There is no settling into Persona (1966), so let’s not settle in. A projector’s viscera glows white hot, whirring celluloid flutters by, a cartoon prototype appears, then a shard of silent slapstick: set to modernist horror movie music, the prelude reminds us we’re watching a movie; it’s also incorporating spectatorship into the realm of its story. A sheep is slaughtered, a spike is driven through a hand, a tarantula crawls across a white surface, a bespectacled boy (Jörgen Lindström) wakes up in, it seems, a morgue; at least, the elderlies sharing his pale space look dead enough. Perhaps the unnerving images that preceded were excerpts from his dreams; perhaps they were the dreams of the dead surrounding him, their psychic vapour. The boy tries to read Lermontov (!), but gets distracted, like us, by the screen, or, for him, the lens, but, actually, a barring window or membrane separating him from the dissolving images of two women’s faces. He reaches out, to that screen-lens-membrane, to us, to the women, or some elusive, amorphous mother that the pair represents. Hard cut. Prelude over. Roll opening credits. We’re not so much acclimatized for Persona as sufficiently jarred to enter it.
Nearly 50 years after its debut, Persona can seem less like a linear experience than a cinematic ecosystem, a movie-place containing interconnected elements, most famously, images of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman, the film’s ingenious actresses, their merging and/or interlocking faces and hair. But that sense of the film as an object to behold and puzzle over dissolves once you start watching it. The opposite of ponderous, the economy of the opening expository scenes is bracing. Alma (Andersson), the nurse, is debriefed by her superior (Margaretha Krook) about their their new patient, Elizabet (Ullman), an actress who stopped speaking one night while playing Elektra on stage and has yet to recover. A hard cut to a brief flashback appears in the midst of this: a tight close-up of Elizabet in the moment of her sudden pause—a pause yet to be broken. It’s as though, all at once, a veil fell away and she became paralyzingly aware of the sham of her performance, or of this play, and that awareness followed her into the rest of life. Authenticity was in that moment all but drained from the world, through the rare moments when she’s presented with something undeniably authentic—a television broadcast of a self-immolating monk in Vietnam, a photo from Jürgen Stroop’s report on the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—she recoils.
Does Elizabet’s crisis mirror that of Persona’s writer and director, Ingmar Bergman? He’d spend the first part of the 1960s making increasingly strange, inventive and claustrophobic films exploring the traumas and liberation of living in the absence of God. During those same years younger filmmakers were renovating film language, making the movies exhilaratingly self-conscious, producing, for example, movies about genre in place of more genre movies. With Persona, Bergman took that new self-consciousness and went inward instead of outward—he applied these new tools to an exploration of inner life. As Paul Schrader eloquently puts it in an interview included in Criterion’s superlative new Persona DVD/Blu-ray package, Persona is a milestone not because it was the first shot in a revolution but, rather, because it was the second. Me, I didn’t live through the revolution in question, but this second shot, once it came to me, was the one that wounded me permanently. I first saw Persona when I was 16, and it was the most transfixing, mysterious and, frankly, erotic experience with moving images I’d had. It remains all of those things for me. I’ve seen thousands of movies since, but every time I come back to Persona all those movies seen only heighten and reinforce my appreciation.
I was saying something about story, and, truly, for at least half of Persona the story remains crisp, clipped, just cryptic enough to intrigue. Alma and Elizabet are sent to Alma’s superior’s cottage on the island of Fårö. It’s summer, the sun never sets, and the scene seems idyllic. Elizabet remains mute, but her beguiling face could be read as sympathetic, even fascinated. So Alma talks and talks and her life, which she previously described as “decided,” begins to seem looser, at once less fixed and more interesting. She tells stories, and in the same way that this movie works as profoundly as it does because it acknowledges its movieness, her stories possess the transfixing-mysterious-erotic power they do because they come to us as stories—flashbacks would never have the same impact as the sentences so deftly delivered by Andersson. Elizabet becomes something like a best friend, or a therapist, or a vampire—later on she’ll actually drink blood. Does she truly care about Alma’s life and career, or about that impromptu orgy she partook in and never told a soul about before? Is Elizabet genuinely interested in Alma or just searching for material? For an artist, maybe for actors (and writers) most of all, are both things not always in play?
Persona’s key moment, or the whole movie in one scene: Alma in bed, the night not dark but slivery, the air almost smoky, and Elizabet soundlessly enters her room like a Japanese ghost. Like the boy, the two women will gaze into the screen or mirror, faces close, stroking hair, a seduction, a spiritual merger… And then comes some sort of betrayal; petty revenge; a simmering resentment that briefly tears up the physical substance of film itself; friendship becomes a duel; then a visit from Elizabet’s confused husband (Gunnar Björnstrand) and a turning of tables—maybe Elizabet’s real fear wasn’t of being false but of being ordinary, like Alma. You can explore the emotional geometries in this movie for ages. This is the trick: certain fundamental mysteries endure, but the character dynamics and the feelings involved are only too identifiable. “Persona” means mask and masks continually fall away in Persona. But, in spite of all these haunting close-ups, how do we know for certain when we’ve arrived at a real face?
Persona was always my number one when it came to movies that I felt begged for inclusion in the Criterion Collection. Criterion hasn’t neglected this happy occasion. This gorgeous new package has the best looking transfer I’ve seen. The strongest supplements are, for me, the interviews: one with Andersson, Bergman and Ullman at the time of the film’s release; one with Bergman from 1970 for Canadian television; a new interview with Ullman, in which she emphasizes the rigour of Bergman’s collaborative process and the many important elements that were discovered only during production or in the editing room; and the aforementioned interview with Schrader, who supplies sturdy historical context and still beams like a schoolboy when expressing his admiration for this film. If you could see my face right now, I suspect I’m beaming too.