Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966, Sweden)

  It’s hard to overstate the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. One can trace the film’s influence to directors from David Lynch and Robert Altman, to Woody Allen and Lars von Trier. The film has been written about perhaps almost as much as cornerstones like Citizen Kane and Vertigo, and it is almost a rite of passage for film critics and theorists to tackle the film. While Bergman’s earlier films primarily examined the nature of man’s relationship to God, Persona represents a transitional film for the auteur. Bergman largely strips his film down to its barest essence – the performances of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann – and even deconstructs the nature of cinema itself. In this way, Persona is in the spirit of other self-reflexive modernist masterpieces of the early 1960s like Fellini’s 8 ½ and Godard’s Contempt. 

Persona, one of Bergman’s most oblique films, tells the story of a nurse (Alma) who is assigned to take care of an actress (Elisabet) who has had a nervous breakdown after a performance. Alma and Elisabet move to a cottage, where Alma gradually finds her identity fusing with Elisabet’s – or vice versa, depending on who you ask. Persona is eminently watchable precisely because the film lends itself to multiple readings. One clear interpretation is that Elisabet – with her crumbling relationship, self-loathing, and loveless relationship to her child – is a psychic vampire (at one point she literally sucks Alma’s blood) who is drawing Alma toward her lifeless existence. It is also apparent that this process is leading to a process of self-realization for Alma, as she realizes the desires she took for granted – marriage, children – may not be what she wants at all. Or she may be able to hold multiple desires simultaneously. Persona is a challenging film that deserves multiple viewings and will continue to confound viewers for years to come.



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