Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. – Review

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. – Review – book review

Hubert Cohen

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona Edited by Lloyd Michaels. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. $49.95 cloth; $16.95 paper.

For almost a decade now Ingmar Bergman seems to have been “somewhat out of favor among many young scholars.” The six essays found in Lloyd Michaels’ anthology, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, may signal a change. Michaels offers them as “new critical approaches” to what is certainly one of the greatest and “most complex films ever made.” (He also reprints Susan Sontag’s influential 1967 essay, “Bergman’s Persona,” long available in her book Styles of Radical Will.) In his introduction, “Bergman and the Necessary Illusion,” Michaels speculates on the reasons behind this recent, diminished interest in Bergman’s films, provides a very brief biography of the filmmaker, and offers a discussion of Persona’s genesis as well as of approaches to interpreting this difficult film. At the end of the volume he usefully gives an up-to-date filmography and reprints of contemporary reviews of the film.

In the first essay, “Bergman’s Persona Through a Native Mindscape,” Birgitta Steene argues that ultimately Bergman’s “aesthetic vision” owes more to his “indigenous Swedish mindscape” than to international artistic influences. His desire to push beyond the conventions of naturalistic dramaturgy (established by American realistic cinema) parallels similar struggles by earlier Swedish filmmakers Victor Sjostrom and Alf Sjoberg and, most importantly, by Bergman’s favorite writer, August Strindberg. Addressing the two plays of Strindberg’s, The Stronger and A Dreamplay, that are recognized as influencing Persona, Steene focuses on Strindberg’s shifting from “logically conceived dramaturgy” in the former to a “more subjective, associative and fluid dramaturgy” in the latter. Near the end of her essay, after she reminds us that Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander ends with the grandmother of Bergman’s youthful alter ego reading to him the preface to A Dreamplay, the parallel she is making with Strindberg seems forced.

In the preface Strindberg sets forth his purpose to create a drama in which a realistic mise-en-scene and a dreamlike state of mind coexist. He talks of creating “an all-encompassing dreamer consciousness that hovers over the dramatic action.” In the play it is Indra’s father, “whose voice is heard in the prologue, but who never appears in the dramatic story.” Steene uses this conception to explore the question of whose “fantasy” we are watching in Persona. She settles on the “enigmatic” boy, who only appears in the film’s opening and closing sequences, arguing that like Indra’s father, he becomes the Bergmanian illusionist “who transforms dead material into live images, which in turn initiate the master narrative.” This function is symbolized, Steene says, in the boy’s hands, which move wand-like “across the screen door” on which appear alternating images of Alma/Bibi Andersson and Elizabet/Liv Ullmann and which soon becomes a hospital door, the entry into the narrative. The image of a little child’s hands moving wand-like before an unseen object does appear in a single earlier shot in the film’s opening montage, but the gesture that Steene describes does not support her characterization. The boy’s arm is extended in front of him with his hand’s open palm, fingers extended, reaching out to touch or press against the image of the women’s alternating faces. Nor does this interpretation satisfactorily account for the film’s ending, which shows the apparently still unsatisfied boy still reaching for the elusive women.

In contrast to Steene’s citing of Bergman’s Swedish artistic roots, Wheeler Winston Dixon’s “Persona and the 1960s Art Cinema” points to the influence on Persona of New and post-New Wave filmmakers, in particular Jean-Luc Godard’s work of the early to middle 1960s. They inspired Bergman to “reinvent himself.” He appeared, says Dixon, “anew on the cinematic landscape with an entirely new visual style, a more sophisticated and minimalist sense of decor, and a modernist intensity of purpose.” These directors, he adds, also provided Bergman with the impetus to move from the studio to out-of-doors. In addition to embracing the “cinematic minimalism” of the likes of Straub, Fassbinder, and Warhol, Bergman’s style changed because he began to shoot his films in “the isolation of [the] uninhabited space” of Faro (his austere, island home),which provided “a minimalist sense of spatial integrity.” All this is well said. Less supportable is Dixon’s discussion of Persona’s theme, which he says is “domesticity gone awry,” and which draws on Bergman’s “long relationship” with Liv Ullmann. The problem is that Bergman had only recently met the young actress.

Christopher Orr also sees Persona as a product of the 1960s film culture, but he examines it from the perspective of genre. Asserting that “most of Bergman’s films” are melodramas, a form that he believes addresses social issues, he reads Persona politically, arguing that because Elizabet is a member of Sweden’s cultural elite, Alma’s reactions to her, besides “raising the issue of the fragile nature of personal identity, can also be understood as class envy and exploitation.” Key to his interpretation is Elizabet’s celebrity status and Alma’s early statement that if she wanted, she could change into the actress. This interpretation may not persuade all readers, but it does produce a dividend by helping to explain the meaning of the enigmatic word “nothing” (ingenting), which, near the end of the film, Alma gets the silent Elizabet to utter. For Orr, this word (also repeatedly used in The Seventh Seal) “connotes the existential angst members of the cultural elite feel in confronting a universe they perceive as meaningless and absurd. Alma’s knowledge of this class has reached a point where she is able to appropriate its language.”

