Tuesday, June 2, 2015

On Bergman's "Persona" of 1966; A Short Essay by Payman Akhlaghi (2015)

On Bergman's "Persona" (1966)
An Essay by Payman Akhalghi (Draft 2, Extended)

(*) First published on June the 2nd, 2015, at, under Notes on Cinema: Bergman's "Persona" (1966). Draft 1 available upon request.

This past weekend, May 2015, I returned to Bergman's Persona after about ten years since my first viewing. Back then I was exploring his many films quite rapidly, quenching a long-awaited thirst, aware that I would come back to them over the years. Persona was the most different of them all: a complex non-linear narrative, deliberately fast-paced, enigmatic, intriguing, stirring. I was smitten, yet humbled, for I also couldn't say at all that "I got it" -- rather rare for me. This time around, what an utterly fulfilling experience it was. It's a strange pleasure to try and relate to, and appreciate, this film close to its own ground; although my own understanding of it will likely continue to progress and change over time, and with each new viewing, not the least due to the decided ambiguity embedded in the work.

For now, and to initiate our relation, let's emphasize its "dream logic", which reminds me most of the later film by Tarkovsky, the enigmatic auto-biographical "Mirror" (1975), as well as the many experiments in narrative and montage in several films by Godard, as well as Bunuel, among the classics. For Bergman, however, the "surface anarchy of a dream", or the visions produced in a distraught psychological state, are already organized structurally, starting with the script, followed through each move and cut, and ending on the final edit, underscored with the sound effects and the outstanding avant-garde music by Lars Johan Werle, which evokes the better known Penderecki.

I allow readily that others might have offered alternative readings of this film. For now, allow for mine: the plot does yield to a common reading -- an actress in treatment, spending time alone in a beach-house retreat, alongside a nurse. But given many cues, both verbal and visual, it also compels us to understand the story on other layers -- most saliently, to borrow from the film, the break-up of a "person" into the true "I" inside and the outward "persona", perhaps due to the shock of a loss (of the son), but furthermore, as a fundamental element taken for granted in the art of "acting". The dialectics of these two sides of a single person, the dissociation and re-composition of her character structure, is projected on the interactions of the two lead characters and into their relation to those outside their bondage -- the husband, a doctor, and the (apparently) lost son. To see the "story" as such, as an animated representation of the structure of the mind, whether healthy or in distress, and to understand this mind as being that of the leading role played by Ms. Ullmann,  allows for interpreting the interim story of the two women within a pair of large parentheses, as a prolonged dream sequence with a straightforward narrative, punctuated on several spots with decidedly symbolic dream-like interludes. Still, as the film concludes on the image of "the actress back at her job", with an expressive look reaching us through the make up, a larger encompassing parentheses is closed -- the film itself was a story, a dream, whether the dream of a woman, or a prolonged contemplation on a moment in the life and mind of an actress in her role.

Note that the verbal cues that I evidently paraphrased from the film act merely as explications to the succinct visual seeds that were already planted in the highly enigmatic and influential opening montage. Recall the scratchy footage and count down digits, which emphasize that after all, it's "a film", a means to create a "critical distance" for the audience. Remember the morgue, the lifeless bodies of the elderly, the dead adolescent boy that comes to life, reaches for an invisible wall, and lets us see what he sees: the faces of two women, that of Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Andersson, replacing each other, "morphing" into one another. What follows, in a way, is thus the world of the living from the perspective of a beloved gone too soon, yet another potent level of interpretation.

I was specially struck in this viewing by how musical is the rhythm with which the camera and the actors are choreographed. For instance, at some point, though with much fluid fluctuation, events within the shot or the cuts are triggered roughly on a basic 4-beat duration at more or less MM=c.60, an inner tempo which is largely reiterated by the regulated sound of raindrops, when Bibi Andersson's character stops to read a disturbing letter in her car. Notice that I deliberately avoid the mention of "seconds" in favor of a musical tempo, as the work relies on a more subjective sense of time than the standard clock would suggest. Other sequences, I speculate, could be measured for their inner rhythm accordingly with considrable success. The music, the score itself, often made of string chromatic clusters, dissonance contrapuntal inflections, extended glissandi, and percussive attacks, naturally responds to the director's rhythm -- unless the relation was reversed for the production, and the film was cut to the music, as say, Kubrick did to Penderecki and Bartok in The Shining.

Far from a final note on the film, this was meant as an appreciation, and as an introduction to further discussion of the film. Besides the DVD, the film is currently offered by Criterion Collection on Hulu.

© 2015, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved. Revised.

(*) Payman Akhlaghi is a composer, pianist and piano teacher based in Los Angeles. His repertoire covers Classical music, as well as Persian (Iranian) Music, Pop Music, and Film Music. For information on the lessons in the Greater Los Angeles area, including Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Encino, Brentwood, etc. please call: 310-208-2927. Thank you.

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