Monday, December 26, 2022


The Bergman Centerpiece

Prologue: A summation of many of Bergman's films to date, and his finest film made up to this point, 1966. The quasi-diegetic opening plunges us excessively into pure Bergman psychology. The films and the stage are the interior life. The opening shot is one of a projector lamp igniting, not before a white rectangle on the film frame itself — the blank movie screen tabula rasa, revealed momentarily to be the component within the projector/film-mechanism itself. The flare of the lamp already resembles the erect penis that we'll see in a quick flash cut seconds later. The reel falls off the spool and the cartoon, a plump woman washing her flesh off with water, is surrounded by the images of the cock, by hands, by a tarantula against a luminous white surface, like an x-ray of the "God Is Silent" trilogy in which the deity is pronounced "a spider." A young boy stands in for the eternal Bergman himself, recalling the child of The Silence, but near-sighted (as spectacles invariably signify), ablur in his Touch of the screen that presents the out-of-focus Alma (Bibi Andersson) and Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann, in her first immortal Bergman performance). The boy reads Lermontov in Swedish. The Buddhist monk self-conflagrates in a protest of Vietnam (remember the tanks in The Silence).

Rooms, as portrayed in Persona, resemble minimal playsets, stripped-down constructions that at once conjure a dream-world and a nigh-unbearable Inevitability, the antisepsis of the hospital (cf. On the Brink of Life), and the premonition that all is not mere narrative diegesis. The radio (thanks to Shazam on this one) plays the second movement of Bach's "Concerto for Violin, Strings, and Continuo No. 2 in E Major." Sister Alma, with one ring, per the Swedish tradition, is engaged to Karl-Henrik (Gunnar Björnstrand)... Isn't what's happening a strange distraction from, or articulation of, her love-life? That's but one aspect of this movie that changed my life in a myriad of ways.

Flashback: The year is 1996 and I'm in school enrolled in my first film studies class. The teacher was the now late Don Fredericksen. Persona was not my first Bergman — it was my second, and this in Don's course — prior to, I had strolled to the media library to watch the Criterion laserdisc of The Seventh Seal. An unforgettable experience. But then you jump ahead a bunch of years and Persona confronts you, like Death spreading open with right-hand his cloak to envelop the screen. Don, rest his soul, was an associate professor and, on the side, a practicing Ithaca-based Jungian psychotherapist. He announced even in 1996 that he was working on a book on Persona and Jung; I can grok it. "The Jungian thing, sir!" — cf. Stanley Kubrick's 1987 Full Metal Jacket. (I didn't think Don ever finished the book, and yet an Amazon search just revealed... Bergman's Persona by Don Fredericksen, 2005... I'll have to add it to my cart...)

Tearing down the screen: in the sense of: merging two halves down the middle. Split the difference.

About 25 minutes in, the pair travel for some R&R, so to speak, to a summer house on the isle of Fårö (the "Bergman Island" where the master would spend his end days, and before that used it as his getaway from Stockholm) — Bergman interjects in voice-over to narrate the arrival. The excursion is sexualized. Not only does Alma relate to the silent Elisabet the story of fucking the boys on the beach, but the two themselves come into a relationship that grows increasingly uneven due to such confessions, and to Elisabet's continued silence. (She stopped speaking following a stage performance months back, in what we're invited to apprehend as that old saw "a breakdown.") The pair share a topsy-turvy rapport...

To this point: a key line of dialogue in Persona: Alma's question in bed with Elisabet: "Is it possible to be one and the same person at the very same time — I mean, two people?!" — It becomes increasingly clear that there are no 'literal' 'two women.' There is, instead, a split, a rupture, within one woman, whom Alma is most likely the guiding base-identity than not. Nurture and nature of the Ego. A mystery.

Elisabet wakes Alma up from the table with a whisper — her subconscious can speak to her when it isn't entirely mute. (cf. Through a Glass Darkly and the emotional mutism of the father.) The nighttime encounter with the wipe of the forelock remains one of Bergman's strongest and most iconic images: the tactile, the doubling of the faces, the gaze into nothingness, "as in a mirror," the gaze into the camera lens itself. When we experience Elisabet brandish the still camera and aim and snap into the frame, it is we who Vogler photographs, as though seeking a reaction of some, of any, kind.

Done up in black vinyl, Alma in her car resembles Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Hitchcock's Psycho — will she or won't she open the letter on the passenger seat given to her by Elisabet to send? — she does. "It's a lot of fun studying her." So she's been a subject for a role Elisabet would like to sink her teeth into (literally, as we see later with the neck and the wrist). This would be a betrayal were it not simple self-labyrinthization. Vampirism. Note the scene where Alma accidentally shatters the glass on the back patio — Elisabet walks on top of the shard that Alma deliberately left out and slashes her foot; her gaze is returned by Alma at which point this film — this film they're playing, and in a playful pastiche of film-mechanics, the film Persona — breaks down: frames rip themselves in two, the projector (let alone the projectionist) doesn't know what to do. The silent film of the skeleton and the devil returns (this from an earlier Bergman film with a silent pastiche sequence, Prison I believe, which we haven't yet covered here), the palm is again pounded with the nail, an extreme close-up zoom on the vessels in an eyeball. Seeing is to believe.

There's much more to discuss: the link between the boy in the prologue (and epilogue), the son whose photo Elisabet tears in two, and the famous photo of the Polish Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto. Elisabet breaking her silence — "No, don't!" — when Alma threatens to throw a pot of boiling water in her face. 

Language has already broken down for Alma/Elisabet — there, let's come clean. Alma claws her arm, and Elisabet sucks the resulting blood. Self-parasitic.

The internal psychology moves to the external that is also internal — the film crew appears, and the director's chair marked "Ingmar Bergman" becomes fleetingly visible in the reflective surface. Alma gets on the bus alone, and the film is finished.


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