Orr is also intent on qualifying Robin Wood’s and Susan Sontag’s assertions that the self-reflexivity of Persona is not Godardian or Brechtian. He cites examples of distanciation in which either a breaking of the narrative or the set design provokes the audience into reflecting on larger contexts. Here not all of his evidence is convincing. His selection of the passage when the projector breaks down in the middle of the film–the film seems to jump off the sprockets, rip, and burn–does not represent, at least my experience, how audiences react. At that moment, people are so involved in figuring out if the film really has been damaged (I have seen individuals turn and look up toward the projection booth) that only the question of what is happening occupies their thoughts. However, the scene in which Alma’s monologue about Elizabet’s pregnancy and subsequent aversion to her son is repeated does cause us to experience “a genuine Brechtian moment” in which we become aware of “the text as a constructed object.” Orr’s examples of distanciation created by set design–the figurehead of a woman which compositionally dwarfs Alma as she leaves the summer house for the last time, the lack of continuity in what is shown behind Elizabet when she slaps Alma, and the “nothing” scene mentioned above–likewise induce reflection. In the last example, however, Orr taints his point by not recognizing that what is happening is still part of Alma’s dream, which organizes the second half of the film.

In “Persona and the Seduction of Performance,” Steve Vineberg recounts the events in Smiles of a Summer Night to establish how, before Persona, Bergman used “theatrical devices and performance styles” to convey theme and to develop character. He then argues that the “self-consciousness about creating film” seen in Persona’s opening and closing scenes, “is sustained throughout … through the related theme of performance,” through Elizabet Vogler’s naturalistic miming and Alma’s monologues. Bergman’s method of working in Persona is so stripped down that it compels us, Vineberg contends, to heed the acting, which, puzzlingly, he judges reaches heights “none of [Bergman’s] earlier films hint at except, indirectly, Smiles of a Summer Night.” Vineberg’s approach is that the film is, “on one level, an extended series of acting exercises” (e.g., “the mirror exercise”). The “acting process … is inseparable from the interaction of the two characters; the movie is … centrally about the seduction and power of acting.” Though the actors’ performances can be seen as “naked” exercises, seeing them that way does not sufficiently alter our, or at least this reviewer’s, understanding of the acting dynamics or much enrich the scenes Vineberg analyzes. Trust in his approach is further weakened by his misrepresentation of some of the scenes he treats. In the film’s opening sequence, for example, he describes the young boy’s reaching out to Liv Ullmann’s face, when actually, as I indicated earlier, her face repeatedly alternates with Bibi Andersson’s; and in the scene in which Mr. Vogler appears in Alma’s dream, it is clearly Alma who is (or is trying to be) in control, not Elizabet. Alma keeps turning from Mr. Vogler to see what the effect is on Elizabet of what she is saying to the latter’s husband.

It is a somewhat different definition of performance that Gwendolyn Foster explores in “Feminist Theory and Lesbian Desire in Persona,” which applies performance theory and lesbian feminist theory to the story. Her aim is to shift “the ground under heterosexually defined notions of the symbolic order of `the’ phallus, as well as `the’ Oedipus and Electra complex.” Persona, she finds, “is centrally concerned with the performance of lesbian desire.” Admitting she is “highly aware” that her readings are “a projection and coproduction of meaning,” Foster proposes that sexuality between Alma and Elizabet, though “never directly consummated, … is informed by a radical refashioning … through a queer gaze.” This analysis especially marks her treatment of the beach scene narrated by Alma. In it Alma and a stranger named Katarina, both sunbathing naked, have sex with two young boys. Foster argues that the two women indirectly are having sex with each other through the “conduit” of the boys. But Foster’s following point undermines this assertion. She argues that Alma’s telling Elizabet this story becomes “a copy of the scene on the beach, culminating in an orgasm in Elizabet, who immediately lights up a cigarette in a postcoital performance of sexual satiation.” There is no evidence in the scene, however, to support these assertions, not even the dividend cigarette, since Elizabet smokes on and off throughout the scene.

While the five essays reviewed here will help viewers of the film to “a more comprehensive understanding of Bergman’s achievement,” they also remind one of Pauline Kael’s observation, which appears in one of the four contemporary reviews of Persona that Michaels reprints: “It may be that an open puzzle movie like this one … permits [some people] to project into it so much of themselves that what they think the movie is about has very little to do with what happens on the screen.”

Hubert Cohen is a professor in the Film and Video Program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is the author of Ingmar Bergman: The Art of Confession (1993).

COPYRIGHT 2000 University of California Press

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group