I have long championed (and been more comfortable with) Ingmar Bergman’s more directly narrative/linear films (Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring) over what I view as his more pretentious and solipsistic works. In some ways, however, Persona is uniquely able to bridge the gap between Bergman’s world and ours by virtue of its dazzling expertise. As Andrew Sarris said, the film “seems to bewitch audiences even when it bewilders them. The perennial puzzle of What It All Means is quite properly subordinated to the beauty and intensity with which faces, beings, personae confront each other on the screen.”
On one level, Persona seems to be a confessional by Bergman on his ruthlessness, and that of other artists, in finding material for their work in the real suffering of people. Thus, actress Liv Ullmann uses the revelation by nurse Bibi Andersson (in her film-long monologue) of indiscreet behavior. Andersson graduated from the same theater school in Stockholm as Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, and her many appearances in Ingmar’s films, beginning with Smiles of a Summer Night, made her a star. By 1966, Ingmar doubtless knew all her secrets.
The Norwegian (by way of Japan, Canada, and New York) Ullmann went on from Persona to make many more films with Bergman, with whom she lived for five years and had a daughter. A documentary, Liv and Ingmar: Painfully Connected, was released in New York last month. The film was narrated by Ullmann, and film clips in the documentary are, in the words of reviewer Stephen Holden, “skillfully used to illustrate the shadowy line between art and autobiography….” (After their breakup, Ullmann had a reasonably successful career in films—including major work with Bergman—and on the stage. I was privileged to be taken to see Ullmann in Anna Christie on Broadway by the star of the 1923 silent film version, Blanche Sweet, whose performance had been highly praised by Eugene O’Neill.) In her autobiography Changing, Ullmann describes the living arrangement on Bergman’s island, Faro, where Persona was shot, and they strongly resemble those in the film. In his own book, Images, Bergman wrote that, in Persona, he “touched wordless secrets that only cinema can discover.”
There are some suggestions of a homosexual attraction between the Andersson and Ullmann characters, especially in the scene where the two women are peeling mushrooms. Daniel Humphrey, in his new book Queer Bergman, points out that the director in his journal had referred to himself as a “lesbian man,” and that there is a degree of sexual ambiguity in many of his films. Of course, he was married five times (not counting Ullmann) and fathered eight children. As with the multitude of interpretations of Persona, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Directors as widely varied as Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, and David Lynch have all paid homage to the film in their own work. Susan Sontag considered Persona the greatest film ever made.
Aside from the typically immaculate performances of the two stars, Sven Nykvist’s documentary-style cinematography on Faro evokes (for me) Michelangelo Antonioni’s island in L’Avventura, with its foreboding sense of isolation and menace. In many ways, Bergman is questioning the medium itself, to which he devoted his life (in spite of forays into opera and theater). How much truth or reality can the camera show? How much can an artist reveal? And the question always with Bergman: how much “universal pain,” as Robin Wood puts it, can the audience stand and understand?