Ingmar Bergman’s Persona can be seen as the apex of his cinematic career – at one point in the film, even the celluloid itself appears to burn up in the projector, as if there was nowhere further to go. Like his Italian counterpart Fellini, Bergman achieved fame in European art cinema in the 1950s and early 60s but unexpectedly made his masterpiece out of a creative crisis. After the collapse of a project focusing on two actresses, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann (who both had intimate relationships with the director), Bergman spent time in hospital, where he came up with a fresh idea. Struck by the women’s physical likeness, he planned to explore questions of identity through the encounter between a great stage actress (Ullmann) who has inexplicably fallen silent and the insecure, garrulous nurse (Andersson) assigned to look after her. Secluded on the barren island of Fårö (which became Bergman’s favourite location and main home), the protagonists – both brilliantly played – engage in a battle of wills, their divergent attitudes towards sex and motherhood merging in disturbing ways. The erotic intensity and rawness of Persona was challenging in 1966, and remains so – few film ‘classics’ still feel so modern.
Any sense of a conventional psychodrama is constantly disrupted by the experimental, improvisatory nature of the filmmaking. Bergman begins the film with a violent, fractured opening montage illustrating the nature of cinema itself and keeps ratcheting up the ambiguities by blurring realism and fantasy. Self-reflexivity never seemed so seductive, as the film freely plays with ideas of public masks and inner secrets, vampirism physical and metaphysical, and the fine line between screen performance and real lives.
Persona has virtually defined the outer reaches of subsequent ‘art’ cinema, influencing visionary directors from Robert Altman and Nicolas Roeg to David Lynch and Olivier Assayas. Its iconography has become pervasive – Andersson’s cool blackrimmed sunglasses, the haunting images of the two women facing the camera, all beautifully rendered in the velvety monochrome photography of Sven Nykvist. The film’s overtly Jungian aspects and slippery narrative have provoked many questions and debates; Bergman gave little away, preferring audiences to draw their own conclusions. He followed Persona with some great films, but nothing quite as audacious.