Tuesday, November 17, 2015
It’s easy to laugh at Persona now. The black-and-white cinematography, the direct address to camera, the stylized movements, and the meta-cinematic touches all suggest a seriousness that we no longer stomach these days in our “art” cinema, and here I’m using “art” to refer to anything outside the run-of-the-mill studio product. Even niche films or films given the highest level of attention in American independent cinema must with very rare exception come to market through a studio pipeline, and so often those films are content to answer questions instead of ask them. Take two 2015 releases, While We’re Young (which I liked) and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (which I didn’t). Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young is a skillfully executed comedy that suggests that even in one’s 40s it is still possible to live and to love well, and that there’s room for an occasional hip-hop dancing class. I’m doing the film a disservice; it’s very funny and also insightful about the reasons that people in their 20s are interested in cassette tapes and like to use the word “artisanal”. But at heart Baumbach wants to make his demographically narrow audience comfortable, and when the result is this much fun there’s nothing wrong with that. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Sundance winning Me and Earl and the Dying Girl wants to reassure that we can always grow and change and become better people. (Spoiler ahead) A teenaged boy stands in the room of a girl who has recently died, and among her things he discovers some art projects that reveal a talent that he didn’t know she possessed because he never bothered to ask. Our hero is affirmed in his self-absorption even in a time of tragedy; the memory of his friend is still alive and he didn’t even have to do any work. This is what passes for challenging.
I’m not going to pretend I understand Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film about an actress (Liv Ullmann) who has stopped speaking and the nurse (Bibi Andersson) hired to care for her at a seaside house. We’re told that Elisabet Vogler, the actress, is “healthy”. There are no modern notions of mental health at play here; Elisabet, confronted with career, motherhood, and (in one scene) images from Vietnam, has made a philosophical choice to retreat. The lack of a psychological explanation for Elisabet’s behavior is part of why I think Bergman doesn’t mean the film to be viewed in strictly realistic terms. The other reasons are the constant reminders we are watching a film, from the surreal prologue (the image of a boy looking at the projected image of a woman becomes meaningful) to the moment in the middle when the film appears to disintegrate in the projector. Persona is, formally, a work of art designed to advance a view of the crushing effects of being alive. Bibi Andersson’s Alma is the audience for Elisabet’s non-performance, and Andersson is brilliant at charting Alma’s slow attraction to and then duel with her patient. Elisabet is a blank slate onto which Alma can spill her story of a bizarre sexual encounter, her feelings about her career, and a possible future with an unseen boyfriend. As the connection between the two deepens Alma begins to teeter on the edge of choices that frighten all her assumptions about herself.
What does life mean? How does one cope? Is engaging with friends, family, or lovers really a meaningful act? The “drama” in Persona comes from how Alma answers these questions and it’s to Bergman’s credit that he leaves much to us to figure out. The film isn’t about two personalities “melding” or switching - an idea made famous thanks to one of the most sensual shots in the history of cinema (see the top of this post) - as it is about making a choice to live in the world. That universality is the reason the film has endured despite the trappings that now seem dated. Persona, like all great works of art, holds the mirror up to anyone lucky enough to discover it.