This month’s Blind Spot post covers two Bergman films for the price of one. This experience was a long time coming for me, and I hope you enjoy reading about it. If you haven’t seen the films, watch them! I’d also like to thank my wonderful sister-in-law Caroline Hagood for her feedback on this post.
I’ve just watched my first two Ingmar Bergman films. I don’t know why I took so long to get around to Bergman—or I should say, I don’t know how NYU conferred me a Bachelor of Cinema Studies without forcibly injecting Bergman into my veins. He represents everything mysterious and wonderful about the cinema. Watching Bergman’s films is like taking a trip into the human psyche; conscious and unconscious impulses find their voice on the screen, and they seem to stem from my own thoughts as much as Bergman’s and his characters’. It would be impossible to write about these films without waxing philosophical. If you want to learn about yourself, watch Bergman.
WILD STRAWBERRIES is about Isak Borg, a crotchety professor who is traveling from Stockholm to Lund to receive an honorary degree from a university. He had planned to fly with his live-in maid, but after a disturbing nightmare Isak decides on a whim to drive instead. With him comes his daughter-in-law, Marianne, who recently separated from Isak’s son. Over the day’s journey, they visit people and places from Isak’s youth and make the acquaintance of some fellow travelers.
I’m sure countless critics have said this, but WILD STRAWBERRIES is one of the most profound meditations on aging in film. Taking the journey with Isak is like peeling open his mind. Memories unfold and unravel like poetry, revealing Isak’s childhood longings and disappointments, and different causes for his stubbornness and lack of feeling. And Isak’s journey companions awaken long-dormant places in him; a young maiden and her two male friends evoke the masculine strivings of his youth, and the sense of joy and freedom he may have had then. A bitter and unstable middle-aged couple mirror the anger and isolation that spawned Isak’s jadedness in old age. Isak is looking back, seeing where he is and who he has been; he is hoping for some sense of accomplishment and peace.
Towards the end of his journey, Isak and Marianne pay a visit to his elderly mother. The somewhat bland scene is deeply meaningful for understanding Isak. This 78-year-old man seems nothing more than a child in the presence of his mother; he yearns for her affection as she hides behind her orderliness and detachment; when she recalls her memories of Isak, she speaks not from sentimentality, but a meticulous desire to get the details right. For me, traveling with Isak was like being in therapy with him. A seemingly innocuous conversation about a bad dream paves the way for profound ruminations on his childhood, his hopes for his old age, and his profound fear of death. Watching this all unfold on the screen was breathtaking.
PERSONA is a horse of a different color. On the surface the story of a young nurse and her patient, a stage actress who has become mute, this film is a challenging exploration into the boundaries of identity and reality. Before the narrative commences, a montage of confusing and horrifying images floods the screen: a tarantula, a penis, a crucifixion. What do these images mean? As the credits appear, a young, gaunt-looking boy touches a screen depicting a blurry image of a woman. What is he grasping for?
Alma and Elisabet, the nurse and the actress, travel to a doctor’s summer home to relax and recuperate. Elisabet has nothing physically wrong with her, but she has stopped speaking altogether. At the cottage, Alma bares her soul and Elisabet listens silently. A powerful connection seems to grow between them as Alma reveals things she has never told anyone and Elisabet listens with compassion. But there is something a bit off about them. Alma is beginning to unravel, and the patient is becoming the nurse.
As the film’s title suggests, Bergman is concerned with what makes us who we are, or who we appear to be. During these early chapters, I strove to understand the two women, particularly Alma, who did the lion’s share of the talking. The more I learned about her, the more I felt attracted to her vitality, her curiosity about the world. I also longed to know more of Elisabet, who seemed to hide a great deal in her silence. But when tension starts to grow between the two, the alluring comfort of these feelings dissolves. The more I thought I knew them, the further away I was.
Bergman seems to be concerned with the existential fear that comes from truly knowing another person, or even oneself. As Alma and Elisabet challenge each other’s stated identities, they begin to blend together into a single person. Certain scenes—expressions of fear on both women’s faces, Alma’s revelations about Elisabet’s past—feel more like symbolic truths than narrative truths. Bergman is depicting the emotional experience of trying to relate to another person on screen. His montage at the beginning of the film was a warning: abandon all hope of understanding, ye who enter here. Ahead lies only the terror of human existence. At the end of the film, I feel like I know nothing; but the point is to accept not knowing.
WILD STRAWBERRIES and PERSONA are both predominantly concerned with identity, and yet they seem to make opposite points. WILD STRAWBERRIES is about revelation; Isak rediscovers himself in his old age through his memories and his companions. By the end of the film, the viewer shares his feelings of peace and understanding. In PERSONA, all revelations are false. The closer you get to knowing, the harder reality becomes to grasp. Truth becomes ephemeral, and is eventually replaced by terror.
But these films are two sides of the same truth. To live is to be in terror of death, and to accept its inevitability all the same. If Isak was able to make peace with death in his old age, I also feel somewhat more at terms with death after watching PERSONA. The difference in PERSONA is not the lack of resolution it offers its characters; the film’s characters are merely representations. The real subject of PERSONA is you.