A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

There comes a time in the history of any art when the pressure to do something new is exceeded by the difficulty of finding that newness. I think Persona is a good example of that problem. By the mid-1960s we had seen the great innovations in filmmaking of Buñuel, Antonioni, Resnais, and Godard, among many others. So when Ingmar Bergman chooses to open Persona with a montage of apparently random images, or chooses to dwell on images of self-immolating Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war or children being rounded up by the Gestapo, or to repeat an entire scene, or to resort to a kind of Verfremdungseffekt by showing the director and his crew filming the scenes we're watching, we can mutter to ourselves, "Seen that one before." The remarkable thing is that none of this apparently derivative film and narrative technique seriously weakens the movie, which is one of Bergman's best. Even though we can dismiss the killing of the sheep in the opening montage as a kind of homage to (or borrowing from) Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou (1929), or point at the opening of Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) as another example of such a montage, or cite Godard's political engagement as a precursor of Bergman's use of Vietnam and the Holocaust in his film, none of that really matters. Persona stands firm on its own, largely because of the phenomenal performances of Bibi Andersson as Alma and Liv Ullmann as Elisabet, and the extraordinary art of Sven Nykvist's black-and-white cinematography. The only other film in Bergman's opus that seriously challenges it for primacy, I think, is Cries and Whispers (1972), and that largely because Bergman had by that time realized that innovation could be a dead end and that concentrating on story and character without cinematic tricks was all that was needed to make a successful film. The core of Persona lies in the fascinating, ever-shifting relationship between the mute Elisabet and the garrulous Alma, and we don't even need the sequence in which the images of the two actresses merge into one to get the point. It's sometimes said that the film works because Andersson and Ullmann look so much alike, but they really don't. Andersson has a kind of conventional prettiness: As I noted in my entry on The Devil's Eye (Bergman, 1960), she could almost pass as the heroine of a 1960s American sitcom like Donna Reed or Elizabeth Montgomery. Ullmann has a stronger face: a more determined gaze, powerful cheekbones, a fuller, more sensuous mouth. The two women could not have exchanged roles in the film without a serious disruption in their relationship: Even though she's three years younger than Andersson, Ullman has to play the mature, successful actress, and Andersson the eager young nurse. What gives their relationship in the film its marvelous tension is the sense that Alma is imbibing, in an almost vampiric way, the strength that Elisabet possessed before her onstage breakdown. Part of me wishes that Bergman had had the conviction to tell the two women's stories without the narrative gimmicks, but another part tells me that Persona has to be judged for what it is, and that it's one of the great films.

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