Persona by Ingmar Bergman

by Michael Skywood Clifford

Persona is a disturbing film. Its a visual feast and an uncomfortable journey. It's a bit like an-edge-of-your-seat, not-knowing-whats-going-to-happen horror film. It's remarkably simple in terms of its concept, but extremly complex in its delivery. It's about two women and the psychological effect they have on each other. The film is both about absent children and women. It's about the sexuality of children and especially about their denied human craving for love. The film edges on the murder of children. And it is also about a self imposed absence; a stubborn refusal to engage – and how that effects those around.

A friend of mine has watched it three times, no doubt to unravel it's underlying mystery. I would find it too painful to watch it three times. I watched it once and I recall it only too powerfully. It is such a well crafted film it brands itself in to your eyeballs and your memory. Once seen certain images and scenes are unforgetable although the plot somehow evaporates.

The scene where one woman slowly and innocent recounts her secret takes one by surprise. She gradually relates a sexual experience on the beach with another woman and two young boys. It is positively erotic. Bergman must have realised his drama came close to being a rousing porn film.

Bergman's films were made at a time when the working class must have been extremely intelligent, well educated cinema goers. They flocked to cinemas to see his films with all their Freudian complexities and nuances. All his films were born within the influence of existentialism, seeking to be 'authentic' and John Paul Sartre. Bergan completely influenced the beatnik generation of the US and the West which by comparison with today's standards was a highly intellectual youth sub culture, a culture that brought Alan Ginsberg, Jack Karouac, Kevin Keesey and many others to the fore. 

Film in those days did not attract punters with trivia, explosiions, computer generated trickery or car chases. They intrigued by asking the viewer deep philosophical and psychological questions, the nature of life, death, sex and religion. They were much affected by the theatre, the high drama of the day. This is one of those treats. A play with minimal characters – on film. These days I am told – stupidly – that film is all about images and not dialogue, it's visual, visual, visual. Philosophical questions are rarely asked and what people say doesn't matter, it's what they all look like. Nowadays dumbed down cinema goers en masse would probably body swerve a Bergman style film. Good directors are utterly aware of the emotional and essential nature of sound. Sound makes moving images work.

Bergman always had an obsession with beautifully muscle-toned leggy blondes, Bergman may have used the same actress a lot (as did Hitchcock and others) voluptuous Swedish platinum blondes, extremely curvacious women. I think he married a few of them. A pre-Twiggy age when women were attractive for their shapeliness and muscle tone. The stick-insect look was fabricated later. He must have had a strange relationship with his mother because he seems to have a disturbing fascination or horror of women; I would suggest he played out his psychological traumas through women.

His films are obsessed with women and sex, women within relationships, women and children, sex and death and religion. Bergman as a male film director does not present men debating politics but troubled women questioning their very existence and their emotions to it. It is about the politics of the individual not the masses.

He came from the tradition of the Surrealist's, from the trad of shocking film (like Chien Andalou Luis by Bunuel). He uses film to shake up the viewer not to serve as a tranquilizer. He doesn't use film like Hollywood, as a poltiical aneasthetic, a fantasy womb or – especially these days – like a sensational fairground ride.

The first shots of the film reminded me of an art film I saw at Manchester University cine club, callled 'Revelation' on 21st November 71. I remember the date so well because the film turned me into a vegetarian. Like the beginning of Persona, it was entirely comprised of short duration clips of unrelated moving or still images run in a fast sequence, coupled with alarming audio. I especially remember the vignette of a pig being slaughtered. This is remarkably similar to the beginning film montage of Persona, shot 10 years earlier, where instead of a pig a sheep is having its throat cut. In Revelation there was a quick shot of a penis which was almost subliminal. In Persona, Bergman leaves no doubt it is an erect penis you are looking at. I now realise that Revelation had been a pastiche of Ingmar Bergman's style.

After watching the film I slept and dreamt of my ex wife, which was a bit like horror film of its own. She was insisting I gave up music because it was harming me, and yet I felt it was music that was keeping me alive. In the dream I was trying to repond to a very important message from my wife but I could not because I had lost my bag with all my communication devices in it, including my mobile.

Below are some quotes by Bergman, and some quotes by some of the characters from his films: 


Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.

I write scripts to serve as skeletons awaiting the flesh and sinew of images.

I'll tell you something banal. We're emotional illiterates. And not only you and I-practically everybody, that's the depressing thing. We're taught everything about the body and about agriculture in Madagascar and about the square root of pi, or whatever the hell it's called, but not a word about the soul. We're abysmally ignorant, about both ourselves and others. There's a lot of loose talk nowadays to the effect that children should be brought up to know all about brotherhood and understanding and coexistence and equality and everything else that's all the rage just now. But it doesn't dawn on anyone that we must first learn something about ourselves and our own feelings. Our own fear and loneliness and anger. We're left without a chance, ignorant and remorseful among the ruins of our ambitions. To make a child aware of it's soul is something almost indecent. You're regarded as a dirty old man. How can you understand other people if you don't know anything about yourself? Now you're yawning, so that's the end of the lecture.

I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to man has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams.”
The Seventh Seal

I understand, all right. The hopeless dream of being – not seeming, but being. At every waking moment, alert. The gulf between what you are with others and what you are alone. The vertigo and the constant hunger to be exposed, to be seen through, perhaps even wiped out. Every inflection and every gesture a lie, every smile a grimace. Suicide? No, too vulgar. But you can refuse to move, refuse to talk, so that you don't have to lie. You can shut yourself in. Then you needn't play any parts or make wrong gestures. Or so you thought. But reality is diabolical. Your hiding place isn't watertight. Life trickles in from the outside, and you're forced to react. No one asks if it is true or false, if you're genuine or just a sham. Such things matter only in the theatre, and hardly there either. I understand why you don't speak, why you don't move, why you've created a part for yourself out of apathy. I understand. I admire. You should go on with this part until it is played out, until it loses interest for you. Then you can leave it, just as you've left your other parts one by one.”

Perhaps we are the same person. Perhaps we have no limits; perhaps we flow into each other, stream through each other, boundlessly and magnificently. You bear terrible thoughts; it is almost painful to be near you. At the same time it is enticing. Do you know why?” 

I usually take a walk after breakfast, write for three hours, have lunch and read in the afternoon. Demons don’t like fresh air – they prefer it if you stay in bed with cold feet; for a person who is as chaotic as me, who struggles to be in control, it is an absolute necessity to follow these rules and routines. If I let myself go, nothing will get done.” 

Sometimes I go for days without speaking to a soul. I think, “I should make that call", but I put it off. Because there’s something pleasurable about not talking. But then I love talking, so it’s not that. But sometimes it can be nice. It’s not like I sit here philosophizing, because I’ve no talent for that. It’s just this thing about silence that’s so wonderful.” 

Occasionally I sense an insane wail deep down in the pit, the echo alone reaching me, striking without warning, a child weeping uninhibitedly, imprisoned forever.”
The Magic Lantern

Bergman made just 50+ major films. I seemed to have watched the first four oddly, because there was no logic to the ones I picked over a period of time. I recently watched Face to Face, thinking it was an interview with Bergman by David Jewman, but in fact it was another film, and described as probably Bergman's most disturbing film. I found it quite freaky in parts, but I got to the end of it in one piece. He really knows how to build tension. I don't think todays audiences would have the patience.

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