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MGM Studios DVD presents
Persona (1966)

"Your lifelessness has become a fantastic part. I understand and admire you. I think you should play this part until it's done...until it's no longer interesting. Then you can leave it, as you leave all your roles."
- Psychiatrist (Margaretha Krook)

Review By: Robert Edwards  
Published: February 09, 2004

Stars: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann
Other Stars: Margaretha Krook, Gunnar Björnstrand
Director: Ingmar Bergman

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (sexual stories, intense emotion, minor violence)
Run Time: 01h:22m:37s
Release Date: February 10, 2004
UPC: 027616902221
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
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Audio Transfer
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Extras
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A+ A+AA- A-

DVD Review

The plot is simple: renowned stage actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) fell silent during a performance of Elektra, and has since stopped speaking completely. She's been evaluated by a psychiatrist (Margaretha Krook), who declares her physically and emotionally well. Alma (Bibi Andersson), a young nurse, is assigned to her, but after Elisabet's stay in the clinic fails to improve her condition, she and Alma move to a summer cottage by the sea. There, Alma opens up to Elisabet, telling her secrets about her past, stories she hasn't shared with anyone. But Alma's frustrations at Elisabet's continuing refusal to speak increase, and the two become confrontational.

On this simple, almost skeletal plot, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman hangs one of the most complex, intriguing, beautiful films in the history of cinema. In the late 1950s and early '60s, Bergman had explored themes such as alienation and the relation of God to Man, but by the mid-1960s, his concerns had changed to subjects such as identity and the impossibility of existence in the modern world. By this time, he had been working for several years with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who would add a distinctive look to not only Persona but most of Berman's later films, and had used Bibi Andersson in several film roles.

Persona is a film that works simultaneously on multiple levels—narrative, visual, intellectual—to create a fascinating whole, one that demands, but rewards, multiple viewings. There are mysteries to fathom, themes to explore, and cinematic techniques to interpret and understand. As one of the most appreciated films by a director who was at one time the most famous in the world, reams have been written about it, with varying (and often contradictory) interpretations. And rightly so, because it's open to multiple avenues of exploration and approach, but the film itself resists a definitive explanation.

Communication as Artifice

One of the mysteries of the film is simply stated: Why has Elisabet stopped speaking? Obviously, we don't get any clues from the mute Elisabet, and Alma's prime concern is not to determine the cause of her condition, but rather to get her to start speaking again. The film points towards two potential answers that are related, yet not completely reconcilable. First of all, Elisabet's psychiatrist tells her that she understands the cause, that Elisabet wants to be who she really is, and not who she is to other people, to strip off the façade of language and get to the truth, to remove her persona (Greek for 'mask') and bare the person beneath. The doctor's explanation is long and detailed, but it doesn't sound very scientific—it's more of a philosophical than psychological interpretation of Elisabet's refusal to speak, and thus may be suspect, but Alma echoes the psychiatrist's words later, asking Elisabet if it is really so important to tell the truth and not lie.

The other clues are presented visually, and may thus be more reliable than the verbal explanations. Elisabet clearly enjoys her life in the near-isolation of the seaside cottage, cut off from the outside world, where she can avoid the complexities of modern living. Early on in the film, Elizabet watches television in her room at the clinic, and is filled with revulsion and horror at the (in)famous footage of Buddhist monks practicing self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam War. As their bodies, engulfed by flames, slowly crumble to the ground, Elisabet emits a silent scream, withdrawing into the corner of her room, distancing herself as much as possible from the images before her. And later, Elisabet closely examines a World War II photo of a little boy in the Jewish ghetto as soldiers point their rifles at him. Although it's more with curiosity than disgust that she looks at the picture, both the picture and the footage of the monks are the only significant examples of the outside world intruding on Elizabet's isolation, either in the clinic or on the island. It's as if Bergman is hinting to us that that Elizabet's refusal to speak is a reaction to the horror of the real world, that if she avoids words she will no longer be implicated in the evil of modern life.

