Any attempt to interpret Persona (1966) is futile. The film deliberately strives to be cryptic, and it avoids narrative clarity for artistic experimentation.
Film students are often asked to explain the thematic and narrative significance of Persona in seminars, and academics continue to offer in-depth analyses of its unique characterization to provide further clarification, often drawing on theories of the “gaze” and its relation to gender, sexuality, and power. Even casual moviegoers who have seen the film out of curiosity engage in debates about its “meaning” on forums like IMDB.
While I don’t wish to discourage anyone from trying to understand a work as purposefully opaque as this art-house enigma by legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, at some point it’s fruitful to step back and appreciate the film for what it is: a modernist masterpiece as elusive as Chapter 19 of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
Persona comes after Bergman’s minimalist “Silence of God” trilogy, in which he examines faith and alienation in the modern age. Unlike previous works such as The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960) that rely heavily on religious symbolism to investigate ethical and spiritual questions, the “Silence of God” trilogy that consists of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963) is more psychological in nature.
Still, even this cinematic shift couldn’t anticipate the radical departure of Persona. Only Federico Fellini, a few years earlier, would match Bergman’s extreme transformation with 8 1/2 (1963), a film that strays so far from La Dolce Vita (1960) that most audiences didn’t know what to make of it.
To this day, newcomers to Persona are spellbound by its formalism while simultaneously confused by its narrative and thematic logic (or lack thereof). After all, the film centers on two women played by Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, who seemingly switch personalities halfway through the film, or so most interpretations imply. I’m not sure exactly what happens, but I’m certain that every frame is magic.
In many ways, Persona makes a case for Susan Sontag’s claim in her renowned essay “Against Interpretation”, published in her seminal 1966 anthology of literary criticism, in which she argues, “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” It makes sense, then, that Sontag names the film Bergman’s “masterpiece” in the 1967 autumn edition of Sight and Sound.
On the surface, Persona is beautifully constructed, with gorgeous close-ups of the actresses’ faces, captivating monologues with meticulous framing and camera movement, and a wonderfully weird prologue that serves no purpose other than to stimulate the senses. I don’t know what any of it means, but who cares?
The film’s aural and visual components give rise to the kind of erotic viewing experience that Sontag calls for. Persona is an aesthetically pleasing work of art, and to try to interpret its content is to take what should be a sensual viewing experience and turn it into an intellectual exercise. Like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Bergman’s film is profoundly mysterious, and the more we try to comprehend it, the more we ruin its magic.
Arriving on Criterion for the first time, this duel-format DVD/Blu-ray package comes with a beautiful 2K digital restoration that does not disappoint. The special features are similarly engaging. Peter Cowie’s visual essay on the film’s perplexing prologue is fascinating, as are the archival interviews with Bergman, Ullmann, and Andersson. The package also includes Liv & Ingmar, a touching 2012 documentary about the relationship between two of Sweden’s beloved artists, and this will likely appeal to longtime fans.
However, given that Persona is one of the most important films in cinema history, it’s surprising to find that there isn’t a commentary track or some other retrospective. Nevertheless, the restoration more than makes up for it, as does the booklet which includes an essential essay by Thomas Elsaesser and an excerpted 1977 interview with Andersson.
Persona is a rare cinematic experience, and I envy those lucky enough to watch it for the first time. After numerous viewings, I can confidently say that its mystery isn’t any clearer, but its brilliance hasn’t diminished. Ultimately, Persona is the best kind of film because it doesn’t need to be understood to be loved. It only needs to be looked at.
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