BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Bergman, in passing.

Persona’s opening sequence would probably have had Film Society patrons wondering if the technical difficulties that beset previous weeks’ films had continued with this one. The famous montage shatters the notion of cinema, the idea that we’re comfortably going to suture ourselves into whatever film is playing. And he starts with light (not really in a biblical sense) and splices in clips from the ‘beginning’ of cinema. He moves onto animation, slapstick comedy, horror, pornography (Fight Club wasn’t so anarchic in that respect). Film is instead imaged as a violent art-form, something which tears, destroys, kills. Bergman adopts the idea that cinema captures death – what we see is no longer living, it stopped living the moment it was captured by a camera – and all we see are ghosts of the original trace. Throw in explorations of the tyrannical artist, charting the alienation of human contact, and an emphasis on the frailty/constructed nature of the visual image and you have one of the all-time masterpieces of world cinema.

The late, great Swedish director Bergman is not particularly noted for his humour or warmth, particularly in his 1960s-70s work. Especially given his thematic fascination with people who cannot, or are unable to, communicate with each other (except often in the basest sense). And Persona isn’t particularly different, which certainly doesn’t make it the easiest or happiest watch. But given that this film, along with Scenes From a Marriage, are my personal favourites Bergman works, I am more than prepared to wax lyrical about this deconstruction of cinema and relationships. It is important to contextualise the film though, as modernism had heavily changed the way auteurs in the ‘60s constructed their films – suddenly filmmakers from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and Brazil etc. were joining the French, the Italian and the American avant-garde in deconstructing the filmic medium. Bergman had already won art-house favour since the ‘50s, but formally, this film is very unlike other films in his oeuvre. You can sense the influence of Godard and the like in Persona’s vision, and Bergman influenced these directors back (for example, the sex discussion has a clear parallel to Godard’s Weekend).

I often find that I’m left with particular imagery or moods from Bergman’s films, and that narrative is of secondary importance. His imagery is often so memorable that they are often the lasting, de-contextualised remnants of the film (e.g. a knight playing chess with the Grim Reaper). Persona contains some startling imagery (I’ll talk about the most startling one later), where he strips his characters down to the sparest settings. All that’s often left in the mise-en-scène are the bare essentials – shelter, warmth, food, clothing. Often there’s not even that, where his bodies seem to float in an “un-space”. His cinema strips everything right back.

There is an icy, detached veneer to Bergman’s work, and he’s particularly brutal with his characters. The film charts an inexperienced nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) whose latest patient, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), is a renowned actress who has suddenly decided to stop talking. Alma and Elisabet go to a seaside bach to assist in Elisabet’s recuperation, but Elisabeth continues to remain silent. In effect, Alma starts constructing a character. She has a silent muse to whom she confesses (an extraordinarily frank tale of a sexual encounter given the time period), to whom she gets angry and frustrated with, and whom she plays with. She demands that her character speak, express herself, but Elisabet can only react to how Alma has constructed her. Alma’s character becomes someone she cannot control, she has a life of her own, and the author becomes a tyrant who threatens to destroy her creation. Bergman’s construction of the artist as an egotistic, pathetic despot is continually underlined by the frequent deconstructions of film (Bergman breaks up the action, with highlighting the violence of the filmic medium). He also appears himself, filming the action, at the end. But it is the film’s most revolutionary shot, when Alma and Elisabet merge – the tyrannical author and the blank character – that Bergman gets to the essence of artistic construction. It isn’t an easy watch – and there’s something ruthless which might alienate some – but Persona is a film which drags cinema kicking and screaming into the realms of high art. I guess the best compliment I could give this film, is that it takes film in directions that no other art-form could possibly go.