Duality and Transference

Bergman also explores the theme of identity to great effect in Persona. Although they share a few things in common, Elisabet and Alma are about as different as night and day (in that order). We assume that as a famous actress Elisabet has attained a certain level of sophistication and knowledge. Alma, on the other hand, just two years out of nursing school, is naïve and has a limited level of experience. But as the film progresses, the two protagonists begin to overlap and merge. It's not a matter of their personalities coming to resemble one another (although Alma does lose some of her naïveté), but more of a spiritual merging, expressed both in dialogue and visually. In one of the most famous scenes in the film, Alma has fallen asleep drunk on her bed. Behind her, a corridor and another room are swathed in light. Elisabet appears in the corridor, spectral and silent, moves across to the other room, and nearly disappears into its whiteness. Alma sits up, the two hug, and both face the screen, looking directly at the viewer. The lighting and composition serve to emphasize the physical resemblance of the two actresses, and as their faces overlap, it's almost as if they are merging and becoming one. Emphasis is added later in the film with a freeze frame that carefully combines the left half of Alma's face and the right half of Elizabet's into a whole—so indistinguishable are the two halves that each of the actresses, upon seeing Bergman's craftwork in the screening room, thought the picture was not a composite, but rather the face of the other actress.

But the ultimate fusion, that of two souls into one, is never achieved, despite Alma's claim early in the film that "I think I could change myself into you." Her frustration with Elisabet's silence grows, and she increasingly identifies with Elisabet, to the point of having a dream—or is it?—where Elisabet's husband mistakes her for Elisabet herself. Her revulsion towards Elizabet grows, and after she tells Elizabet, in a four-minute monologue, the story of Elizabet's horror at having a child, her rebellion is complete, she exclaims, "I'm not like you!" and "I'll never be like you!" and reaffirms her own independent existence.

Modernity and Melodrama

Bergman has always been a director of self-conscious films. Rather than presenting themselves as reliable representations of reality, his works call attention to their artificiality in various ways. In the 1960s, a time of turbulence not only socially and politically, but also in the arts, Bergman fully embraced this questioning of values, experimenting openly with modernist techniques such as distanciation. He was certainly not the first nor the last director to use filmic devices to render obvious the status of his films as constructed objects, but he used the techniques effectively, and never more so that in Persona.

Indeed, the first few moments of the film not only lay bare the whole process of film projection, but make us wonder whether we're going to see a narrative film at all. In the opening shot, two indistinct shapes against a black background begin to glow, becoming progressively whiter, until a spark jumps between them and glows—it's a carbon arc lamp of the type used in film projectors of the day. We see spinning reels, a strip of film winding its way through a projector, and the 'START' and upside down numbers typical of film leaders. Soon we're into the film itself—except what we see on the screen is a piece of film, complete with sprocket holes. Following are brief shots of a spider, a silent comedy, corpses, and a boy who tries in vain to cover himself with a too-small sheet.

With this opening, Bergman is in effect telling us two things: first, by showing us the very mechanism that's being used to project the film that we're seeing, he makes evident the fact that what we're seeing on the screen is in no way to be interpreted as reality. The image is not objective, but something created, whose content has been mediated and selected consciously. And the seemingly-unrelated selection of images that follows makes us, as an audience, realize that the content we're seeing is in a sense arbitrary, that the director could have chosen from an infinitude of stories and images.

The use of distanciation devices continues throughout the film. Bergman gives us shots that are out of focus, characters that talk directly to the camera, jarring narration, a four-minute monologue that's repeated from two different points of view, an actress who points her camera at the audience and snaps a couple of pictures, and, when Alma breaks with Elizabet, the film tears, jams, and burns before our very eyes.

One critic has complained that Persona doesn't really work because Bergman has merely tacked these modernist techniques on to a film that is essentially melodramatic in nature, and that as soon as they disappear from the screen, the audience is immediately encouraged to react to the emotions, and identify psychologically with the characters. Certainly, the emotions being expressed are strong and affecting, at times painful, but Bergman never allows us to experience them as reality, never gives us time to actively react or respond in any meaningful way. There's always a composition, a lighting scheme, discordant music on the soundtrack, or some other device to remind the viewer that the object before him is a film, and not real life.

