Persona: Special Edition
Rated: Not Rated
Film Length: 83 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Standard (1.33:1)
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Audio: Original Swedish – Monaural; English - Monaural
During his four decades as a filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman has written/directed a myriad of well-thought-of films, with more than a few being regarded as “classics”. Unfortunately, most of Bergman’s work is unknown to present day movie patrons, but they are still considered to be landmark pieces of art in the minds of many cinema-philes. I must confess that I am not familiar with too many of Mr. Bergman’s many films, but from what I have seen, it seems as though he writes and directs without fear, without compromise, and without the slightest regard for how his films will appeal to the masses. This relentless pursuit of originality in cinema is perhaps most evident in Persona, which is arguably Mr. Bergman’s most creative and best-known work.
Persona is not only a very challenging motion picture, it is a very intense exposition of human nature, perhaps one of the most intense and poignant ever put on film. As the film opens, a young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) is delighted to receive the assignment of caring for the popular actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) who has, for an undetermined reason, lost her ability to speak. Mrs. Vogler baffles the medical staff in the psychiatric ward of the facility where she is staying, mainly because they believe she is capable of speech, but is purposely refraining from saying anything. After a while, a determination is made that personal attention in an intimate, natural setting might be the only thing that will bring her around.
As a result of this determination, Elisabet, now in Alma’s care, is sent away from the hospital to an island retreat to rejuvenate herself enough for an eventual return to normalcy. During their time on the island, Alma begins to feel a closeness developing towards the actress, who she holds in high esteem, and begins to share intimate feelings about her state in life. In addition, Alma lets Elisabet in on an extremely personal memory involving an almost random sexual encounter with a young boy. Although Alma had never revealed this experience to anyone before, she obviously regards Elisabet as a dear friend, despite the fact she will not utter a single word in reply to her most intimate stories.
The interesting relationship between the two women takes a turn for the worse when Alma later offers to mail some letters for Elisabet. On her way to drop off the mail, she finds that one envelope has been left unsealed. Of course, Alma’s curiosity gets the best of her, and she reads the letter, only to be crushed by its somewhat derogatory remarks towards her. Feeling betrayed, Alma suddenly cannot control her growing anger towards Elisabet, and though she was sent to help Elisabet, she ends up confronting her, and apparently getting to the bottom of her self-imposed silence. Or does she? This film has so many layers, and can be interpreted in countless ways, so it is impossible to say for sure. Undoubtedly, one could ponder over the dialogue and images in Persona endlessly, in hopes of discovering its “true” meaning. Even if one were to do so, however, it is unclear whether such questions could ever be answered, except maybe by Ingmar Bergman himself.
Given that Persona is so open-ended, everyone will get different things out of it. What I thought was interesting is how Elisabet’s convalescence exemplifies the symbiotic relationships that can develop in “care-taking” environments. In thinking about it, Alma uses Elisabet’s silence as an outlet to purge herself of troubling life experiences, and seems quite pleased with the possibility that a famous, talented artist is interested in her experiences and thoughts. Indeed, the “caregiver” seems to be unconsciously receiving care to a degree. This becomes evident in Alma’s growing infatuation with Elisabet, which culminates in a vampire-like erotic dream about Elisabet paying a late night visit to Alma’s room.
Another fascinating element of Persona is the cinematography of Sven Nykvist, which gives the film a dream-like appearance that coincides perfectly with its content. Further, the actresses in the lead roles were also absolutely fantastic! When two people are on screen for so much of the film, they need to deliver the goods, and let me tell you, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann are nothing short of brilliant in their respective roles. In particular, Liv Ullman is able to invoke a wide range of emotions, without uttering any words, in a remarkable manner. Having viewed Persona three times for this review (including listening to the commentary), I became utterly amazed at how easy it is to forget that she is not speaking.
