Bergman on the set with actress Liv Ullmann
Director Ingmar Bergman
Actress Bibi Andersson
Bergman on the set with actress Bibi Andersson
Actresses Bibi Andersson (left) and Liv Ullmann
Bergman on the set with cameraman Sven Nykvist
Bergman with actresses Bibi Andersson (left) and Liv Ullmann
Bergman on the set with Liv Ullmannn
Sweden (83 mi) 1966 d: Ingmar Bergman
The hopeless dream of being, not seeming, but being
Born out of an extensive hospital confinement with a persistent ear infection turning into double pneumonia and acute penicillin poisoning, leaving the director bedridden and miserable for nine weeks, perhaps even imagining his own death, from which Bergman quickly wrote a script in 14 days that may have helped resurrect his own life and career and would go on to become his most influential and written about film. As to what set the stage, the 60’s was a decade in search of the alienated modern soul, personified by the soul-searching emptiness of Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), a film that initially shocked audiences, showing how easily we lose our way, wondering how we became so indifferent to the rapidly changing world around us, delving into the heart of existential angst, featuring Monica Vitti in RED DESERT (1964) as a character lost in the surrounding industrial wasteland, suffering from the toxic effects of technical and psychological overload, where his films moved into an interior landscape. Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA (1960) and 8 ½ (1963) intuitively deconstruct the world around us with a surrealist yet withering critique of the alienating effects of modernization, becoming an abstract free-for-all expressing an endless quest for happiness that can never be found, succumbing to dreams, drugs, and imaginary reveries as an alternative reality to the existing horrors that define our times. This sudden breakthrough into new narrative forms must include the Alain Resnais masterwork Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad) (1961), a puzzling experimental film that frustrated filmgoers, with actors resembling statues, revealing ghostly yet immaculately dressed characters in opulent settings stuck in a continuous state of utter detachment, deftly exploring themes of time and memory. Welles followed with THE TRIAL (1962), an apocalyptic version of Kafka, a modern era nightmare about our dwarfed status in the human hierarchy, suddenly, and tragically, tossed aside for greater matters larger than our own, where we are authoritatively dismissed from the human equation, dehumanized, rendered powerless and insignificant, beautifully expressed in one of the more innovative film openings, The Trial / Le procès: Franz Kafka (Orson Welles / 1962) HD - YouTube (2:51), where our individuality is nonexistent, our views deemed irrelevant and absurdly inconsequential, with no explanation given, yet we are blamed for the enveloping crisis that engulfs us all, collaborators of our own demise. Tarkovsky burst onto the scene with Ivan's Childhood (1962), which certainly caught Bergman’s eye, expressing the following, "Ingmar Bergman - On Tarkovsky":
My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle.
Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease.
I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how.
Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.
Having cleansed himself with his extensive inquiry into the effects of God’s silence in his Faith trilogy, God was no longer the oppressive force it had previously been in his life, feeling liberated, suddenly able to walk into a new day unencumbered by past burdens, free to open up his imagination to introduce an entirely new approach, one brimming with originality and psychological scrutiny, written expressly for the two actresses he had in mind, including Bibi Andersson, his former lover, and Liv Ullmann, his new lover, forging their identities into a uniquely experimental modern era search for meaning. Along with FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982), this is Bergman at his definitive best, a small film, basically an expanded chamber drama that touches upon themes of horror, with dissonant electronic music, extreme cuts, and extraordinary montage sequences, a formal response perhaps to the experimentalists of the 60’s, where Bergman may be acknowledging a crudeness of art beside the complexities of human existence, a film with one of the more unique opening credit sequences ever, Opening of Persona: Thematic Montage — Critical Commons (6:49), a poem of images which features, among others things, a carbon lamp lighting celluloid as it passes through a projector, and images are born onscreen. At the same time, similar to the opening from Tarkovsky’s MIRROR (1975), the subject of communication itself seems to be the issue, as subliminal images and early archival prints are shown, perhaps even the Keystone cops, upside down cartoons, as well as a young boy who awakens to an illuminated wall that is projecting an image of a face, like a mother, that he reaches out to embrace (Bergman’s own mother died six months before the release of the film, with some believing his Faith trilogy was the director’s way of addressing his father issues, while Persona might be viewed as addressing lingering maternal issues, (The Mother's Role in Bergman's <em>Persona</em> | Film International). Also, like Polanski’s REPULSION (1965), there is extraordinary use of offscreen sounds, which enhances jarring images that are meant to incite the emotions of the audience, as they are utilized with abstract images onscreen meant to jolt the senses of the viewer. It’s an effective technique, especially as the storyline includes an actress who has a personal breakdown onstage, suddenly aware of and disgusted by all the misery in the world and the artifice in her own life, who hasn’t spoken in three months, Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann in her astonishing film debut), and her nurse Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) who makes startlingly personal confessions that seem to fall on deaf ears, whose frustration grows with her patient’s continual passivity and refusal to speak, becoming a battle of wills, turning angry and hurt, then intensely hostile over time.
