Persona - Classic Film Pick
"Persona" is Ingmar Bergman's 1966 postmodern lesbian romantic psychological mystery. It's a black-and-white experimental film that draws on formal theatrical conventions and minimal set designs to explore the complex relationship between an actress named Elisabeth (Liv Ullman) and her full-time nurse Alma (Bibi Anderson). Elisabeth was performing in a stage production of Electra when she suddenly lost her voice—either thator desire to speak.
Alma's unprofessional conversational strategy for getting Elisabeth to talk backfires when Alma drunkenly reveals a deeply intimate story from her past that provokes the women's lust for one another. Bergman's beautifully evocative tableau captures the sex act with Anderson and Ullman staring directly into the camera while Elisabeth caresses Alma. What we experience is a pure distillation of character and action. By reducing the women's shared sensual experience to a dark mirror gaze of the way they view one another, Bergman allows their expression of desire to transcend the scene's dramatic state.
As always, sex changes everything. The women immediately find themselves at odds after mutually pretending that their night of erotic gratification didn't happen (or at least they can't remember it if it did). The magnetic attraction between the uncannily expressive Ullman and the terrifically physical Anderson provides constant momentum to propel Bergman's daring artistry. Bergman's objective is to depict a duality of nature through which Alma and Elisabeth switch places; psychologically, metaphorically, and physically. Alma's discovery of a betraying letter from Elisabeth to her doctor sets the anti-plot narrative onto the temporary trajectory of a suspense thriller. Alma's revenge on Elisabeth reveals Alma's latent S&M desires and pushes the drama into a telling act of psychosexuality.
"Persona" is at once one of the most complex and most simple films ever made. Bergman's clear-eyed artistic study of the rules of interplay between opposite, ill-equiped dominant and submissive characters, expresses universal ideas about human compatibility.