Starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Running Time: 85 mins
Persona is a Swedish film about a nurse who is tasked with taking care of a famous actress who has fallen silent. Together, they move to an isolated seaside cottage, where their identities seem to begin to merge.
Dubbed ‘the Mount Everest of film criticism’, Persona is said to be the most challenging of Ingmar Bergman’s legendarily daunting filmography, with layers and layers and layers of surreal, complex, abstract and vague drama somehow packed into under an hour and a half of screen time.
So, here on The Mad Movie Man, I’m certain that I can finally bring a bit of clarity to the film that continues to puzzle and bemuse viewers from around the world. Not really. But I will say that, while Persona is oh so hard to unpack and crack for an average cinemagoer like myself, it’s still a pretty mesmerising watch.
Bergman, director of abstract philosophical classics like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through A Glass Darkly and more, is notorious for his deeply complex stories and innovative, albeit challenging filmmaking style.
Of all his films, it’s fair to say that Persona takes that to the greatest length, telling a story that’s somehow both totally enthralling and yet seemingly inaccessible right from the start. Even the surface-level plot about two women’s identities gradually merging is difficult to crack, and then there’s the countless layers of subtext, philosophical thought and more just waiting to be discovered.
On the plus side, that means that Persona is perhaps the most rewatchable film in history. It’s short, it’s visually striking, and even though you may not know what’s going on, it’s really difficult to look away from, such is the power of Bergman’s direction and screenplay, as well as the brilliance of the lead performances from Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann.
I won’t pretend to know everything that Bergman is doing in this film (in fact I’m fairly sure that there is no single answer to that), but what I have to say is that Persona deserves the highest praise for crafting something so captivating and so memorable out of such a challenging story.
Some of Bergman’s films are abstract to the point that they’re really difficult to get into for more casual viewers, but Persona has that blend of thrilling mystery and enough superficial intrigue and appeal to make it a gripping watch for anyone.
Complete with riveting, retrospective dialogue (or should I say monologue) as we hear Bibi Andersson’s character spill all her feelings to the silent patient she is caring for, Persona manages to combine Bergman’s legendary eye for complex philosophical thought with genuinely engrossing character drama.
As for understanding what’s going on as the pair’s identities seem to begin to merge, it’s a really tough task, but there is a moment towards the end of the film where the penny drops – and that moment is so rewarding after spending the best part of 80 minutes really trying to get your head around the story.
Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann’s gripping and emotionally charged performances go a long way to engrossing you in the story to the point that you can put all your effort into trying to crack the film, while they manage to capture a very nuanced take on mimicking one another’s personas for the good of the story.
It’s not a forced, melodramatic story of two identities coming together, and Persona actually keeps itself well-grounded in reality, making it more convincing and understandable for casual viewers and allowing the final realisation to really hit home nicely.
Further credit has to go to legendary cinematographer Sven Nyqvist in creating such a visually vibrant film, while Bergman, as well as his brilliant screenplay and direction, deserves immense praise for his casting of both Andersson and Ullmann together.
It’s a subtle detail, but the pair look just enough alike and also just different enough to make the mind-bending phase of the story where the line between their characters begins to blur. As Bergman and Nyqvist set up shots to deliberately wrong-foot you and misidentify the actresses for a split second, it really gets into your head the idea that there is a much more fluid line between their identities than you first thought.
Finally, a word on the film’s themes. As I said, there’s no way that I’ve even scratched the surface of Persona on just one viewing, but I was riveted by the way the film presents relationship dynamics and the impact that has on people’s individuality.
I won’t spoil anything for you here, but suffice to say that the dynamic between Andersson and Ullmann’s characters is extremely multi-dimensional, and Bergman manages to capture that and its varying effects on their state of mind, and the way they perceive themselves and each other.
Again, there is so, so, so much more to Persona than that, and it really beggars belief that the film packs so much into just 85 minutes of screen time.
However, as ever, Ingmar Bergman delivers a staggeringly innovative, striking and memorable film here, complete with two exhilarating lead performances, mesmerising visuals, complex themes, mind-bending psychology and challenging storytelling that’s difficult to crack, but so satisfying when you do figure out just what’s going on. So, that’s why I’m giving Persona an 8.1 overall.