“Persona” (1966) is a film we return to over the years, for the beauty of its images and because we hope to understand its mysteries. This is apparently not a difficult movie: Everything that is going on is crystal clear, and even the dream sequences are clear – like dreams. But it suggests buried truths, and we despair of finding them. “Persona” was one of the first films I reviewed, in 1967. I didn’t think I understood it. A third of a century later, I know most of what I’m likely to know about movies, and I think I understand that the best approach to “Persona” is literal.
This is exactly what it appears to be. “How this pretentious movie manages to not be pretentious at all is one of the great accomplishments of ‘Persona’,” said a movie buff named John Hardy, posting his comments on the Internet Movie Database. Bergman shows us the daily actions and words of ordinary conversation. And Sven Nykvist’s cinematography shows them in haunting images. One of them, with two faces, one frontal, one in profile, has become one of the most famous images in cinema.
Elizabeth (Liv Ullmann) stops talking in the middle of Electra, and will not speak anymore. A psychiatrist thinks it might be helpful for Elizabeth and nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) to spend the summer in her isolated home. Held in the same box of space and time, the two women somehow merge. Elizabeth says nothing, and Alma talks and talks, confessing her plans and fears, and finally, in a grand and daring monologue, confessing to an erotic episode in which she was, for a time, completely happy.
The two actresses look a bit alike. Bergman emphasizes this similarity in a disturbing shot where he combines half of one face with half of the other. Later, he superimposes the two faces, like a morph. Andersson told me that she and Ullmann had no idea Bergman was going to do this, and when she first saw the movie, she found it disturbing and scary. Bergman told me: “The human face is the great subject of cinema. Everything is there.”