Persona ★★★★★

persona (plural personas or personae or personæ)
1. A social role.
2. A character played by an actor.
3. (psychology) The mask or appearance one presents to the world.

“In some strange way it was never quite real. I don’t know how to explain it. At least, I was never quite real to him. But my pain was real, that’s for sure. But that was somehow all a part of it in some nasty way, as if that’s how it was supposed to be.”

I’ll be revisiting this movie for years. You know that feeling when you’re sitting there watching a film — you could be at the movie theater, at your house — and you realize, “I think I’m watching one of my all-time favorite movies right now?” I had that thought a few times while watching Bergman’s masterpiece Persona and I’ll always remember today’s viewing specifically, because I was continually wowed and awed at the elegance and magic that kept popping up on my screen. The Criterion Blu-ray that I bought also comes with a wonderful booklet that has an essay “The Persistence of Persona” by Thomas Elsaesser, as well as interviews with Bergman himself, and star Bibi Andersson.

Elsaesser says,

“Persona has an almost hypnotic pull; it draws the spectator in and never lets go…”

Elsaesser also cites Susan Sontag, who said quite eloquently,

“It’s correct to speak of Persona in terms of the fortunes of two characters named Elizabeth and Alma who are engaged in a desperate duel of identities. But it is equally pertinent to treat Persona as relating the duel between two mythical parts of a single self: the corrupted person who acts and the ingenuous soul who founders in contact with corruption.”

From the introductory schizophrenic dream that Bergman tackles us with — it even features the signature eye-slicing scene from the surreal French classic Un Chien Andalou — to the claustrophobic hospital rooms, to the beautiful beaches and shores of Fårö (Bergman’s favorite place to film), we as an audience are invited to witness the tango between Elisabet Vogler, an actress who’s gone mute, and Sister Alma, the young nurse assigned to take care of the actress.

Bibi Andersson & Liv Ullmann as Alma & Elisabet respectively were both spectacular — in crazily complex and different roles. Credit to Andersson for leaving me engrossed since she has nearly all of the movie’s dialogue. Ullmann, like a veteran silent film actress, was able to convey nearly every emotion in the book through just her face and her actions.

Sven Nykvist, I salute you. The camerawork, as totally expected, was immaculate for this movie. He later wins two Oscars for his cinematography for two more Bergman movies (Cries & Whispers, Fanny and Alexander), but he deserves some massive kudos for the innovations in this movie that no metal hardware could really represent. Most people know that, but I just want to give him the EJ-salute.

The score also deserves a call-out. This score felt so alive. The opening credits shocked me at first when it happened, and the thunderous, percussive-heavy score that accompanied the opening credits with the extremely fast jump-cuts was such an awesome way to open this movie. Sets the tone right away.

By the film’s final ten or so minutes, I was audibly saying, “what the fuck” to myself. I thought that the movie kept finishing, but it kept peeling back one more layer on top of the mind-fuckery that happens throughout this film. 

It felt like when I watched Mulholland Drive for the first time. And with the name of the nurse/caretaker being Sister Alma, I thought of Phantom Thread (where I’m like 99% sure PTA got the name for the caretaker in that movie from this film). Calling this movie a bridge between Mulholland Drive and Phantom Thread, with the artistic madness of Un Chien Andalou, with of course the signature added garnish of Bergman’s thoughts on “being,” “life,” and “death”…

… *chef’s kiss* You get Persona. And you totally see the influence this movie had on many, many future movies that came after. I feel enlightened. 

Imagine believing so strongly in something that you devote your entire life to it. Having something to believe in, working at something, believing your life has meaning. I like that. Holding on tight to something, no matter what — I think that’s how it should be. Meaning something to other people. Don’t you agree?

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