What to make of this? David Thomson: “Persona is about an actress who has a breakdown. She dries up on the stage and becomes speechless in life. Alone on an island with a talkative nurse, she listens and gradually absorbs the nurse – part actress taking up a new role, part emotional vampire”. In one of the final scenes the nurse opens a vein and forces the actress to suck her blood, so if it’s vampirism the victim is entirely willing, although she hates her tormentor (and herself) for it. A film about celebrity and fandom, then?

Or the most widely held view, according to Wikipedia: “Bergman and Elisabet share the same dilemma: they cannot respond authentically to catastrophes (such as the Holocaust or the Vietnam War). The actress Elisabet responds by no longer speaking: by contrast the filmmaker Bergman emphasizes the necessary illusions enabling us to live.” Elisabet shuts up before being confronted with newsreel from Vietnam or the photograph depicting the persecution of Jews in Poland, but nevertheless her dissatisfaction with the theatre may have something to do with its petty and inadequate nature when compared with genuine human tragedy. Why waste your time with art when you could be looking at something real? Something to that reading as well...

Or what about the two long confessional monologues, the first about the repressed sexual desires of a recently married twenty-something, the last about the fear and hatred of children and the wish to escape the bonds and responsibilities of motherhood. A film about women trapped in patriarchal family systems, having to perform as wives and mothers and defer sexual or existential satisfaction. A feminist reading works too, it seems...

Or what about the prelude that frames the narrative (such as it is). A light coming on, a line of film wheeling past, images flashing: sex, laughter, death – constituent parts of a million stories. A boy wakes up amongst corpses (the individual always ultimately separated from his fellows and alone) reading a book and becoming mesmerised by the actress on the cinema screen (art providing that sense of connection). Is the boy Bergman? At one of the dramatic peaks of the narrative, the film warps and burns up. At the end, the camera swings from the scene to show the film crew. A post-modern film, then – drawing attention to its artificial nature — becoming a film about our need for films.

I could go on, and many appear to have done so. Is it just me, or is there something slightly underwhelming about the sheer range of options being offered? Persona presents a whole tangled mass of signification, and it’s impossible to straighten it out into a single unified whole of a film. Different people latch onto different moments and meanings, and by the great variety of readings available somehow it becomes a consensus pick for great moment in movie history.

Apparently it was originally called A Bit of Cinematography, to emphasise its artificiality perhaps. The name would prepare you for the narrative being put in the service of photographic effects. What you get is bits not quite fitting together, explorations of a heap of themes composed of the same elements (cast, crew, set). I was left hungering for some sort of clarity – a sense of purpose. Perhaps the film is ultimately about how this doesn’t exist. Personas aren’t singular wholes, but unique collections of fragments gathered together by our engagement with the world, and with each other.

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