The increasing focus on images and less on dialogues, as the movie progresses, do suggest about the ethereal elements of the movie. Those who want to 'understand' the movie may dismiss Persona as Bergman himself never gives his images any clear end, they are left as unfinished portraits or rather slightly blurred ones, giving us no definite lines to walk on, which may seem strange or distracting at times. Therefore Persona demands repeated viewing which it deserves and duly rewards too.

Persona has some almost perfect sequences, the one where Elisabet and Alma sit next to each other and the same story is told two times, once with Elisabet's face in frame and other with Alma's, and you see the purpose and the mastery of the scene at the same time. The second scene is the famous 'over-lapping merger' scene. Its horrifyingly complex. And the one where Alma tells the story about the boys on the beach. Liv Ullman has done a great pantomime without a single dialogue and not much action. Bibi Andersson is equally good who may look a well-balanced woman from the exteriors but has fears and secrets embedded inside just like Elisabet has.

I will not say its the best of Bergman, as I liked Winter light, Wild Strawberries and Cries and Whispers better than this, but I will say its most poetic work of the few I have seen and works with a dreamlike surrealism, a visceral flow of complex images and emotions which are at times not meant to understand but to experience.

1 comment:

David Jones said...

Wonderful review of this film. I absolutely love this minimalist strain in Bergman's directing, the way he pares down his scripts and leaves so much space for the viewer to infer what they see. Too often I think artists give us too much, and Bergman's talent seems to resist this. Of the Bergman films I have seen so far, I would rate them:

1. Wild Strawberries
2. Through a Glass Darkly
3. Winter Light
4. The Seventh Seal
5. Persona
6. Autumn Sonata
7. The Silence
8. Cries and Whispers

There are many more I have yet to see, including Hour of the Wolf, Virgin Spring, Fanny and Alexander, etc.