Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann
Many consider Persona the pinnacle of psychosexual thrillers. Its themes, specifically lesbianism, have made it an intense conversation piece since its debut 60 years ago (its uncensored cut was not even publicly available in the United States until 2001). Persona’s images have influenced directors from David Fincher to David Lynch, and the movie’s characters have shaped European feminist thought. It sports a cool 91% on Rotten Tomatoes (along with a 94% audience score), an 86/100 on Metacritic, and an 8.1/10 on IMDb.
Persona has also sparked a 60-year debate regarding its lesbian undertones. While there’s undoubtedly attraction present between these two women, I’ll explain below that sexuality only covers one aspect of their relationship. Regardless, this post is in January, making it a…
Persona is the highest ranked horror movie on…
…clocking in at number 18. As a horror buff who’s seen “the persona shot” done in a million movies, I needed to check this Ingmar Bergman film off my list. Going in, my only knowledge of Bergman was The Seventh Seal, so I was expecting a similar rumination on death and rebirth. This film… was not that.
Elisabet Vogler was an esteemed actress who froze up during a performance on stage. Ever since, she’s refused to speak or make intentional movement. Caring for Elisabet is Alma, a young nurse whose life is, on the surface, perfectly planned out. Once Elisabet is diagnosed, her phychiatrist sends her and Alma off to a summer retreat. There, the two become fast friends, but Elisabet begins watching Alma intensely. As Alma discovers more about her patient, she feels her life—her very identity, even—being consumed by Elisabet. Alma is assuredly her own person, but she can’t say with certainty that she’s not Elisabet too…
While I appreciated this film, I suspect that it’s to blame for many pieces of purposeless art—pieces that have nothing to say, even subconsciously. Persona begins with rapid-fire blips of imagery—male anatomy, a crucifixion, old movie scenes—enveloped by whirring camera reels. We then visit a morgue where a boy plays dead. He notices our presence, then reluctantly pays attention to various faces, the final of which is Alma, the main character. After she begins to come into focus, the screen cuts to the title card.
My reading of this sequence was that the director was trying to make a film, combining themes of sexuality, violence, death, and religion. The boy reaching for faces was the film deciding on its characters as they come into focus, the question of identity tying the aforementioned themes together. Upon reading Bergman’s explanation of the film’s prologue, I learned that I was mostly right, the boy being a stand-in for the director was the only major thing that I missed. I didn’t personally find these images difficult to parse (though later portions were more challenging for me). Imagine my surprise, then, when I found multiple interpretations and nearly endless analysis for every portion of the film—including the opening! Such overwrought theorizing offers nothing but confusion and discouragement to those trying to appreciate film on a deeper level. It also encourages young filmmakers to throw everything into their film, making it a pretentious mess in hopes that viewers will ascribe meaning or intention where there is none.
In short, Persona is a kickass study on identity, a meta-exploration of filmmaking and the acting process, and a still-current exploration of female friendship with queer undertones. It’s efficient, minimalist, and edgy—but it’s NOT a blank canvas. Each image, no matter how brief, has intention.
This is one film, ironically, where I don’t want to speak for others. It’s a highly experimental, artistic movie, and, because of the multiple themes presented, each viewer will likely absorb and study different through lines, leaving the film with diverging–yet equally valid–takeaways. Persona is also in black-and-white. It’s 1960s release date, however, gives the film a laser-printed, pristine quality, so even viewers dismissive of monochrome may give the film a chance. Additionally, though the film requires active viewership, it’s under 90 minutes, so a viewer lost or confused by the unconventional nature won’t have to suffer long.
Beyond those trepidations, there IS a reason this film was censored in the U.S. for so long. Images within the film’s experimental portions are graphic, both sexually and violently. While hardly the most intense images people see in the media (or on Tinder), I wasn’t prepared for many of Persona’s subliminal frames. This one’s not a family film, to say the least.
Finally, much like Psycho, this film trades in outdated psychological theories, specifically Jungian archetypes. A few moments at the beginning of the film were laughably off-base, especially when Elisabet’s doctor tells her that her muteness is a choice and that she’s suicidal, but too weak to follow through. I imagine that most viewers won’t take this film’s perspective as (Fruedian) gospel, but those who know someone with mental-health issues or are suffering themselves should not think TOO hard about this movie’s meaning. One wouldn’t want Persona’s messages to overwrite real-life, professional advice.