Sunday, January 20, 2013

On Further Review: Persona (1966)

I know some people would argue that Persona is Bergman’s greatest film. To some it marks the what some would say is the high water mark of the best period of his career that saw films like Winterlight, Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, Shame, and others.

I personally find it a hysterically funny film that is a prime example of what drove many people I know far away from foreign language films.

Bergman, in an extra on the Persona DVD, talks about trying to make a cinematic poem. Perhaps that’s what the film is but it’s also a very silly one.

The film begins with seemingly random images, film in sprockets, a upside down animation, an erect penis, people in a morgue, a monk setting himself on fire… the film then focuses on what appears to be a boy sleeping (so maybe the others are too). He turns and puts on his glasses and then sees the large out of focus image of women. This then leads into a nurse being briefed by a doctor about a new patient, an actress who will not speak. The actress and the nurse end up in a beach house and the nurse begins to spew out all of her inner secrets. Things are shot very theatrically, at times it feels like we are watching a stage production up close.

It’s very artificial and very silly. Allowing that the film was released in 1966 when much, if not all of this would be shocking (there is very frank discussion of a three some that probably rattled/titillated audiences). It’s also very much a style that is very much in the style of art house films of the period, it’s striving very much to be about something greater, about something more than what is on the screen. The problem is that it’s incredibly pretentious and horribly dated as a result.

For me the trouble is the film is a jumble of ideas, all of them painfully obvious. The opening jumble of ideas makes the film about something. Actually the selection of ideas are too clearly meant to shock with the member, burning monk and entrails being an easy path to making people uncomfortable. To me it's Bergman on autopilot hitting all the things that will provoke a reaction.

The theatrical style of filming is obvious

And as for the dialog, the long monologues and constant references to loneliness makes me wonder if Bergman was trying to be as obvious as possible. It's almost as if he was trying to make a film that everyone would get.

No one is a person, rather they are a chess piece. Bergman doesn't let them be and grow naturally, rather he moves them around for maximum effect. If I do these things I will get this reaction.

If someone turned in a film like this in in most film classes today it would be thrown back at them...or it would be considered a satire. We've moved past this film, Bergman moved past this film, one need only look at the films that followed this and you'll see he shifted back toward things which were a bit less poetic.

Is it a bad film?

No, it's just a dated one. At the same time it's an important one since the film was always a key touchstone in any film class I ever took. Its a film that influenced what followed, for better and worse. Mostly I think for the better since the I think this is as far as one can go without slipping into the avant garde.

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