‘Persona’ screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, January 12th at 3:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. and Monday the 13th at 6:00 p.m.
I miss films like Persona (Sweden, 1966). It was quite novel when it came out, though it wore its non-cinematic influences on its sleeve. Later, when almost hundreds of lesser films emulated its stark visuals (Sven Nyqvist deserves as much credit here as the film’s director, Ingmar Bergman, of course), we accused the film of dating quickly, and launching a thousand ships of clinical earnestness and facile symbolism. Bergman’s actors were always more tasteful and reserved than the psychological hoops he himself insisted that they incessantly jump through. Many of my problems with Woody Allen’s later work (later, hell… by now it’s the vast majority of his filmed works) stem from his obvious admiration of, to me, the least appealing aspects of Bergman’s oeuvre; the confessional emotionalism, and the lack of subtext. Mike Nichols always talks about how difficult, but revelatory, it is for actors to make the transition from objective psychology to subjective behavior; Nichols has a wildly chequered success rate between his good films and his bad, but actors love working with him because he pays respect to that very idea. Bergman (and Allen) rarely bothers with those subtleties; if you aren’t sure what the characters are really feeling from scene to scene, you don’t have to wait too long to have it explicitly explained to you by either the words of the characters themselves or the heavy-handed visual narrative.
And yet, when the film came out, 48 years ago (!), very few filmmakers were working in such a modern style; Antonioni, Godard, Chris Marker, the members of the Art Theater Guild in Japan, a handful of Czech animators, the East Coast-ers like Jonas Mekas and Hollis Frampton – I assume there were others… The performances he elicits from Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson are genuinely astonishing, and his (by now, easily parodied) visual choices really were singularly expressive at the time; it’s hard not to gasp when Ullman’s Elizabeth is suddenly seen gliding towards Alma’s bedroom from a long hallway, almost mystically, like a Paul Delvaux painting. The excesses of the film’s latter half seem cloying now, but at least Bergman, Nyqvist and his actors went there in the first place, confident and undaunted. Now that Western culture has been eating its own tail over the last fifty or sixty years, Persona is an easy film to feel derisively nostalgic about, like a Nehru jacket or a Rod McKuen song. But do yourself a favor and go see it again, in a big dark room on a big screen. Even if you hate it, or decide you still hate it, I think it will still remind you of a higher level of craft and aspiration than is typically in evidence today.