Quite a nice re-viewing of Persona recently. I like the archetypal nature of the characters quite a bit, so I will refer to Liv Ullman's character as the Actress and Bibi Andersson's as the Nurse.
Among the things I blocked from my first view of this film: the whiteout to erect cock opening sequence. The vein in the eye close up I could hardly watch thinking there was going to be some Buñuel-style slicing open. The disturbingly egg-like boy from The Silence abandoned again by his beautiful mother (this time, Liv Ullman’s actress, again later with Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata). I forgot also the way Bibi Andersson’s Nurse constantly had to push the hair off her forehead.
One thing I did not forget: the Nurse monologue where she describes her nude encounter with two young men at the beach (it seems all the earlier shots of the rocks surrounding the ladies at the shoreline were just to confirm no boys lurking). If Scarlett Johansson in The Girl with a Pearl Earring putting her lip inside her mouth to lick it is a shatter-the-glass-in-the-palm-of-your-hand moment, then the Nurse in Persona recounting how the boy’s sperm exploded everywhere and how she came “again and again” on the beach is a shatter-the-glass-in-the-palm-of-your-hand-then-pick-up-another-glass-and-shatter-that-one-in-the-palm-of-your-other-hand sequence. Not enough time for a glass shatter refractory period. I do want to note that I would have promptly cleaned up the broken glass, and not left it underfoot for my patient/lust object to step into. That’s just fucked up.
I admire the way Bergman is able to convey the suffocating pall of illness and despair in Persona, but in a less obtrusive way than in, say, The Seventh Seal (Persona being set in the present and not involving any characters named “Death”…it also less chess). We have first the hospital scenes where the rooms are just a tad stark, even considering that Scandinavian minimalism we all admire. There we see the appeal of immolation, people praying at the monks conflagrated in black and white (body and blame). We have the warm mushroom picking scene, the two women pondering their A-bomb shapes under their mushroom cloud straw hats. Then gorgeous, recurring moving pictures of their white faces in all black against the raw pine interiors of the beach house. Sometimes just dark faces with light off cheekbones and noses. These images are Bergman to me.
Aside from the rattling good beach talk, I wonder if this might not have worked as a silent film. Long tracking shot would have been better silent—we know what had to be said—particularly with subtitles the words took away from the elegant cinematography. The Nurse’s climactic, bitter evisceration of the motives behind the Actress’ silence is done twice so you see the pain and then receive the pain yourself. I loved the progression of deeper and deeper close-ups so we are reminded of the intensity in a film like The Passion of Joan of Arc. It seemed clear why the Actress stopped talking, it’s the same reason I would do so that one might stop lying, desist with the lies we have to tell each other every day. Take the great last words of the film: “Say it after me. Nothing.”
Addendum: the laughably slight interview extras are notable only because Bibi expresses her initial reservations about Ullman because she was Norwegian. Love that Scandi-rivalry! Just for the record: both actresses are lovely in advanced age: their eyes still glowing almost as bright blue as Bumblebee’s in Transformers.