Ingmar Bergman has left behind a number of films to remember him by. Here’s looking at one of the most baffling — and most beautiful.
AUG 5, 2007 – RUMOUR HAS IT that Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard spent a few tense hours in their homes this Monday last, wondering if the next knock on the door would come from a cloaked man with a scythe. That’s what it seemed like on the day that claimed both Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, as if the Grim Reaper were assiduously whittling his way through a list of the last few great European directors, who defined — and dominated — the most self-conscious, self-indulgent of cinema in an era where filmmaking was as much meditation as masturbation.
Bergman and Antonioni certainly aren’t the first practitioners of what we’ve come to call Art Cinema — an intimidating, yet mildly condescending phrase which suggests that cinema weren’t already an art form, that we needed these artists to infuse the medium with art — and they certainly won’t be the last. But the films that they made are foremost among those that we instantly look towards in order to frame discussions about a cinematic age — mainly the fifties and the sixties — whose output could induce equal parts nirvana and narcolepsy. Slow, surreal and obstinately resistant to facile interpretation, these films came with the daunting precondition that your first viewing could not be your last, because you needed each subsequent revisit to illuminate — in the manner of a gemstone being rotated under a table lamp — an aspect that never caught your eye before.
And, truth be told, these aspects, sometimes, could be seen only by you. While it is true of almost all cinema that what a viewer brings to the screening contributes to half the experience — the other half being what is being screened — Art Cinema would not exist without audience participation. Exhibit A in this contention would be Bergman’s Persona, if only for the early scene featuring a hypnotic close-up — in a film filled with hypnotic close-ups — of Liv Ullman. There she is, at first fully lit by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and you think, “What a sad face!” And as the light gets progressively dimmer, different facets of this sad, immobile face get thrown into relief — a curve of cheek, the shadow below the nose, the barest pinpricks of brightness in the eyes — and as there’s no dialogue, no exposition, no aid of any kind to tell you what’s going on, the only thing you can do is project yourself into her mind and theorise about what’s going on.
Bergman has many other films that are equally inscrutable — rather, he leaves the scrutiny to you — but those other films are at least about something. You could debate unto eternity whether the shot, in Wild Strawberries, of a clock without hands indicates timelessness or death or merely carelessness on the part of the manufacturer of the timepiece, but at least you knew that the film was about an elderly man looking back on his life, just as you knew that The Seventh Seal was about a knight attempting to buy time from Death, and Winter Light was about a pastor experiencing a crisis of faith. That overarching sense of narrative purpose is utterly absent in Persona, which begins by appearing to be about a nurse (Bibi Andersson) tending to an actress (Ullman) who fell silent during her last performance of Electra and hasn’t spoken since, but goes on to be about whatever you want it to be.
The film unfolds with one stunning Nykvist frame after another — with the exception of a remarkable tracking shot, reminiscent of Kurosawa in its dynamism and depth, Persona is almost entirely a series of still lifes with the faintest flickers of movement — and viewers have attempted to make sense of these images with any number of theories. That the film opens with a carbon-arc lamp, with reels of celluloid flying by, with light coming out of an aperture — that is, the physical aspects of film projection — has been interpreted as Bergman’s deconstructionist declaration that his art is artificial, that what he’s showing is not reality, that it’s just a movie. (How strange, this, when those who look down on our masala cinema’s elements of fantasy end up benchmarking films like Persona as “real!”)
But it’s with the characters that the interpretations get really interesting. The startling mirror-image formed by the juxtaposition of one half each of Ullman’s and Andersson’s faces — a moment whose momentousness is underscored rather ominously (and, as viewed today, somewhat hilariously) with a crash of dissonant chords — probably represents two sides of the same woman. But this theory has been negated by those that point out that the strange intimacy between Andersson and Ullman’s husband — towards the end of the film, when nothing earlier has given any indication that the two are even aware of each other’s existence — suggests that it’s actually the transference of personality from one woman to another.
But the reason Persona hooks me every time is the possibility that the film is simply a form of therapy for Bergman, confused as he may have been about his attraction to Andersson (with whom he’d ended a relationship) and Ullman (with whom he was in a relationship during the making of the movie). One of Andersson’s tirades directed at Ullman is possibly a tirade against Bergman himself. (“You have used me. For what, I don’t know. Now that you don’t need me anymore, you throw me away.”) And if further proof were needed — to the extent that our guesses about a filmmaker’s motivations can be “proved” — there’s the scene where Andersson slits her arm and allows Ullman to suck the blood. Ullman being the artist in the film — and therefore a stand-in for the artist that is the director — this act has been widely interpreted as Bergman’s acknowledgment of his vampirism in feeding off the lives of those around him.
And that, above all, is what defined filmmakers like Bergman. They were intensely personal filmmakers who left behind shreds of their personality in everything they touched. They weren’t exploring cinema so much as exploring their selves, which is why their films ended up looking like they couldn’t have been made in any other way, or by anybody else. If red was a predominant colour in Cries and Whispers, it was because Bergman “pictured the inside of the soul as a moist membrane in shades of red” — it wasn’t artistic choice so much as artistic inevitability. And now that he’s yielded to the inevitability of life — and despite the sadness — you can’t help smiling that he finally has answers to at least two of the questions that he explored throughout his career: whether there’s a God, and whether He’s really a spider.
Copyright Â©2007 The New Sunday Express