Review: Persona (1966)

Persona (1966) Persona (1966)

Starkly, stunningly, Ur.

The tone poem, the Ur text for modern cinema that is Ingmar Bergman‘s Persona: and what a joy it is to come to this late – long after the film’s release, late in my own movie-watching life, recognising this film not just as the Ur text for modern cinema, but more intimately – as the hand whose fingerprints adorn so many films from so many creators I’ve adored with only a vague awareness of their genealogy.

It is as much a film about film itself as it is about the film-maker: the opening frames are literally that – spliced together, native to the language of the medium; and later in the film, we see literal film cameras pointed at us, and the film we are watching even breaks apart, disintegrates.

Persona is also about being in thrall of faces – and what faces! Alma (Bibi Andersson) and Elisabet (Liv Ullman) present extraordinary countenances and, via Sven Nykvist‘s stunning cinematography, Bergman delights in constructing shapes with these faces, piecing them together in every way possible within, again, the medium of film.

Viewed through a lens more than half a century later, my immediate reading of this was as a queer text: the intimacy of Elisabet and Alma is by turns romantic, sensual, claustrophobic, toxic, enigmatic. Digging deeper into the stories behind its making, it’s apparently very much not literally a lesbian story – even if the imagery is often post-coital, or of women literally taking eachother to bed in dreamily-lit, under- or over-exposed tableaux. Ultimately, trying to classify Persona feels restrictive – and, for all its stark and occasionally unsettling aesthetics, Persona is also deeply, miraculously hypnotic, so it feels almost… rude to try to contain it with mere words.

Further Viewing

Thomas Flight‘s eloquent study of Bergman’s use of faces inspired my own: