Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is now available in a sharp and stunning Blu-ray from Criterion. This 1966 production has attained a special place in critics’ hearts over the years, and stands proudly at #17 on Sight & Sound’s prestigious greatest films list; the highest ranking earned by any Bergman product. Persona contains many of the distinct elements – and a number of the iconic images – that have come to define the late Swedish master’s oeuvre, and at the time the film was considered an artistic breakthrough, tilling new grounds of style and substance.
In fact, Persona deals with universal themes that had deeply fascinated Bergman ever since his transition from interpreter to auteur in the early 1950s. The silence of God, and man’s floundering follies in response, is a major conceptual catalyst, surging through Persona’s bleak gray skies like a web of jangled nerves. What makes the film unique is its avant garde trappings – particularly the famous psychotropic opening sequence – which at times makes Persona seem much more Godard than Bergman. Indeed, during the filming of Persona the French New Wave was the height of its influence; an influence to which even moody Swedish minimalists were apparently not immune.
After this arresting montage, complete with flash frames of a penis standing at full attention, snippets from slapstick silent comedies and powerfully dissonant musical stings by composer Lars Johan Werle, Persona retreats to Bergman’s more familiar stark narrative sphere. Its story springs from the simplest of roots; a famous actress (Liv Ullman) has suddenly lost the ability, or will, to speak and has been hospitalized for treatment, There she is cared for by a garrulous petit-bourgeoise nurse (Bibi Andersson) who’s engaged to be married and looks forward to starting a family. Doctors dispatch Ullman and Andersson to a summer house on an isolated island, hoping fresh air and a change of scene will coax Ullman’s distracted mind back to reality.
However nature – including human beings – abhors a vacuum, and Ullman’s continued silence begins to distort Andersson’s perceptions. She seeks to fill the emptiness with constant yammering, and becomes obsessed with every aspect Ullman’s existence. In response Ullman withdraws even more, repulsed by the shocking cruelty of man displayed every night on TV news programs. Eventually, Ullman becomes Andersson’s God, who pleads for understanding while Ullman, bitterly disappointed with humanity’s capacity for evil, turns her back on her children, literally and figuratively.
Bergman’s storytelling here is a clever and crafty melding of the straightforward and the symbolic, The rocky beaches and stone outcroppings of Faro Island – where Bergman would eventually build his famous compound – create a meditative yet alien atmosphere and a sort of Valhalla for the lost. The director disrupts the disturbing reverie periodically with horrendous images of war and strange optical effects, never allowing his audience – or his actresses – to fully adjust and become comfortable. As Ullmann and Andersson reach full codependence, their personal dynamics achieve an odd, twisted type of balance, with each woman remade in the other’s image. It’s a sequence that is often used to visually define Bergman’s lifelong thesis of humanity’s ultimate but unattainable dream: for separate beings to coexist as one.
The new 2K transfer brings out the subtle textures of Sven Nykvist’s images and gets very high marks. The stark pebbles of Faro Island’s beaches contrast beautifully with the glassy stillness of its waters. The film’s abstract sequences pop with a serigraphic feel, yet grain is nicely subdued. The mono track has been carefully remastered and is virtually noisefree, allowing Lars Johan Werle’s musical interludes a free reign to run.
New visual essay on the film’s prologue by Ingmar Bergman scholar Peter Cowie
Here Cowie applies his encyclopedic knowledge of all things Bergman to the film’s abstract seven minute opening sequence. Cowie relates the barrage of disconnected imagery found in the montage to various aspects Bergman’s life, and draws direct parallels to the director’s personal demons. As usual Cowie’s 20 minute presentation is well organized and thorough. Indeed, it makes one long to hear a commentary track of the entire film from this august scholar.
New interviews with actor Liv Ullmann and filmmaker Paul Schrader
Ullman’s interview runs 16 minutes, and while it is always a pleasure to hear the thoughts of this unique talent, most of the ground she covers here is repeated in the excellent Liv and Ingmar documentary that is also included in the supplements. Viewers who plan on watching the documentary are advised to skip this sequence.
On the other hand, Schrader’s insights are well worth the immersion, as he traces links from Bergman to Godard and Rohmer, and vice-versa. Schrader credits Bergman’s inventiveness in applying the revolutionary film language of the New Wave to the quiet, introspective nature of Persona. Schrader also discusses the film’s editing in detail, citing examples of Bergman’s ability to force viewers “to edit the film in their heads.” 11 minutes.
Excerpted archival interviews with Bergman, Ullmann, and actor Bibi Andersson
This interview, filmed shortly after Persona’s release, features the director seated between Ullman and Andersson. Bergman consumes the bulk of the segment’s 20 minute run time, and expounds on a number of topics. He amusingly admits that he no longer cares about audiences and often prefers watching a Western to his own films. He describes how art should be experienced rather than understood, citing a famous quote from Stravinsky to support his premise. When the interviewer compares Persona to Godard, Bergman becomes a bit prickly stating “Impossible, I hate Godard.” Ullman seems much like a star-struck young girl and has nothing but good things to say about her experience on Persona, while Andersson discusses her ideas about the two characters being an extension of one person. The segment provides an interesting glimpse into the past and is a must see for aficionados of film history.
On-set footage, with audio commentary by Bergman historian Birgitta Steene
This compilation of 16mm home movies takes us behind the veil for a peek at the daily inner workings of Persona’s cast and crew. There are scenes of the actresses rehearsing with Bergman, and the crew’s struggles with setting a long section of dolly track over rugged terrain. Also included is a lengthy segment of Bergman preparing for an interview with reporter Edwin Newman of NBC News. For what was ultimately a bleak and dour film, this 18 minute sequence reveals that the production of Persona featured a surprising amount of light hearted clowning around.
Liv & Ingmar, a 2012 feature documentary directed by Dheeraj Akolkar
The bright star of the supplements, this 90 minute documentary had a brief American theatrical run in 2013. At age 74, Ullman poignantly reflects on the huge role Ingmar Bergman played in her life, both as a director and a lover. She describes in detail the various films they worked on together, as well as the turbulence of their personal lives. Cutaways to film clips and photographs enliven the presentation, along with scenes of the barren beauty of Faro Island. As one of the last people to see the director prior to his death, Ullman’s recollections of Bergman’s lonely last days will leave viewers a little misty-eyed. Beautifully photographed and produced with great care, Liv and Ingmar is an indispensable document, and alone is worth the price of the disc.
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Thomas Elsaesser, an excerpt from the 1970 book Bergman on Bergman, and an excerpted 1977 interview with Andersson
The booklet is illustrated with a nice selection of film stills and offers lots of interesting information within its hefty 56 pages. Also included are cast and crew credits along with notes on the transfer and audio restoration. As with several recent Criterion releases, a two disc standard definition DVD version of the film is also included, and features all of the bonus material found on the Blu-ray. The materials are enclosed in a sturdy, well designed library case.
Persona seeks to challenge audiences in ways that have remained unique and intriguing for nearly 50 years. Throughout that span, it has evolved into an abiding influence, shaping films by such directors as David Lynch, Robert Altman and Woody Allen. Whether it truly ranks as Bergman’s masterpiece is certainly subject to debate, but in terms of evoking reverence from a generation of filmmakers, the importance of Persona cannot be denied. The film offers no shortage of interpretations or extrapolations and it continues to stand as a fascinating cinematic cypher.