Ingmar Bergman

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Diane M. Borden

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For Bergman, the human face is a register, a kind of antenna that signals and communicates the life of the consciousness. That "life" is a constant existenial search for self, for wholeness and integrity amidst ever present elements of fragmentation and isolation. Throughout the films, characters seek an identity through the "other" in such intimate relationships as patient and nurse, sister and sister, husband and wife. Ego often finds its alter ego in this other. At the core of this convoluted psychology is the key concept of "passion" with both its erotic and religious connotations. For Bergman, the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, between the hidden and known aspects of the psyche, between the self and other, forms the essential crisis, hence passion, of being itself. This baroque psychology, with all its elaborate overlays of nuance and ambivalence, finds its perfect cinematic expression in the facial close-up. (p. 43)

Perhaps in Persona, more than in any other film, the genius of Bergman's facial icon seems most pronounced…. [Perhaps] the supreme art of facial iconography comes to fruition in the veiled double-door sequence from this film. Surely it must be one of the most numinous in all of film art…. Here, Bergman creates facial iconography at its most breathtaking; the aesthetic and psychological dimensions seem perfectly and radiantly realized. Human faces are sculpted into an aesthetic order—and aesthetic objects are humanized.

The facial icon is in itself a technique uniquely Bergmanesque. But it also typifies the general stylistic qualities that characterize Bergman's art. The facial close-up is a "limited" shot, limited not in its potential meaning, but limited by the dimensions Bergman purposely chooses. This limitation of means is symptomatic of Bergman's aesthetic austerity. Nevertheless, within these boundaries … resonances of great complexity are created.

The austerity of Bergman's films is primarily descriptive of his aesthetic style. Yet tonally, the films, particularly those of the 1960's and 1970's, in their vision of the human condition are often likewise austere. However, Bergman's world is not necessarily pessimistic; the numinous qualities of some of his facial iconography point out the spiritual elements of human existence. Within a barren, alien world, there does exist a place of grace and beatitude, a possibility of psychological wholeness and "salvation."

Bergman has referred to his work as chamber cinema, and with good reason. If we consider the musical analogy implied in the phrase, we perhaps can better understand the structure and style of his work. Chamber music, in contrast to the symphonic form, sets a limit of instruments and a limit of themes. Its dimension is "small" but its techniques are highly inventive, working as it does in all the varieties of contrapuntal form. Bergman has knowledged his artistic heritage from Bach, so that, like Bach working out the multiple designs of a fugal pattern, Bergman likewise drains a technique, like the facial close-up, of all its aesthetic and thematic possibilities.

We might call Bergman's style then a kind of inventiveness in limitation. This efficiency of means, so striking in the facial icon, is matched by other elements in the films: the limited number of actors, the barren landscape, the simple sets and decor, the few but recurrent images, the terse dialogue, the repeated theme of existential crisis and its concommitant passion. Each film seems a part of a larger piece, as if each production is working out further variations of the master work. That is why, in part, there is such a tight continuity in the overall style and structure of Bergman's opus. And one of the major techniques contributing to this continuity is the facial icon. In it we can recognize Bergman's distinctive cinematic style and genius. (pp. 53-5)

Diane M. Borden, "Bergman's Style and the Facial Icon," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (copyright © 1977 by Docent Corporation), Vol. 2, No. 1, February, 1977, pp. 42-55.

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