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Persona (1966) directed by Ingmar Bergman
I hope you are well. My first letter to you is me making a case for Persona - the film by Ingmar Bergman, assuming that you possess the same scepticism about the experimental film. Perhaps a lot of these were a mark of their own times. Perhaps what was once rather vulgar is now rather quaint.
Persona, while outwardly a highly atypical film (hence near the experimental), is, I submit, an a-pretentious film. It is honest about its questions and honest about being a dream. That in itself cannot make the case - that a movie that is experimental can also be honest is not a case in itself, it is however, I hope, a good hook.
This being the first letter that I send to you, let me draw you a map of the profile of my tastes. I will attempt to be as grand as I can be. And for that, some whiskey shall aid me to that end as I write this to you. I do believe the movie was created to elicit wonder; the thrill of having captured the passage of time and all that that greatest tide pulls in - The journeys of boys into men, men into heroes, of lovers and sworn enemies. Generation or pieces of lives are captured - lived by you or yet to be lived or shall forever be unlived. As such, when I experience that I am in communion in that archaic and viscerally arresting ritual of storytelling, I know to have seen a good movie.
As nature dictates, there were, are and shall be good and bad storytellers. The good ones, adored and the bad ones, resigned to a box of indifference or if lucky, infamy. Vox populi, vox dei. I might even offer an alternative it for our times - vox populi, vox naturae.
Having had the unenviable, but I suspect common, experience of having one’s life led astray due to a habit of being misunderstood, in my life, I have come to love those that are misunderstood. These ghosts, I have come to treasure. I want to speak for ghosts that do not know me. I know somewhat of what they say and that is enough.
As such, I have a ghost that I want to try and free. I will write as my heart, mind and tastes do.
Faulkner once said “The stories you tell, you never write”
Ingmar Bergman while being interviewed for Persona
An actress, Elisabet, suddenly decides to stop talking in the middle of a theatre performance of Electra, a Greek play by Sophocles, which I surmise to be a tragic play ending with a matricidal revenge (I have not read it). She is checked in to a hospital where she is assigned a nurse, Alma, to care for her. The nurse is briefed that the patient is "healthy, both mentally and physically”. Days pass and the actress remains silent despite the nurse’s earnest attempts to strike a conversation. Grown impatient by this stall, the doctor confronts the actress with what she knows to be the cause of her silence
The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming, but being
The doctor’s diagnosis of the actress’ silence is that. The doctor knows that suicide is too garish and too wrong an answer to the heaviness of being and its perceived pointlessness. The unbearable heaviness of being - career actress, wife and mother to a young boy have become too heavy and useless for their own sakes. To this person, is assigned Alma, the nurse. Alma, who, like everyone else, carries her own intact being.
“You can do anything you want. I’ll have to marry Karl-Henrik”
Alma muses upon the supposed freedoms of such artists as Elisabet. Beautiful adored people with such life, she must think of them.
Let me connect more with the actress. All of us have experienced the apparent meaninglessness of our time and lives here at that very unexpected moment in a day. I certainly seem to pull in that dreadful family of perspectives all to easily. Elisabet does not speak. Throughout the movie, she has no discernible motive or drive. What ultimately betrays her processes is something I suspect that nature puts forth on her face - a smug smirk, a threatened contraction, suspect warmth and cold smiles. When the weight of being comes off - so does the Persona. The concept, and I am sure a very real aspect, was put forth chiefly by Carl Gustav Jung. A person is given a persona. A persona is constructed by the person. It is both at the same time. Where there is an invisible social contract that mandates that the existence of such a persona, can a man and in this case - women occupy that gap. I suspect more than most would like to believe that their persona is something that aptly describes their own selves. Mr. Bergman makes a compelling case that once the mask is wrenched off, your-self is larger than you and torturously paradoxical. To take it further, the film asks me to consider the possibility that one’s persona could so easily crumble when faced rationally and soberly with one’s own history of deeds. I think we do the opposite, we carry our personas as a studded shield - something that is entirely one’s own, and something that we suppose to serve as good map to the territory that is the human underneath ( whose understanding is also challenged - that one knows oneself is an ordinary behaviour to practice in everyday life with no basis in truth. It is at most times, unverified)
The movie is but a dream. The value of such a dream lies largely within our ability to understand what this gift of the dance of image and unconscious is.
My dear friend, the weight of my own demands breaks me sometimes. The way my mask tends to stick to my face, the dammed-up instincts - I feel this weight and I remember to loosen my shoulders then - I remember to loosen up my face and unfurrow my brows. I did not have the steadfast resolution that the actress had in her mind. I am glad for it. The persona and its promise was not the promise the actress wanted to fulfil. I am frequently caught between the duties of what I seem to be and the instincts that run completely counter to those duties. Gradually one can see that performing the duties for not their own sake but for an invisible ineffable promise between men, that duty does not have the nobility it initially had. The duty does not move the body - the body is now plagued with paradoxes that war with each other and the soul is trapped in the crossfire - never to show its face to its peers. I do believe this same affliction is expressionistically painted onto the film, Alma cannot reconcile her desires - she is trapped between wanting to be both the whore and the Madonna. Elisabet has resigned - she put a full stop to all the instincts that pull at her - she has become a pure and unmitigated expression of the paradoxes within her own body. She is the same person who offers a warmth to Alma and is also cold, she is loving and cruel to her, she is cold and takes great offence to being called cold.
Alma, while lamenting her own small person-hood, lets is be known that she wants to be Elisabet. She is looking at a star - an image of something that only existed long before its own death. Through keeping companion with the actress, the nurse is pulled closer to the person that is Elisabet. Elisabet is a vampire - a black hole - unfathomable. As Alma barrels to the end into Elisabet, Alma must now choose - to spiral into Elisabet or to choose to wake up from this stormy dream and rebuild what is lost.
My friend, this is my case for Persona. It is an immensely interesting and, if one lets it, disturbing film; a film that might disturb you for the better or at the very least elicits that mild undercurrent of having watched something very weird but honest. I hope you make time to watch it sometime. I’d love to talk.