LIMIT-POINT NEGATIVITY AND MODERNISM: PERSONA
& BEYOND (1966-1969) link
by Hamish FordBergman resigned from the Royal Dramatic Theatre mid-contract an exhausted man. He booked himself into a psychiatric clinic in 1965, and after a while started working on an idea based on a physical similarity he had noticed between Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann when the former had introduced her young friend in the street. He invited the two actors to visit him in hospital and explained his idea for a film. They agreed to star in the project, and a few months later what would become probably Bergman's supreme achievement was in production.
Persona in many ways leads on from The Silence, as Susan Sontag argues in her famous 1967 essay on the former. (15) [Blognote: I am trying to find a copy of this and will upload and link it when I do.] In both films our engagement is with the multiple thematic trajectories of an ambiguous psychic war between two women, as rendered through the most radical aesthetics Bergman was ever to explore. If the first films of the '60s increasingly marked him as a difficult filmmaker, Persona offers greater challenges.
Out of a genuinely avant-garde prologue emerges a story in which an actress refuses to speak, while a nurse is assigned to her 'recovery'. Most of the film takes place in and around a beach-house on the windswept coast of Fårö. But the women's experience of space and time, along with the viewer's grasp of these forms and Persona's narrative, suffers increasing interruptions as fragmenting layers of formal-thematic stimuli build into one of the most difficult, open and generative feature-films ever made.
Liv Ullmann's silent portrayal of an artist confronting and performing her own ontological lack is dominated by twitching lips, ambivalent gazes and vampyric desire. Bibi Andersson plays the chatty state carer whose perfectly adaptive nature leads to being sucked into her companion's showdown with negativity – so that she too is made to examine what, if anything, lies behind her own socially-ordained mask.
As these dual gazes and subjectivities develop and cannibalistically intermix, halfway through the film the celluloid appears to rip and burn up in the projector. Diegetic space and cinema's sheer materiality here intermix, and we are left to work out what has become of a film whose plastic essence either violently asserts itself to crush the metaphysics of a fictional world – or whose fragmentation is remarkably generated by the psychic dissonance and heat of the diegesis. Regardless of our desire to explain the film's material violence and reflexivity, Persona's formal-thematic mutation is ultimately then brought to full fruition and complexity when the famous hybrid gaze – half of each woman's face grafted to the other – stares out of an amorphous gray void, and into the viewer's own unstable space.
From the vantage point of thirty-six years, Persona can be seen as a standout film in terms of Bergman's oeuvre and cinema history. The essays in Ingmar Bergman's Persona, a 2000 compilation volume edited by Lloyd Michaels, position the film as a cinematic work of high modernism par excellence. And it is the sort of artwork about which those who have experienced it feel the utmost emotional and intellectual commitment. (16)
crappy, I think you may be misinterpreting Sartre (provided I understand what you're saying) in that his awareness of something which lay beyond the 'reach of intuition' was not something which necessarily (or actually did) lead to an acknowledgement of God. Regardless, Sartre was one of the founders of modern (or postmodern, even) existentialism, but that particular philosophy has been refined over time (in no small part by his contemporary Camus who even eschewed the label 'existentialist.')