Bergman and intimacy

Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Persona (1966).

I re-watched Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) this week; it remains so striking in so many different ways that it’s incredible to realize that the film is now fifty years old.  It moves effortlessly and mystifyingly in and out of its various registers (psychodrama, erotic fantasy, experimental film), often creeping into territory that Bergman would not dare to touch in any other work.  Is there a sexual passage in Bergman more potent than Bibi Andersson’s monologue, delivered to the (outwardly) non-responsive Liv Ullmann, in which she recounts a long-ago beachside orgy with two teenage boys and another girl?  Andersson’s voice veritably throbs with pleasure at the memory of that day while Ullmann sits perfectly still, watching and listening with an intensity that is no less powerful for being silent.  So Persona is maybe Bergman’s sexiest movie, with the possible exception of The Silence, or parts of Through a Glass Darkly.  It’s also his scariest: along with Hour of the Wolf, it’s something like an art-house horror movie.  I don’t think I’d ever noticed before how alluringly predatory Ullmann is here; she moves in and out of the rooms of the cabin like a sexy vampire, and in certain close-ups her stony expression flickers with wanton cruelty.  (And all of that’s before we get to the scene where Ullmann presses her lips to Andersson’s bleeding arm…)  And it might also be his most stylish (Bibi Andersson’s sunglasses!).

Modernist style.

One of the many other things about Persona—and Bergman’s chamber dramas generally—that remains remarkably potent is its almost uncanny sense of intimacy: watching them, you feel like you are actually sharing space with the actors on the screen as they yawn or eat an apple or run their fingers through their hair or whatever.  It’s not just that Bergman’s close-ups are extreme (although they are; watching Criterion’s Blu-ray version of Persona, you can almost count Ullmann and Andersson’s pores).  It’s that the chamber dramas make it seem as if everything else in the world has been drowned out except for yourself and the two or three people onscreen.  Distilled down to its very essence, seen though the brilliantly modulated cinematography of Sven Nykvist, life in these films (life on Fårö Island?) is stark, material, and otherworldly.  There is an intense tactile quality to the way that the people interact with each other, with objects, and with the landscape—always the sound of the waves in the distance, and the toll of foghorns in the night.  The characters’ relationships with things feel solid and comfortable even as their relationships with each other feel liminal and hazy and, at the same time, hugely charged.  I think what drew me to Bergman’s films as a young teenager was my wish to live inside that world, which seemed so beguiling and mysterious, and so full of possibility.

Ullmann's vampiric gaze.

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