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.