Persona (1966)
Ingmar Bergman

When I came home I saw myself in the mirror and thought: we’re alike. Don’t misunderstand me, you’re much prettier, but we are alike in a way. I think I could turn myself into you, if I made a real effort.

PersonaIngmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) isn’t like anything I’ve seen of his other works – perhaps the first time I’ll replace the word ‘meticulous’ with ‘avant-garde’ when describing his films.  The film follows two women – Elisabet Vogler (the luminous Liv Ullman), an actress who has deliberately pushed herself into a shell of silence and Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), her young nurse – on an isolated island where each others’ desires, fears, agonies and memories unfold. Although fraught with elements apt for traditional character analyses, including the famous character switch trick that scriptwriters love, Persona manages to avoid the trap that the Bergman has partly set for himself through his previous films. Suitably imbibing elements of the modernist mode of cinema championed by the New Wave, Bergman creates a confounding work that is as rich in its implications and as cinematic in its execution as his previous films.

Bergman frequently crosscuts between images of natural landscapes and those of the characters’ faces. Bergman presents a simple analogy between the faces of landscape and landscapes of the human face. These landscapes keep changing the film as the film progresses, much like the very many faces the characters assume. Bergman seems to underscore that we are all actors in a way, taking up one face or the other throughout our lives. Although by profession it is only Elisabet who is an actor, Alma, too, turns out to be one in the film. Alma and Elisabet are like two mirrors placed in front of each other. Elisabet is an actor who has assumed another role – that of a silent spectator of the world. She watches Alma as if she were a movie character and psychoanalyzes her once she gets to know her past. She may even be feeding on Alma for her next role. Alma, on the other hand, feels closer to Elisabet, yet acts like a film character herself. She too tries to pull down Elisabet’s new-found mask, in an attempt to expose the fakery of her being. But all such textual inferences sum up to nothing, for, as the first few frames of the film suggests, Persona is more self-referential than referential (In a fascinating shot, the camera photographs Elisabet photographing the camera!).

This perplexing shift of Bergman into the modernist trend (along with his notorious comments on Godard) presents a whole new dimension to the film. Alma and Elisabet may very well represent the whole of traditional cinema and the modernist wave respectively. Bergman drops enough clues to this. Early on, Alma tells the doctor that she may not be able to “cope up” with the tough nut Elisabet. She laments aloud when she is alone. On the other hand, Elisabet is sober and detached (Later, the doctor tells her: “Your hideout isn’t watertight. Life seeps in everything. You’re forced to react.”). When Alma turns on the radio to listen to an exaggerated melodrama, she laughs. Elisabet is visibly affected by the violence of the outer world whereas Alma is disturbed by her inner world, much like the two cinemas they stand for.  Bergman presents them as the two definitive – and necessary – halves of cinema with a “can’t life with, can’t live without” relationship with each other.

PersonaFurthermore, they act as the audiences of the respective cinemas as well. Elisabet watches Alma dispassionately, never reacting even to the most dramatic gestures and words of the latter. She seems completely devoid of external emotions. She alienates both herself from Alma and Alma from her. Alma, however, complements Elisabet with her excessive sentimentality and expressiveness.  Contrary to Elisabet, she tries to involve herself with Elisabet and even expects her to react to her misery. Alma’s need for an emotional response is indeed adversarial to Elisabet’s intellectual reply. This complementarity is more than just literary. Bergman often cuts from one character to the other in a pattern that establishes them as mirror images, obeying eye-line matches. The characters wear opposite coloured clothes. Bergman frames his shots in such a way that one of the characters superimposes over the other as if obtaining a hybrid. In a notable scene, Alma threatens Elisabet with a bowl of boiling water, upon which the latter reacts with the only words she ever speaks in the film. Alma, like many who disapprove of the modernists’ self-indulgence, even tries to expose Elisabet’s “pretentiousness” (“You’re acting healthy. You do it so well everyone believes you. Everyone except me, because I know how rotten you are.” she says).

Not everyone thinks that Bergman’s self-reflexive endeavor is a success. Robert Kolker presents a dissenting view of Persona in his book, The Altering Eye:

“In any given sequence, once Bergman begins to concentrate on the interaction of the two women, the devices used to create distance disappear, and we are invited to partake of immediate emotion and psychological mysteries. The characters’ fears and agonies and Bergman’s fascination with them overtake any desire he might have to examine the way they are created. His desire to communicate the perverse pleasures of emotional confrontation outweighs his need to confront the intellect by denying narrative desire and its fulfillment.”

But, this narrative instability, I think, is precisely the intention of Persona. Bergman extends the interplay of his characters on to the audience as he places them in the shoes of Elisabet and Alma, in tandem. He first engages us emotionally and tempts us to do the conventional character analysis in every sequence and suddenly, by exposing the material nature of film or having an extremely perplexing sequence, pushes us into the modernist mode, thus distancing us. Ironically, the screen burns midway in the movie (as if someone has poured boiling water on it) to chop off any emotional connection that it may have built. Neither does Bergman embrace the modernist style completely, nor does he indulge himself in literary analyses or excessive sentimentality, perhaps because he believes both of them to be vital, as he stresses in the film.

But, such a reading (or any particular reading for that matter) of the film may be downright speculative, however concrete the evidences are. But that is because the film itself is both elusive and tantalizing at the same time. Persona presents us an easily digestible narrative but one that is also extremely difficult to penetrate. Bergman puts us in a limbo wherein we are neither allowed a clear view of the characters’ psyche nor are we made capable of realizing that what we see is just a two-dimensional entity. Persona may be a grand confusion of filmmaking styles, but it is also a film that attempts to absorb the best of both worlds, illustrate the drawbacks of traditional and modern cinema, examine the role of the artist  (Elisabet apparently stops speaking during a performance of Elektra – a tale of revenge – and continues to do so even when the world burns) and, most importantly, study the relationship between cinema and its audience through the ages.

