Being a storyteller at heart I generally don’t like abstract or experimental movies unless, like most of Godard’s films, they’re in the nature of essays about movies, essays about stories.
Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is an abstract and experimental movie which I do like, because it’s very playful in its violation of normal narrative expectations, in its exploration of the extreme limits of what movies can do. There is a story at the center of it, like an image in a mirror that Bergman smashes to pieces and reassembles in front of your eyes, not quite the way it was but still recognizable.
As with Godard’s films, the “text”, insofar as it can be read, is less important than the way the text is looked at, assembled and reassembled. The text of Persona, about the instability of the ego, the essential meaninglessness of the ego, is sort of trite. It’s the clever ways Bergman finds to examine the text, using all his considerable resources as a filmmaker, that keeps the film engaging and entertaining.
In general I find Bergman’s gloomy existentialism tiresome but Persona is not tiresome. Its dour text contradicts the exhilarating experience of watching it. Maybe Bergman knew he was creating this paradox, maybe not. It doesn’t really matter.
The film is engaging and entertaining in another aspect as well—the erotic. At its center are two very beautiful and sensual women playing characters who may or may not be falling in love with each other, may or may not be two parts of the same character trying to reconcile with each other. Either way it’s non-stop girl-on-girl action at every level but the physical, and this is erotically intriguing.
Bergman doesn’t try to pretend that the interaction of the two women is not being seen from a male perspective, but the power of the performances by the two female leads subverts the male gaze, gets beyond it and whatever limits it might want to set on the relationship between the characters. This generates a complex tension, which Bergman wisely chose not to resolve.
There is also one quite extraordinary scene in which one of the women recounts to the other, in a extended monologue, an episode of anonymous sex on a beach. The sexual encounter takes place entirely off-screen but becomes one of the most erotic moments in all of cinema. It’s one of those off-screen scenes, like the one conjured up by Mr. Bernstein’s story of the girl on the ferry in Citizen Kane, that are as potent and indelible as any on-screen scene ever created.