Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 2: Persona (1966)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Persona (1966) is referenced in Life Itself: In the first edition hardback, Persona is referenced on pages 1, 154, 267, and 270. It is the film most often referenced in Roger’s book. He first likens its opening credits & mid-film “break” to the way life & memory flicker into existence, initially without cohesion. He later describes how as a young critic he met an inability to discuss exactly what happens in the film, which prompted him to write about what happened to him as an audience instead (a technique of critical subjectivity he would return to often). He also describes Bergman’s casting of the film as being surprisingly impulsive in a brief anecdote.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Most movies try to seduce us into forgetting we’re ‘only’ watching a movie. But Bergman keeps reminding us his story isn’t ‘real.’ At a crucial moment in his plot the film seemingly breaks, and after it rips for a dozen frames it seems to catch fire within the projector. We see it melting on the screen. Then blackness, then light and then the old silent comedies again, as Persona starts again at the beginning.” – From his 1967 review for the Chicago Sun Times

Persona is a film we return to over the years, for the beauty of its images and because we hope to understand its mysteries. It is apparently not a difficult film: Everything that happens is perfectly clear, and even the dream sequences are clear–as dreams. But it suggests buried truths, and we despair of finding them. Persona was one of the first movies I reviewed, in 1967. I did not think I understood it. A third of a century later I know most of what I am ever likely to know about films, and I think I understand that the best approach to Persona is a literal one.” – From his 2001 review in his “Great Movies” series

There are two massive, go for broke moments in Ingmar Bergman’s small cast drama Persona that tend to overwhelm discussion of the film. The first is the film’s opening six minutes. A chaotic montage of loose film strips, whirring projectors, impossibly bright light bulbs, grainy footage of what looks like a silent era horror, spiders, human hands, animal slaughter, exposed organs, an erect penis, and crucifixion imagery overwhelm the film’s first breaths. Even today these fist few minutes of visual chaos are disturbingly vivid, but difficult to pinpoint with any certainty as to what they could mean, exactly. Somewhere in the fog I see a progression of life art death, but that personal interpretation is far from concrete in any significant way. As difficult as it is to decipher Persona‘s opening minutes today, it’s even more of a mystery to me what the experience would’ve been like for someone watching the film fifty years ago. As if that opening barrage weren’t enough, Bergman then repeats the trick a second time in the film’s second Go For Broke moment. A little over halfway into the film’s runtime the movie essentially breaks down & returns to the visual chaos of its opening minutes, wiping the slate clean & completely changing the rules of its delicately laid-out narrative. It makes total sense that these two moments would dominate most discussion of Persona & the strange places its story goes in its haunting final minutes, but for the most part the film itself is a rather quiet, intimate drama.

A somewhat mousy nurse is assigned as a caretaker for an actress who has not spoken in three months’ time. After a dreary stay at a hospital, the two women attempt a therapeutic, seaside respite to help cure the actress of her anxieties. To fill the void left by her nonverbal companion, the nurse gabs incessantly, first about seemingly nothing at all and then about deep seated fears & regrets. Take away the two experimental jaunts of rapidfire montage & Persona is mostly a collection of monologues, sometimes delivered directly to the audience in a way of breaking the fourth wall that recalls the grave seriousness of a stage play instead of the winking Ferris Beullers of the world. The topics covered in these speeches are a wide range of concerns from the importance of art in people’s lives to a distant memory of casual sex & subsequent abortion. If it were anyone but Bergman at the helm, the film’s existential crises could possibly play as arthouse self-parody, especially once one character starts pondering about “the hopeless dream of being. Not seeing but being. In every waking moment aware, alert. The tug of war between what you are with others & who you truly are.” The navel-gazing & despair in Persona is so tragically sincere, however, that there’s no way to avoid being arrested by it. Bergman may work with a tone of cinematic obfuscation that’s been copied & parodied endlessly in the last few decades, but he does it with such sincerity & confidence that it still knocks you on your ass, despite familiarity with how his style has been assimilated into cinema at large. In a lot of ways the bare bones monologues of Persona can be just as unsettling as the film’s Big Risk montages of pure light & sound.

Of course, Persona‘s ambitious Big Risk montages & low-key, confessional monologues cannot be considered in total isolation. One plays directly into the other. Shortly before Persona‘s mid-film narrative “break”, the overly-talkative nurse confesses to her silent companion “Somehow I think I could change myself into you if I tried. I mean, inside. You could be me, just like that.” An act or two of betrayal sets in motion the pure light & sound montage “break” that allows that fantasy to become a tangible reality. The two women’s identities shift & meld. Ugly anxieties about fear of motherhood & questions of sexual desire bubble to the surface in such a horrific, unsettling way that you could consider the film a work of avant-garde horror if you view it in the right context. Persona was my first introduction to Bergman as a filmmaker and I’ve heard that entry point likened to jumping into the deep end. This is a messy, languid picture that somehow pulls together a pointed & purposeful tone from the wreckage without ever affording the audience a clear picture of what exactly is transpiring.

It’s no surprise, then, that reviewing Persona was such a daunting task for a young Ebert or that the film resonated with him in such a vivid way throughout his life & career. One thing I picked up while reading over his reviews of the film that I may have missed the first time I watched it was how artificial the whole thing felt. While watching Bergman’s so-called “Silence of God” trilogy during our Movie of the Month discussion of The Seventh Seal last year, I became intensely focused on the way the director called attention to the artificiality of his films by making them feel like staged plays. Returning to Persona (with Ebert’s take in mind) made me realize how much that film in particular pushes that idea to an extreme. In the film, Bergman not only calls into focus the artificial stage of his  narrative, but also the medium through which he delivers it. Literal film strips & projectors appear in the film’s two biggest moments (even breaking down the narrative in the second instance) and the film’s final scene cuts away to show camera crews filming the actors on set. As Ebert puts it, “Most movies try to seduce us into forgetting we’re ‘only’ watching a movie. But Bergman keeps reminding us his story isn’t ‘real.’ […] We have been brutally reminded that the story is being filtered through technical equipment.” Persona‘s ambiguity & existential distress is rewarding enough on its own to demand multiple viewings, but looking for that self-referential artificiality in the film was alone well worth a revisit.


Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)


 Brandon’s Rating: (4.5/5, 90%)


Next Lesson: Apocalypse Now (1979)

-Brandon Ledet

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