The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema
Robert Kolker
Oxford University Press, 1983

the-altering-eyeThe title of Robert Kolker’s The Altering Eye alludes to multiple things – the eye of the filmmaker that sees the society, the eye of cinema that observes its own content and the eye of the audience that facilitates a response to the images it witnesses. And true to its title, Kolker’s book attempts to explore the way these “eyes” have altered their own vision, refined the meaning derived, redefined the process of watching images and essentially understand the emotional and intellectual response they evoke. I read The Altering Eye over a period of 3 to 4 months (interrupted by a few other books) and as I finished reading the last passage, it felt as if I had performed a feat. The book, now, seems so detailed, so vast and so verbose that I begin to wonder if all critical books on cinema would turn out to be like it.

The semblance of vastness of the book partly comes from Mr. Kolker’s style of description and analysis. He starts out discussing schools of thought, covering almost six decades, from a very broad perspective after which he adds detail, bringing in specific works during the period and key figures behind them. Additionally, he talks about the themes of the films, dissecting their screenplays and illustrating their position in film history with respect to contemporary and ancestral works. Furthermore, he often narrows down to specific shots, and sometimes even frames, to excavate details that reinforce his arguments. And suddenly, as if zooming back, he moves on towards the next school of filmmaking to examine its style and substance, the deviations from the existing system and the drawbacks that eventually caused its downfall. As a result, you feel as if Mr. Kolker has covered a huge amount of ground with considerable detail.

Of course, I could crib about the exclusion of major directors from Asia and America, who are grossly ignored in the book. But that objection is instantly nullified since Mr. Kolker makes clear the kind of films and filmmakers he intends to dissect and the ones he doesn’t. His primary aim is to study the response of the filmmakers of Europe and Latin America to the norms and methods of the studio-based Hollywood movies. He primarily deals with filmmakers who understand the “genre” so well that they deconstruct it only to reveal its inherent flaws and later, filmmakers whose subjects are very much a function of history, current affairs and the social structures prevalent. Both these types of filmmakers (not mutually exclusive by any means), Mr. Kolker emphasizes, offer a kind of vehement reaction to Hollywood’s methods of holding the audience in an intellectual inertia and its subconscious conditioning of their morals and emotional responses.

For this, Mr. Kolker divides the book into three large chapters. The first chapter titled “The Validity of the Image” kicks off with a quote from Giuseppe Bertolucci: “The Cinema was born with neo-realism”. Although Mr. Kolker refuses to take up the conventional chronology that is used to trace cinema’s growth (with the clichéd Lumiére brothers versus Georges Melies discussion), he actually presents a good picture of the history of cinema in this chapter. He superficially explores how expressionism paved the way for film noir, which lead to neo-realism in a way, which in turn resulted in the birth of the French new wave, culminating in a hybrid form of cinema in the seventies.  But his main focus in this chapter remains on neo-realism as he studies the very many theories that attempted at first to destroy the bourgeois control of cinema and then create a form that captured the reality “out there”.

The next chapter is called “The Substance of Form” and is probably the biggest one of the three. Here, Mr. Kolker talks about redefinition of cinematic forms by directors who attempted to develop an interactive kind of cinema in reply to the reassuring continuity and passivity of Hollywood. He discusses how the directors destroyed, exaggerated and mixed genres in order to make the audience understand and work out what happened and why it happened that way. He covers a variety of experiments including fracturing of narratives, working within conventions to expose its absurdity, refusal of continuity and omniscient gaze and much more. The French New Wave, in particular, is covered in detail with an overview of every major director of the movement.

The final chapter, “Politics, Psychology and Memory”, rounds off the book with the examination of the influence of history, politics and leftist revolutions on the filmmakers of Western Europe.  Basing his arguments on figures like Bertolucci, Losey, Fassbinder and other Latin American filmmakers, Mr. Kolker talks about the way these films studied fascism and its effects on psychology of the post-war world.  He additionally probes how bourgeois complacency, politics of sexuality, memories and residues of fascism and the left’s struggles relate to each other and gradually make their way into many of these films. Mr. Kolker successfully covers both periods – the rise and fall – of the student revolution and observes the changes in attitudes of the filmmakers towards their subject following its failure.

What is most surprising for me about the book is the way Mr. Kolker examines the films to support his statements. Each analysis seems indisputable and like the only possible interpretation after all. He deconstructs a film (or a movement) into so many layers of meaning that it seems like a flawless movie until Mr. Kolker himself puts it down with drawbacks one would have never imagined. As a result, unsuspecting readers like me, who haven’t seen those films or are relatively new to cinema, might get completely carried away with the text. I do not hint manipulation here. Mr. Kolker does provide in-depth discussions of the films but is also careful enough to let the reader carry on with the discussion using the threads he has provided.

Having said that it is a fantastic book on films and film movements, I must also point out that The Altering Eye is not for the causal reader. You will be going through a paragraph again and again or stuck in a section for a long time. But that is because the content of the book demands it. So if you are looking for a book on cinema that you would want to read with ease, this book may not be the right choice. However, if you want to seriously learn about serious cinema, The Altering Eye is absolutely essential.



P.S: The whole (!) book can be legally read here