Elisabeth Vogler, a successful actress, arrives at a hospital and has completely lost her ability to speak. Alma, a nurse, is set to beher caretaker. They're eventually sent off to a secluded house on a beach because Elisabeth's condition seems to be psychological so there's nothing they can help her with at the hospital, but with therapy and social isolation. Eventually Alma, usually a quiet woman, begins to open up more and more to the mute actress, and slowly melts the two personalities together into one.
When we set out to review Swedish movies in this Swede-a-thon, I knew it was about time I watched and reviewed something by Ingmar Bergman. I've always been interested by this man but I've always pushed back his work. It's been regarded as pretentious and boring by plenty of people, so much that my curiosity wasn't strong enough to get me to watch his films. Even though they are also regarded and high class art. There's nothing worse than really boring arthouse films. I know there are plenty of fantastic films that are considered boring by many, but slow and lots of talking doesn't always equal boring. Far from it. There are movies that are nothing but slow that are amazing, so boring is not the same as slow to me. The first film I decided to watch (since I have gathered a few titles in my collection, just hadn't seen them) was "Persona". I knew nothing about it, but I knew that if I was gonna do his film justice in my review I would have to watch a handful of them. So I figured I might as well start with a film I hadn't heard much of. "The Seventh Seal" and "The Virgin Spring" are certainly films any film fan have came across, so they were part of my "Ingmar-a-thon" as well (if anyone cares, the rest were "Hour of the Wolf, "Through A Glass Darkly" and "Prison"). To my surprise though, after 6 of his movies, "Persona" is by far the best one.
The movie is very minimalistic, as it basicly sets two characters in a small house on the beach. We have Elisabeth Vogler, "The Actress", who has gone mute and is seemingly under a depression. And Alma, "The Nurse", a huge fan of Elisabeth who is set to be her caretaker in this secluded house where she is not allowed to meet anyone else than her nurse. The movie is really brooding, in an almost creepy way, as we study the two. Alma talks more than ever and shares intimate details about her life, while Elisabeth sits quiet and just soaking it all in. Alma becomes paranoid that Elisabeth isn't sick at all, and when she one day reads a letter Elisabeth has written, it throws her off the edge. She's torn somewhere between her paranoia and her new found relationship, and slowly their personalities almost become as one.
This movie is a prime example of a slow movie with lots and lots of talking that really doesn't bore you in any way. It's extremely well written, and there's even an explicit sex scene in the movie - in words! What I mean by that is that if I were to tell you about the story that Alma tells Elisabeth, you'd think I had watched a porno. But no, nothing like that happens in the movie, it's just done in words. That alone doesn't make it a well written movie, but it's an example of how flawlessly it works with talking being the focus. The characters are really planned out and the story itself is something that today is attempted in most thrillers (with all these damn twists), but this one does it perfectly without making it a surprise twist.
The movie wouldn't be what it is without our two leads Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann (both seen in plenty of Bergman movies, always doing a great job). I think Bibi especially, as The Nurse, was perfect. I admire Liv's silent character as much as the next guy, but Bibi carries this movie.
"Persona" is also, to me, the most stylisticly impressive film of the bunch that I watched by him. Sure, sure, you can find some amazing shots in all of his films, but there is something so modern about "Persona" and being such a simple movie it's impressive how aware it was of the cinematography. Much of his work feel outdated in style by now, but this one stands high with todays arthouse films (clearly I can't compare it to Hollywood films as they are of completely different gender) and could just as well have been made recently, even though you might notice the age on words and clothing at times. Sven Nykvist is a treasure that Ingmar Bergman was wise enough to keep for many films, and this film alone shows what he was capable of.
Being Ingmar Bergman, the movie obviously has some kind of message or well.. meaning behind it. Unlike many of his films, this one isn't about death or religion. The movie is actually pretty clear about the intentions, and that is being a psychological study: to study the merging of two personalities and how that can happen. But the movie is also quite existential, as it starts with some experimental bits where a film reel begins playing. And at one part of the movie the film reel breaks, and the break is a very distinct moment in the film because it marks the point where the personalities begin to collide. At least this is what I can gather from it - I don't want to dissect a Bergman film too much since I'm sure there are people who have spent their lives finding things in them. I have heard discussions about it being a take on acting and what an actor can do for a part, and while I can't deny the theory, it's just not what I found in this film - even if the fact that she is an actor plays a major part of the film.
This movie makes me a proud Swede, but it also makes me wonder where the heritage went. For some reason Sweden got one of the most interesting arthouse directors, but outside of this man and a few selected movies, what the hell happened? You'd think having a man like Ingmar Bergman (no matter what you think of his work) would help us a little to make interesting films, but instead we are left in the stone age of filmmaking. I can't for the life of me understand how Bergman has left such small impression of the filmmakers in his own country. Maybe I'm just blind who can't see it.
There is no wonder to me that this is regarded as one of his most influential films, but I'm surprised I haven't heard people talk about it as much as they have talked about "The Seventh Seal". While that one clearly has put its stamp on film history, "Persona" is a much stronger film even though it deals with lesser themes. "Persona" is not a film to miss if you are a film buff. Even if you don't really care for Ingmar Bergman. It's quite extraordinary in so many ways. The minimalistic and experimental approach that it has makes this story of two women very interesting to watch.It is a drama in every sense so I'm sure that would scare of some of our readers, and on top of that it's slow and mostly consists of talking. But make no mistake, this is a great, fascinating and at times a quite creepy film.
P.S. I want to make a note about the gore and nudity ratings below. I believe there are releases that don't have these parts, but in the beginning of the movie there's a brief sequence of a lamb getting slaugthered. And there's also a quick glimpse of a cock (à la "Fight Club"). I don't know the history of the movie enough to tell you if these are on all releases, but I watched the Tartan release and that's why I have given ratings to those two things the way I have.