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Persona (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on April 30, 2014

This is my 4th time watching Persona (it is, in fact, 10 years to the day since my first viewing).  Although my reviews of it have consistently gotten longer, it hasn’t gotten much easier for me to write about.  It doesn’t help that so much has been written before me.  According to Thomas Elsaesser’s essay in Criterion’s new release, “Besides Citizen Kane, it is probably the most written-about film in the canon.”  It has been picked apart endlessly, yet it seems impossible to get a grasp on.  No explanation feels fully satisfying, and every argument you can come up with about what the film “means” appears to have some counter-argument within the film itself.  Do Alma and Elisabeth become the same person?  Are they different halves of the same person to begin with?  Is one an imaginary projection of the other… or perhaps both live in the imagination of the young boy?  How much of it is one supposed to take literally, if any of it?  Is it about cinema, or identity, or masks, or acting, or all of the above and more?  With images from Vietnam and Nazi Germany, how much political commentary does one read into it?  Is the doubled monologue a brilliant stroke, or the reckless whim of a director who can’t decide where to cut?  How much of this would be allowed if it were someone other than Bergman?  What’s with the penis?

I can’t answer these questions.  I’ve kind of given up trying to make sense of it all and now I just let myself be immersed in Bergman’s id.  As a result, I appreciated it more this time around.  The first three viewings resulted in diminishing scores as I became more and more frustrated by the movie.  Today I didn’t feel that.  I gave in to its odd fascinations and chilling psychology and the incredibly rich photography by Sven Nykvist.  It still isn’t one of my favorite Bergmans, but it’s moved up the list.  I didn’t find it as cold and clinical as I have previously.  The director’s insight into humanity is felt in the way Elisabeth uses Alma (again, debatable).  More than previous viewings, I noticed the parasitic nature of their relationship.  Perhaps next time I watch it, it will seem to be the other way around, with Alma using Elisabeth (a number of moments support this as well).  That’s one of the great things about Persona… it’s never the same film twice.  I don’t love all of it — the iconic image of Ullmann’s and Andersson’s faces being spliced side-by-side always feels a little overblown and silly to me, for instance — but it has an undeniable mystery and pull to it.  Rating: Very Good (87)

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