Persona (1966)

Well, if I thought Orpheus was wacky, I sure wasn’t ready for the complex juggernaut of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. This confounding yet hypnotic work brings together two very different women, puts them together in isolation, and very possibly unites them as one.

Often ambitious films like this, with complex ambitions yet lighter narrative, lose momentum as they chug along, while this one actually had (for me) a sour start that got all the more intriguing. The glow of a projector ignites the screen, and we witness disturbing images of violence and isolation accompanied by screeching, unnerving sounds. After a seizure-inducing titles sequence of fast cuts and pounding timpani, we are eased into a (seemingly) more typical narrative structure.

A young, somewhat naive nurse has been assigned the difficult assignment to care for an established actress who, despite all signs of healthiness, has mysteriously gone mute. It is soon decided that the two leave the hospital for some R&R at the head nurse’s summer home on the coast.

From here on, the plot unravels hypnotically while somehow believably. The nurse carries out all the conversation (duh) but builds a relationship with her patient, and eventually reveals some troubling past sins she’d committed. She confesses such actions with no prodding or interrogation from her counterpart, with her projection of a friendship upon the actress as the real only momentum fueling her disturbing monologue.

As the film progresses, additional acts, both large and small, trigger more and more impassioned reactions from the nurse, seemingly on the brink of hysteria. The more she invests into this one-sided relationship the more desperate and anguished she grows.

In Persona’s final moments, we hear cameras whirring as our point of view glides back to reveal the actress performing on a film set. My take on this is the projection an audience, or an obsessed fan, can place upon fictional works or even specific stars. Like the nurse with the actress, the relationship between the “parties” is truly a one-way road. The impact attained from such investment and interpretation is just what you put into it.

Granted, this is a reading from one murky viewing of this film; upon additional visits, or if different elements had stood out to me beyond that fateful shot of a camera, my take on Persona could have been a very different one. Like the nurse with the actress, though, there is so much meaning and depth to uncover within this film if you only search for yourself in the art.

Margaret (2011)

In college, my film professor once compared experiencing great works of art, whether literature, music, or film, to becoming closer to God. We, as individuals, go through life forging our own sense of morality and the Truth, so our organic connection to works of art we feel reflect this Truth is in fact a spiritual one.

There’s few films I consider meeting this profound, ambitious criteria, but Margaret sure does. It is the effortless, exquisite coming of age story of a high school girl, Lisa Cohen, becoming a young woman after witnessing and playing a role in a devastating tragedy.

I say “effortless” ironically, because this film is anything but; clocking in at nearly three hours (over three if you’re watching the Director’s Cut), this epic tale about one girl seems to encompass all of New York, if not all of humanity. Shots of Lisa riding alone in a taxicab pan out to a cityscape filled with solo cabs, together alone in the streets.

Anna Paquin’s incredible turn as Lisa is anything but effortless as well; she is this movie, pulling us in with her fiery passion, pathetic naivete, and devastating heartbreak. How she got through 2012 without earning a Best Actress Academy Award (let alone a nomination) is truly beyond me. Her performance is one most actresses could only ever hope to achieve.

What does feel so authentic and effortless about this film, however, is its change-over-time plot and the way characters respond to one another. An interesting development to observe is Lisa’s mother’s acting career, and how each performance brings her more bows, more applause, more standing ovations.

One of the film’s more compelling themes, Lisa’s “self-dramatization” of the tragedy onto herself, is well fleshed out through the scenic design; we are experiencing the story through her eyes, but not exactly the world. The caricature adults and peers she encounters are in fully developed, believable worlds, from her math teacher who sublets his unit to the organically messy police department. These spaces all feel real, and the more locations we visit, the more we buy the world presented to us.

Margaret’s most outstanding aspect, though, is its ability to create moments of high drama without grazing exploitation. This is not a film for the lighthearted, with its emotionally wrecking scenes and darker underlying subtexts. The institutional weaknesses of society are hard enough to live with as an adult, least of all through the eyes of a passionate youth. Margaret is a true masterpiece of youth cinema, as both an empowering testament to young naivete and a sometimes-necessary reality check.

Pickpocket (1959)

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is a thematically complex, though ultimately slow (and somewhat unsatisfying) existentialist look at the life and ideology of a petty thief.

The character Michel, played with an unsettling portrayal by Martin LaSalle, navigates his world with a haunting sense of loneliness and meaninglessness. In many ways, he seems to embody the film noir antihero by developing his own moral code, with a thought-out theory distinguishing pickpocketing from larger-scale thievery, and arguing with officers of the law on when it is ethically justifiable to steal. His only real friends are more of comrades, fellow pickpocketers, and his relationships with them never extend beyond further developing their unique craft.

The story development feels very organic, moving episodically from one-off instants of thievery to dizzyingly coordinated orchestrations of pickpocketting. Some of the most captivating moments of the film have us witnessing the flow of wallets and cash bills from pocket to hand to pocket, through trains and race tracks betting offices.

In some ways it reminded me of the pulp novel In a Lonely Place, also concerning a criminal who plays dangerously close to the edge. There is almost a casual, exhibitionist eroticism in watching the pickpocketting transpire, the intimacy of two strangers close together, one slowly reaching into a jacket pocket or a purse, then turning the other way. These criminals seem to get an excitement, a high, out of committing these acts in plain public view.

Bresson creates a wholly developed and frankly believable subculture of pickpockets and their sense of order; yet his film somehow loses steam. The antihero Michel experiences a sort of revelation towards the end, but the circumstances he faces nor his stagnant emotions are not enough to convey a convincing change of heart; perhaps that’s the “point,” that his drive for redemption is largely ungrounded, but the arbitrary nature of this newfound wisdom is not very consistent with the Michel or the action we had seen prior.

Pickpocket is rich with thought-provoking themes and Godard-esque suave coolness, yet does not provide a satisfying, or very logical, conclusion.