'Persona' Doesn't Need to Be Understood to Be Loved

Ingmar Bergman’s film is profoundly mysterious, and the more we try to comprehend it, the farther away we move from its magic.


Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: NR
Studio: AB Svensk Filmindustri
Release date: 2014-03-25

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.