To sum it up, Persona is a really pointed look at the human psyche, featuring superb performances, masterful direction, and fantastic cinematography. Most impressively, as the better films of this kind tend to do, it allows viewers to put their own spin on the material, and provoke serious thought and analysis. With that in mind, I must reiterate what I mentioned at this outset, namely that this is film is very demanding on the viewer. As such, I cannot say that Persona is a movie for everyone, but if you would like to become exposed to the work of Ingmar Bergman, it is a very good starting point!
NOTE: Persona is also available as part of the Ingmar Bergman DVD Collection, which features Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Serpent’s Egg, and The Passion of Anna, plus a sixth disc containing an additional 90 minutes of bonus features. The list price is steep ($112.96), but fans of Ingmar Bergman may want to consider it…
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
MGM has treated Persona to a brand new transfer in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1), and the result is a stunning representation of the gorgeous black and white cinematography by Sven Nykvist. To be more precise, the image exhibits well-balanced contrast (with a few very brief exceptions) and, given its age, an astonishingly small amount of dust and print damage. Further, although negligible amounts of both film grain and edge enhancement are visible, these issues very rarely prove to distract one’s attention from what is otherwise a remarkable effort.
Specific instances I found slightly objectionable are: the first shot in Chapter Two, after the credits, which suffers due to the appearance of excessive film grain, and the shots that open Chapters Ten and Fifteen, which are appear to be a little too dark. Fortunately, these shots come and go extremely quickly, and the rest of Persona probably looks better than it has a right to.
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Presented in its original audio format - monaural Swedish, the Dolby Digital audio track for Persona is probably best described as being a notch above functional. With a couple of exceptions, this is a very quiet, dialogue-heavy film, so the way dialogue and micro-dynamic sounds are presented is important. Thankfully, the characters’ speech is free from disturbing hissing, crackling, or other audio anomalies, and micro-dynamic audio details, like the dripping of water play, on the mind just as they are supposed to. In addition, although the soundstage is not what I would call expansive, the limited amount of music used in the film is reproduced in a serviceable fashion.
The only real quibble I had with this track occurred in Chapter Four, where the coherence of the audio briefly breaks down, and a slight bit of distortion is evident, as Elisabeth watches brutal images of war protesters being burned on television. Other than that, Persona’s audio information is reproduced in a manner that should prove satisfactory to proponents of the film, especially considering it is a monaural soundtrack.
Feature Length Commentary
This audio commentary, by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais, is easily one of the most bizarre, uninteresting commentaries I have ever sat through. During the opening montage, Gervais’ almost incoherent rambling, and repeated asking of “What is going on? What is Bergman doing?”, irritated me to no end. To be perfectly honest, most of his commentary throughout the rest of the film is similarly vague and un-insightful. Putting it mildly, this was disappointing, since Mr. Gervais states that he has taught courses on cinema, and courses specific to Ingmar Bergman’s films, for many years.
Since Persona is such a well-regarded film, I was hoping that Gervais, as a Bergman expert, would be able to offer a wealth of information on the creation of the film, and perhaps offer some well-reasoned explanations of the film’s content. Sadly, Gervais provides little of either, as the vast majority of his comments are either unrelated to the film or too screen-specific. However, over the course of Persona’s 83-minute running time, Gervais does point out a few things out that people totally unfamiliar with the film, or Ingmar Bergman’s work in general, may find interesting, so here is a brief list of the highlights:
--- Mr. Gervais points out that the film is part of the “Deconstruction Movement”, where artists make it clear for their audience that a particular work is an artificial creation.
--- Gervais discusses how the notion of whether God does or does not exist plays an important role in Ingmar Bergman’s films.
--- A brief discussion about the mixture of expressionist and impressionist images used in the film.
--- A discussion about the complications in Bergman’s personal life, including how his several failed marriages and many children, none of whom lived with him for any length of time, may have impacted his work and life.
All things considered, this commentary is a pretty difficult listen, and I really can’t see Bergman aficionados taking too much away from it. Although I try as best I can to avoid placing heavy expectations on DVD bonus features, this track fell well below what I was anticipating, given Marc Gervais’ lofty credentials. Listen if you must, but you’ll get more out of the “A Poem In Images” featurette, so I recommend just watching the movie instead, if you’ve got 83 minutes to kill.
