Ingmar Bergman's 1966 masterpiece is so brilliant it's dangerous. It's the only film that ever made me want to jump off a bridge (back when I saw it in college). Really. Watching it now on Criterion's new Blu-ray, I found it just as fascinating, but not quite as powerful, thank goodness. Some of the diminution is just the passing of a few decades. But it's also because watching it in the familiarity of home rather than a big, half-empty theater cranks down the despair a bit.
Bergman regular Bibi Andersson plays a nurse assigned to look after an actress (Liv Ullmann, in the first of her many performances for the director) who has suddenly gone mute. There is nothing wrong with her physically, nor can her doctor find any mental illness. For want of any better ideas, the two women repair to a vacation home on a remote island, where slowly but surely the nurse begins to unravel and the two identities begin to merge or shift or something. (David Lynch's “Mulholland Drive” owes a lot to “Persona.”)
Bergman was already an international icon of art-house cinema, but “Persona” signified a shift in his style. His previous films had employed standard narrative technique. But “Persona” opened with a six-minute sequence with inexplicable images and cuts that recall the surrealists. And once the actual story starts, there are then-shocking tricks — the audio of one scene is presented twice in a row with a different visual accompaniment; an image freezes and then burns up, as though the film has gotten stuck in the projector gate.
These moments have lost some impact over the years, because such narrative techniques have become a little more common. The shock factor is gone.
Criterion provides a crisp image that fully conveys Sven Nykvist's meticulous cinematography. Likewise the sometimes expressionistic soundtrack is faithfully rendered. That alone would recommend the release, but the extras are many and fascinating.
To start with, critic Peter Cowie presents a visual essay, explaining the production's background and analyzing the opening sequence. Then there's a 1966 TV interview with the director and his stars, in which Bergman says — hold your breath — “I'd much rather see ‘Goldfinger’ than an Antonioni film.”
There is a solo interview in English from 1970, and a new interview with Liv Ullmann. Paul Schrader also shows up, giving a ten 10-minute explanation of the movie's impact at the time. There are also nearly 20 minutes of silent “on the set” footage narrated by scholar Birgitta Steene.
If all that weren't enough, Criterion also includes the entirety of Dheeraj Akolkar's 90-minute 2012 documentary “Liv & Ingmar,” in which Ullmann reminisces five years after Bergman's death.
Even more than usual, it would be ideal if everyone's first experience of the film could be in a theater. But in the real universe, this new release is as much as anyone could want.
Persona (Criterion, Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, $39.95)
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).