Long after viewing Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), I still do not feel as though I have completely processed the events in the film, nor do I feel like a complete understanding of it is possible. Bergman offers a unique experience with the film, one that I felt was a rather headfirst introduction into European cinema.
Persona sees decorated stage actress Elisabeth Vogler settling into life as a recluse after she suddenly stops speaking. Her only company is her nurse, Alma, with whom she forms a different kind of bond.
A number of Peter Wollen’s noted features of counter-cinema are made glaringly obvious in Persona from the get-go, particularly those of estrangement and un-pleasure. In the first ten minutes alone, I was overcome by a deeply palpable sense of dread despite not fully comprehending just what I was watching. While this dread is something of a staple in the psychological horror genre, the film, whose genre is already hard to pinpoint as it is, the execution completely dismantles any expectations a viewer might have of the film.
Estrangement, on the other hand, comes in that the viewer knows practically nothing about Elisabeth for most of her screen time save for her background as an actress and a few bits about her family despite her being somewhat a protagonist. It is clear from this that Liv Ullmann puts on a fantastic performance as Elisabeth, given that she was limited solely to facial expressions for the most part.
I felt that the movie was a very sensory experience in most parts: I felt as though my senses were disturbed by the strange sounds and images I was faced with. I get the sense that the introductory scenes were placed there solely for the visual effect, and not necessarily to contribute to the film’s plot directly. In this portion of the film, viewers are left confused as to what is happening. Yet, despite the lack of clarity and explanation, the film is still completely engaging, as these scenes manage to capture the audience’s attention in a nearly trance-like manner.
Thematically, the film tackled a number of topics; the sincerity of interpersonal relationships, the fragility of the human psyche, insanity, gender, lesbianism, infidelity, among other things. Content-wise, this rather unusual subject matter alone already signifies a departure from what I have grown accustomed to in mainstream cinema.
Personally, I felt a deep sense of catharsis after witnessing Alma’s impassioned and seemingly unsound ramblings. Her circumstances aside, I feel like she touched on a few very relatable themes: for instance, the inherent existential insecurity and fundamental loneliness that comes with being human.
By the film’s end, viewers still do not quite understand exactly what caused Elisabet to enter her catatonic state, or what will become of her and Alma. But that is far from the point. As the film’s plot sets in, the initial disturbance felt is only heightened by this point, and this is a feeling that will stick with audiences for many days to come.