by Pauline Kael
There is a brief passage in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona – Bibi Andersson tells about a day and night of sex – that is so much more erotic than all of Ulysses that it demonstrates what can be done on the screen with told material. We do not need to see images of the beach and the boy and the return to the fiancee that she describes because the excitement is in how she tells it. Bergman has the capacity to create images that set off reverberations: in the early part of Illicit Interlude an old woman appears for just a moment on a road – walking – and this image, like the croquet game in Smiles of a Summer Night, seems to be suspended in time. In moments like these, Bergman is a great artist. In Persona Bibi Andersson’s almost fierce revery has that kind of beauty. As she goes on talking, with memories of summer and nakedness and pleasure in her words and the emptiness of her present in her face, we begin to hold our breath in fear that Bergman can’t sustain this almost intolerably difficult sequence. But he does, and it builds and builds and is completed. It’s one of the rare, truly erotic sequences on film.
Bergman’s movies have almost always had some kind of show within the show: a ballet, a circus, a magic show, a bit of animation, many pieces of plays and even whole plays. In Persona, as in the very early Prison, Bergman involves us in the making of a movie. He gives us a movie within a movie, but he seems hardly to have made the enclosing movie, and then he throws away the inner movie. (I thought I even felt it go – at the repeated passage, when the director seems to be trying an alternate way of shooting a sequence.) It’s a pity because the inner movie had begun to involve us in marvelous possibilities: an actress (Liv Ullmann) who has abandoned the power of speech is put in the care of a nurse (Bibi Andersson); and the nurse, like an analysand who becomes furious at the silence of the analyst, begins to vent her own emotional disturbances. In the dramatic material the women don’t change identity; it is merely their roles that change as the nurse become hysterical and uncontrollable. But the two look very much alike, and Bergman plays with this resemblance photographically by suggestive combinations and superimpositions.
Most movies give so little that it seems almost barbarous to object to Bergman’s not giving us more in Persona, but it is just because of the expressiveness and fascination of what we are given that the movie is so frustrating. Though it’s possible to offer interpretations, I don’t think that treating Persona as the pieces of a puzzle and trying to put them together will do much more than demonstrate ingenuity at guesswork. It’s easy to say that the little boy reaching up to the screen is probably Bergman as a child; and he may also represent the nurse’s aborted baby and/or the actress’s rejected son. But for this kind of speculation (and one would have to go through almost every image in the movie this way) to have any purpose, there must be a structure of meanings in the work by which an interpretation can be validated; I don’t think there is one in Persona. If there is, it is so buried that it doesn’t function in the work. We respond to the image of the little boy – not because he’s Bergman or an abortion but simply in terms of the quality and intensity of the image – but we don’t know why it’s in this film.
It may be that an open puzzle movie like this one, which affects some people very profoundly, permits them to project into it so much of themselves that what they think the movie is about has very little to do with what happens on the screen. This kind of projection – which we used to think of as the pre-critical responsiveness of the mass audience – is now common in the educated audience. People can be heard saying that they “didn’t worry about whether it was good or bad,” they “just let it happen to them.” And if the educated audience is now coming around to the larger audience’s way of seeing movies, I would suggest that they are also being sold in the same way as the larger audience, that advertising and the appearance of critical consensus it gives to certain movies are what lead people to “let” certain prestigious movies “happen to them,” just as the larger audience lets an epic musical spoof like Thoroughly Modem Millie happen to them. The idea is that “art” should be experienced, not criticized. There seems to be little sense that critical faculties are involved in experience, and that if they are not involved, advertising determines what is accepted as art.
The New Republic, May 6, 1967; pp. 32-33