2018 marks Ingmar Bergman's centenary, and the year begins with one of his greatest achievements back in British cinemas. Bergman was a prolific filmmaker, often making one feature film a year while maintaining a parallel career as a theatre director. By the mid-sixties, Bergman had made his Faith Trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence, the last-named testing censors worldwide) but his most recent film was Now About These Women, a broad comedy and his film in colour, and generally - rightly - considered a misfire. Quite where Bergman was going, in a very rich period for international auteur cinema, no one could have predicted. During a hospital stay for pneumonia, Bergman wrote the screenplay for Persona.
The moment the film begins, it's clear that something has changed. We're back in black and white. A light appearing in darkness: a carbon arc striking, film going through a projector. Images flash up on the screen: four frames of an erect penis (removed at the time for censorship reasons, later restored), part of a silent film comedy with the projector whirring on the soundtrack, a crucifixion with a nail being hammered into a hand, a spider, a sheep slaughtering. A young boy (Jörgen Lindström) reaches out towards the image of a woman on a screen… After this prologue, the film proper begins. Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress, suddenly falls silent on stage. Suspected of having had a breakdown, she is put in the care of Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse. When no progress is made, Alma and Elisabet spend time in a remote cottage by the seaside. As the days pass, Alma tries to break Elisabet’s silence, but soon becomes unsure of her own identity…
Persona was mostly shot on the island of Fårö, where Bergman had made his home in the early years of the decade. There's an abstract feel to Sven Nykvist's camerawork, in particular its use of empty space, the island landscape being a key part of it. The majority of the film is a two-hander between two women, one of whom almost never speaks. The complete credited cast only numbers four. It's a tour-de-force for the two leads. Bibi Andersson had worked for Bergman before, but in smaller roles. She has the bulk of the film's dialogue, including an extraordinary scene where she relates a sexual encounter with some boys on a beach, revealing much of herself to the silent woman sitting opposite. Persona was Liv Ullmann's first film for Bergman, and it was a significant one as they entered a relationship and later had a daughter together. It's a remarkable performance, relying almost entirely on her face. Bergman is one of the great exponents of the close-up and there are many examples in this film, as if it is possible to use what is an external photographic medium to uncover his characters' souls. The gap between her public face (persona) and her private one is at the core of Elisabet's breakdown, and is at the heart of Alma too. And finally, the two women's faces visually merge.
This is a film from a particular moment in a decade of change, one which comes home to us as the external world intrudes on Elisabet as she recoils in horror from then-contemporary television footage of the Vietnam War, with a Vietnamese monk setting himself on fire. With this film, Bergman took on techniques which were then moving out of the avant-garde into the wider artistic world, as at several times he makes us aware that this film is not reality, but a construct, beginning with the prologue and credit sequence mentioned above. More than once it seems the fourth wall is being broken, with Bergman framing Andersson and Ullmann so that they speak to camera. Towards the end, we see the camera crew. At one key point, halfway through, the film “breaks” and burns up. If Persona began with the projector striking up, it ends with the film coming out of the projector onto a reel. This deconstruction also extended to the film's publicity as original publicity stills were reproduced with the frame's sprocket holes in view.
Though some critical reactions at the time were a little puzzled, the film rapidly became regarded as one of Bergman's greatest works. Its influence was soon felt, with Jean-Luc Godard parodying Alma's monologue in Weekend. Longtime Bergman devotee Woody Allen sent up one of the film's most famous shots in Love and Death. You can see Persona's influence in films like Two-Lane Blacktop (which also has the film “burning” in the projector) and Performance and Mulholland Drive, which both deal in the merger of personalities. In 2012, Persona placed seventeenth in Sight & Sound's all-time best poll. Persona is not the easiest of Bergman's films to get to grips with, but it's a compelling, disturbing, brilliant work, rewarding many viewings. A truly great film.