People like you can't be reached.

People like you can’t be reached.

Last week, I finally finished watching Mark Cousins’ THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY. Since many of you who read this site are likewise watching the documentary series, I don’t need to spend too much time explaining that it is exhaustive, intricate, and illuminating. It wants to detail not only the films and filmmakers that have shaped motion pictures, but also what these artists and their art have brought out is us – the viewers.

Through its evolution, film has inspired and challenged us. It has gone from capturing moving images to telling complicated stories. It has become a living, breathing, thing – something no longer content to be watched, but something interested in watching us.

With all of this in mind, there might have been no more fitting Blind Spot Selection to follow THE STORY OF FILM with than Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA.

Elisabet

If you’ve never seen PERSONA, its plot is a little tricky to describe. What you need to know is that an actress named Elisabet is admitted to a hospital after suffering some sort of mental fracture that has rendered her mute. Soon, Elisabet’s doctor is approached by a hospital administrator named Alma. Alma offers to take Elisabet up to her seaside cottage for a retreat that may do her some good.

Once there, the two women interact in ways that leaves them – and us – wondering where one ends and where the other begins.

That’s what the film is about: the plot is just that simple. What makes PERSONA so special – so very, very special – isn’t what it’s about, so much as how it is about it.

For starters, of every essential film I have watched in this series, this is the first one that is self-aware. Not only did it feel self-aware, but it was so right from the opening tip. Beginning as it does almost nightmarish, with visions of genitalia, crucifixions, and a sheep…all of it dotted with lights turning on and projectors rolling. Short of hearing Bergman yell “action” (or however one says “action” in Swedish), it’s hard to think of a more deliberate feeling of the cinematic machine ratcheting into gear than these scattershot images and the little boy who eventually becomes our focus.

Once the machine is in gear, it reminds us time after time to watch and listen.

It shows us how much emotion will be placed on the altar for us, if we only keep our mouths shut…and our ears & eyes open. It begins when we see Elisabet become so distraught at the sight of a buddhist monk setting himself on fire in protest. She sees it on television, so there should be some separation aiding her given that she’s not standing at the scene bearing witness. For Elisabet though, there is no difference. The moving image might as well be happening mere meters away so intense is the visual. What she watches is a real event, but with considering how much larger a scale film utilizes, it’s as if PERSONA wants to underline how affecting a visual can be when we give ourself over to it.

Likewise, there is Alma recounting her sexual tryst. Since Elisabet is in no position to interrupt her, she zeroes in on what Alma has to say and the raw honesty infused in every word. The story runs the gamut: from  amusing, to sexy, to tragic. By making us sit and listen to Alma’s words, we are able to hear the complexity we might otherwise miss if it were peppered with score, or editing, or splashy visuals.

PERSONA wants us to listen, just as much as it wants us to watch.

Bergman

Later on in the film, we learn that there is a case study happening. The relationship between the women isn’t as much caregiver and patient as it is subject and observer. Just to give an extra turn of the screw, the subject isn’t actually aware that they are being observed.

The subject isn’t all that happy about being studied, and one has to wonder if there’s a kernel of truth in there about the study of film itself?

For decades we have poured over film after film. They have been dissected frame by frame, whether they were intended to stand as pieces of entertainment or personal statements. We have critiqued these pieces of art, re-considered them, and critiqued them again. What if – and this is just a theory – we aren’t meant to study these pieces of art, we’re just meant to admire and enjoy? Is it possible that if PERSONA was in the room with a student or critic and understood that it wasn’t being soaked up so much as it was being dissected, that it would respond with the same amount of fire.

As pointed out earlier, Bergman wants us to watch and listen. Studying isn’t part of the equation.

As if to prove it, the very moment that confrontation between the characters seems imminent, the film breaks. The image breaks, tears, and eventually burns from the reel…but not before a character casts a quick and angry look right into camera. She knows. She knows that she’s being studied, just as the film knows we’re studying. There’s real instigation in this moment, stemming from the truth being revealed. What if the truth is ours to own up to? That we’re meant to feel shame in that instant; seeing something we aren’t supposed to see.

After one hour of watching the film, it has suddenly become clear that this film was watching us.

Andersson and Ullmann

PERSONA eventually lives up to its name and makes us examine just what it is that makes us who and what we are.

These women seem to be one thing to one-another (and to us), but as their circumstances change so too does their character. At times, they seem like two halves of the same whole (helped in no small part by the way Bergman chooses to film them), but at others, they are polar opposites. They are at odds with each other, and themselves. We find ourselves wondering if we really know either one of them after ninety minutes, and likewise, if we ever know anyone. When these women decide they’ve had enough of this situation, they pack up and walk away from it (and each other). At a glance, abandoning pieces of the people we are seems curious, and then we remember that we do it every day.

We quit jobs, we move cities, we end relationships. We replace these things about ourselves and more, becoming different people to different people…drifting from persona to persona. We could study ourselves for years, watching and listening intently. Will we ever come any closer to understanding it, or will we shake off our observers with a defiant look?

PERSONA is one of the most complexed films I have watched in the nearly two years I’ve been going at this series, and likewise one of the best. In some ways, I feel like arriving at it any sooner might have been a waste, as I might well not have been ready for it.

I would have watched it without hesitation, but perhaps not noticed the way it watched me back.

I post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for October so far…

Sean Kelly watched DEAD ALIVE

Will Kouf watched FREAKS

Andy Hart watched SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS

Josh watched COME AND SEE

The Void watched BATTLE ROYALE

SDG watched FRANKENSTEIN

Dan Heaton watched SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS

Bob Turnbull watched PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (in a neat twist, not only was he late writing it, but I was late in linking it)