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.

Autumn Sonata (1978)

Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata is the troubling drama between mother and daughter, exploring themes of abandonment, resentment, and even hatred brewing over the years.

Ingrid Bergman goes against type in her role as Charlotte, an uninvolved yet overbearing mother to Liv Ullmann’s subdued Eva. Ingrid as Charlotte is the most fascinating thing about this movie, playing a sometimes awful woman who cares little-to-nothing for her severely disabled daughter, who now lives with Eva. Though Eva is not without fault either, when in a moment of vulnerability and revelation is somehow oblivious to the cries of her sister for help.

As the film chugs on, struggle after struggle is revealed, and at times it gets into soapy territory. Despite the narrative, though, the performances feel sincere and it doesn’t approach the over-the-top sensibility American actresses would play this material to.

The filmmaking is interesting as well, particularly the sense of enclosure and framing; the vast majority of the film is indoors, with the action shot with view of molding framing the characters. Not only does this subvert the seemingly picture-perfect lives of two accomplished pianists, but also maintains the constricting feeling that pervades throughout these women’s lives. Without spoiling the ending, the film’s finale, while somewhat troubling, feels true to form and is consistent with the action that has taken place thus far.

I wasn’t in love with Autumn Sonata, though I did appreciate its visual continuity and well-crafted performances to weigh down the narrative material.