A Poem In Images
This featurette, which runs for 25 minutes, provides a fairly comprehensive amount of background information on both Ingmar Bergman’s development of the story for Persona and the process of putting it on film. As the featurette opens, Bergman expert Marc Gervais analyzes the odd montage that opens the film, and actress Liv Ullmann discusses how time spent by Bergman in a hospital resulted in the development of Persona in a mere 14 days.
An excerpt from an interview with Bergman from the early 1970s offers even more detail about the genesis of the project, and how fascinating the enigmatic director found the thin line between existence and non-existence. Finally, Bibi Anderson discusses the infamous “overlapping faces” shot that appears towards the end of the film. At this point, Mr. Gervais chimes in again, opining that this shot may have been inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s romantic involvement with both of the leading ladies in the film.
All in all, although I cannot say this featurette was terribly energetic, or a lot of fun to watch, there is more than enough background information on Persona to make it a worthwhile investment of time for fans of the film.
On Screen Interviews: Bibi Anderson and Liv Ullmann
--- Bibi Anderson (Vence, France – 2002)
During this brief interview, Bibi Anderson discusses how she came to know Ingmar Bergman, her relationship with him, and her work on the film Persona. She is also quite candid about the difficulties of remaining on good terms with both Bergman and her co-star in Persona, Liv Ullmann, after they became romantically linked, as they would both confide in her about their problems. Perhaps most interestingly though, Anderson admits to not knowing what the film “really” means! Thank goodness…I thought I was the only one!!!
--- Liv Ullmann (Stockholm – 2002)
Most of Liv Ullmann’s comments during this short interview do not concern the film Persona, and the few that do are not particularly insightful. Even so, this interview was interesting for its intimacy, as Ullmann speaks openly about being introduced to Ingmar Bergman, being cast in Persona, and the romantic relationship that developed between her and Bergman once filming concluded. It is interesting that although they broke up, Ullmann states that they remained friends and colleagues, and that they were working on Scenes From A Marriage – 30 Years Later at the time of the interview.
The included photo gallery features 18 black-and-white production stills.
The theatrical trailer for Persona is included.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
Those of you who are familiar with Ingmar Bergman already know that his films are not only fiercely original, but extremely demanding on viewers, and Persona is no exception. Perhaps the legendary Swede’s best-known film, Persona is a fascinating work that provokes thought on a variety of extremely profound topics, such as life, death, marriage, friendship, and fear. Moreover, in addition to featuring brilliantly written dialogue and astounding performances by Liv Ullmann and Bibi Anderson, the film has many possible interpretations (which are subject to intense debate).
As far as presentation is concerned, the “special edition” of Persona is endowed with outstanding image quality, thanks to a brand new transfer, and a more than acceptable monaural audio track. Unfortunately, although a healthy amount of bonus material if offered, its quality is uneven, with the commentary track being especially dull and disappointing. On the other hand, I must commend MGM for putting together such a bounty of extras for a “foreign” film, even though the end result was less than spectacular!
Although I am probably preaching to the choir, I highly recommend Persona to fans of Ingmar Bergman. On the other hand, for those looking to expose themselves to his work for the first time, the film’s challenging content, artistic flair, and rather slow pace automatically place it in the “not for everyone” category. However, Persona is a very good film from a very gifted filmmaker, and the audio and visual quality of this release should not turn anyone off, so I can comfortably “recommend” it to anyone interested in drama, but given the rather uneven quality of the extras, I am not certain if this release is quite worthy of its “special edition” billing. In the final analysis, this DVD still carries a very solid presentation of an extremely interesting film, and that is really what matters most! Highly recommended for Bergman fans, recommended for anyone else with an appetite for drama that will leave you thinking long after the end credits fade away!!!
February 10th, 2004