Where do you begin, and I end?: Ingmar Bergman and Mixed Personality

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POTENTIAL SPOILERS: It’s also from 1966 so I don’t feel bad about this.

There are very few films in my life that have made me gasp in shock from an editing technique. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is one of these films. The editing means everything to Bergman’s 1966 horror thriller, it creates a taught meta film that plays with where reality actually is.

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The film begins in a projection room that begins to flash and burn through reels of footage, a video of the two main characters of the film is projected onto the wall of a small boy’s room. The main characters begin to flash between each other and the movie begins. Part way through the movie the celluloid film burns out and then continues on as if nothing happened. Bergman made sure that the editing within Persona was constantly making the viewer aware that they are watching a film. In this way, it’s an incredibly meta film but I digress from this point. The film’s editing is so stellar and mixes several realities, without the energetic editing of the film Persona would most likely be a mediocre film at best.

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Persona is also carried by its strong female leads and stunning framing. The movie often has Alma (Bibi Anderson) move over Elisabet Vogler’s (Liv Ullman) face, juxtaposing Alma’s head over Elisabet’s own to make it appear as if Alma is Elisabet. The real question of this movie is whether or not Alma is Elisabet, and if you look around you’ll find people are really torn on this. I personally thought that it was spelt out fairly clearly, however it is very much so open for each viewer’s interpretation, and I think that only adds to the malicious spirit of the movie.

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For all it’s worth, the setting of the film is rather sparse, the acting is really what makes this film a stand-out performance. Liv Ullman’s character has next to no lines, and Bibi Anderson has massive monologue after massive monologue. The fact that she could deliver all of these with increasing maliciousness throughout the film is astounding. She ratchets up the intensity from caring to hatred really quick, and it’s very believable. With next to no lines, Elisabet is a fascinating character, as she does all of her acting silently. We get to see her very expressive face fill with horror, deceit, compassion. Persona takes us through the full spectrum of human emotion with Elisabet’s face and takes us through both character’s struggles through Alma’s voice. The two are inseparable as one without the other makes the movie impossible, both are reliant on each other to tell the story. Without Elisabet’s facial expressions and actions we wouldn’t be able to interpret Alma’s own inner suffering, while without Alma’s monologues and probing speeches we would have no idea what was going on inside Elisabet’s head. It’s the fact that they’re perfect for each other that makes the viewer wonder if they are one in the same and if this is actually just a conversation with Alma’s own subconscious.

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Persona in its entirety is an absolutely gorgeous film filled with questions and mysteries to unlock. The lack of complete explanation of all of the imagery in the film makes it all the more intriguing to watch. It’s a film that has inspired the likes of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and David Fincher (I honestly didn’t expect those examples to all be David’s). Especially with Fincher’s Fight Club the inspiration is seen clearly. A movie that is as daring and provocative today as it was when it was first released, Persona is a classic that will continue to haunt viewers for years to come.

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