After a very direct appraisal from Ullmann’s doctor (Margaretha Krook), describing it not as a pathological symptom but as strategic behavior, lapsing into yet another role that she’ll abandon once she grows tired of it, rejecting the outside world, passively taking safe refuge from the storm (which forces others to assertively face the inherent dangers she’s avoiding), with no apparent medical ailment, seeing no need to keep the patient in the hospital, sending her instead to the doctor’s own private seaside retreat, which evolves into dramatic shoreline shots of what eventually became Bergman’s own home on Fårö Island, leaving his position as chief executive of the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm for the remote Baltic island retreat, which he utilizes brilliantly in one endless tracking shot that recalls the loneliness and personal isolation of Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960). Of interest, Andersson is the director’s former lover, and Ullmann becomes the new love of his life, so of course Bergman sets them opposite one another. Both offer phenomenal performances, enhanced even further by the spare minimalist structure of the film, which is surgically precise, especially the use of archival prints, which include Ullmann’s silent horror witnessing a televised newscast of a Buddhist monk (Thích Quảng Đức) setting himself on fire to protest the American incursion into Vietnam, and later she is aghast as she looks at a war photo from the Warsaw ghetto of Nazi soldiers pointing their guns directly at children, where the camera zooms in on close-ups of the terrifying faces. Faces are prominently featured in this film, projected like masks hiding who they really are inside as they stare blankly at the camera, joined by one another, where like a lava lamp they merge, co-mingle as one, perhaps representing an unrecognizable mixture of dreams and reality, art and humanity, and then converge into a completely new identity. Andersson’s lyrical, rambling monologues are incredible, intensely personal, even erotic, Persona (1966) -- One Time At The Beach - YouTube (5:24), but like Ullmann, she reaches a point of recognition where she becomes acutely aware of the role she’s playing, where the roles reverse and she herself becomes the neurotic patient, observed and evaluated by a silently impassive Ullmann, which comes as a shocking revelation. The celluloid itself appears to burn out at this point midway through the film and everything must start anew with a reawakened understanding.
No longer the austere and brooding Swede, Bergman’s film is fearlessly incendiary, meant to shock and incite provocation, capturing the immediacy of the present along with the turbulency of the times, suspended in a place between reality and dreams, becoming his most radical film, also among his shortest and most economical as well, creating a choreography of extreme facial close-ups, like a window into the soul, beautifully shot by Sven Nyqvist, using various tactics to examine underlying motives, going surrealistic with an imaginary image of Ullmann drinking the blood from Andersson’s cut arm in a vampire-like expression of consuming her soul. This enigmatic film bears a similarity to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), where viewer’s relationship to a film is shattered, having to build a new one, where this film is not so much about an exchange of identities on a personal level as a merging metamorphosis of two entirely different states of consciousness, eliminating all the extraneous protective facades, reconstructing something entirely new. Once the projector breaks down, everything is observed in a different light, where an extreme degree of uncertainty sets in, as the film exposes even the film crew itself at one point and challenges the viewer to examine the artifice in their own lives and relationships, perhaps best represented by a revelatory scene about their aversion to motherhood, and even marriage, that repeats itself from both women’s perspectives, as the actress and the nurse are too wrapped up in their own careers to offer themselves over completely to such an all encompassing new role. With suggestions of Ullmann’s abandonment and neglect, sacrificing her child for her illustrious stage career, Andersson is unmarried and childless, having aborted an earlier pregnancy, seemingly happy to be engaged, yet even she begins to question her role in that relationship, as both women are seen as somehow less than whole, incomplete, even inadequate, until they can lose themselves completely in the love of an “other,” something neither of them has ever been able to do. The boy who appears at the beginning and the end of the film, Jörgen Lindström from The Silence (Tystnaden) (1963, another film featuring two women drifting apart with a neglected child), could symbolically represent a range of characters, from an aborted fetus to a young boy his guilt-ridden mother may wish was dead, especially when viewed lying on a slab in a morgue, but may also represent the maternal yearnings of the director as a young boy or our own perplexing struggles to establish an identity in a world too confusing and cruel to call our own. The film asserts that the jagged pieces of our lives require reassembly, reevaluation, coming clean with one’s own conscience, never really offering any clues on how this might be done.