Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, in 'Persona'

Dir. Ingmar Bergman
(1967, Not Rated, 83 min)

Sometimes you just have to say it: I didn’t get it.

I’ve written this review before. But then the movie was called Synecdoche, New York, or Inland Empire, or Eraserhead, or Brand Upon the Brain, or take your pick. It’s always the same review, because I always end up talking about myself. I can’t satisfactorily talk about the films, because I can’t engage them. I find myself on the outside while the filmmaker goes through his postmodern, existentialist, deconstructionist motions. I’m in my seat, and the film is up there on the screen, and there’s no bridging the gap.

In this review that I’ve written before, I talk about having an entry point, a means of becoming involved in the film while it contemplates its navel. If the filmmaker cannot make his navel interesting to me, why should I bother; the filmmaker could just as easily have the same discourse in a room by himself.

Persona is such a film. It’s a closed circuit, going round and round and round in a endless philosophical loop. There’s no room for me in it. Directed by Ingmar Bergman, it’s about — and do take the word “about” with a grain of salt — a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), and her patient, Elisabet (Liv Ullmann). Elisabet has lost her ability to speak, or refuses to. With Alma, she retreats to a secluded cottage where she hopes to recover from … I don’t know exactly.

Beautiful cinematography by Sven Nykvist accompanies their story, during which Alma and Elisabet’s personalities distort and merge. There’s a funny audio commentary on the DVD, by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais, who spends much of the film asking my questions for me: “What is happening here?” “Does this make sense?” “What is Bergman getting at?” It’s funny because when he asks the questions he’s enthralled, but when I ask them I’m aggravated. I observed the film’s mysteries, its self-references — the film opens with flashes of light and images of a film reel, and at times Elisabet seems to assume the role of director, training a still camera at us and at Alma — considered its themes of split personalities and doubles, which I think must have been a strong influence on David Lynch’s truly exhilarating Mulholland Drive, in which another pair of interconnected, vaguely Sapphic women have their identities overthrown midway through. But I reacted to them only as vague curiosities, and my eyes glazed over despite myself. I wasn’t involved emotionally, so the film’s intellectual puzzles left me rather cold.

Bergman reportedly wrote Persona while recovering in the hospital from a nervous breakdown and credited the film with saving his life. Indeed, it plays like the product of a nervous breakdown, so full of jagged edges, unanswered questions, angst, and despair. There’s a feeling of him working through contradictory ideas and impulses. For him, the end result was salvation. But as I watched it, there was just me, the movie, and the vast space between.

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