But That's Not All

Persona is also a visually stunning film, both in terms of its mise-en-scène and its framing and camerawork. Shot after shot is strikingly lit, almost expressionistically, often with pools of light against near-black backgrounds; but almost as prevalent are other sequences that give us no more than subtle shades of gray. The camera is usually static, in some scenes remaining coolly distanced from the characters it's observing, but often emphasizing emotion and expression via close-ups, some of them extreme. When cinematographer Sven Nykvist's camera does move, the contrast is to great effect, adding visual richness and complexity.

And what beauty Nykvist has before his camera. In what's essentially a two-character film, both Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson contribute excellent performances. In her first performance for Bergman, Liv Ullmann wordlessly conveys anger, indifference, pleasure, and even erotic desire. But it's Andersson who shines, in a sustained (nearly one and a half hour) performance of depth and occasional great subtlety, as she captures the simplicity, then growing frustration, confusion and anger as she's first drawn closer, then wrests herself away from Elisabet.

It's not easy to state that a film is a great work of art. It leaves the reviewer open to charges of hyperbole, uncritical thinking, and even naïveté. But in Persona, all of the elements that contribute to the richness of cinematic art—narrative complexity and intrigue, thematic depth, expressive lighting and camerawork, use of distanciation devices exclusive to film, expressive editing, and outstanding performances—work seamlessly together to create a work of great depth, beauty and sophistication. So I'll say it: "Persona is a great work of art."

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Simply put, this is a great transfer. There are deep blacks and brilliant whites, accurately capturing Sven Nykvist's exquisite black-and-white cinematography. And in the scenes that are composed of varying shades of gray, the textures come through beautifully. There's good range in the darker parts of the image, lots of detail, and no compression artifacts, although there is grain in a few brief scenes. While there have been some complaints on the net that information is missing on the sides of the image, it is never obvious, and is no worse than on many other DVD transfers.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Swedish, Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The two-channel Dolby sound decodes to mono, and is limited in fidelity, but the voices and sound effects are clear, and there is no hiss. Music comes through quite well, and it's obvious that the only limitations in the audio are those present in the source materials.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. On-Camera Interviews with Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson
  2. Photo Gallery
  3. Printed insert with chapter listing
Extras Review: There are 19 production photos in the Photo Gallery, which are duplicated on the Supplemental Materials disc, in common with the other discs in this set. The source print for the English-language trailer has many flaws such as scratches and speckles, but is presented in a good transfer. In a 4m:29s interview with Liv Ullmann, she recounts how the experience of working with Bergman on Persona changed both their lives, while Bibi Andersson, in her 5m:27 second interview, talks about meeting Bergman and Ullmann, and confesses that she doesn’t know the meaning of the film.

The 26m:30s documentary A Poem in Images consists of, in common with the other discs in MGM's boxed set, interview snippets, remarks by Marc Gervais (who also provides the commentary track), and completely unrelated excerpts from a 1970 interview with Bergman himself. It’s one of the better documentaries in the set, with further details of how Ullmann became involved in the film, Bibi Andersson’s initial hesitation at playing yet another ingenue, and some analysis by the actresses and Gervais of several of the scenes and shots in the film.

Bergman biographer Gervais places Persona in its context of the turbulent 1960s and the artistic trends of that time, and provides some analysis and hesitant interpretations of Bergman’s use of modernistic film techniques. It’s an interesting, informative track, but one better suited to an audience new to Bergman, rather than those who are already admirers of Persona.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

Ingmar Bergman's Persona is arguably his best work, and is one of the key films of the 1960s. It's intriguing, challenging, and finally, a dazzling cinematic achievement. With a great transfer and interesting supplements, this DVD belongs in every film buff's collection.

 


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