Stanley Kauffmann

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586

Shortly after I saw Ingmar Bergman's Persona for the first time, I discovered the writings of R. D. Laing. Laing is a Scottish psychiatrist, blazingly humane, who is trying to understand (among other things) how madness becomes the sanity of the mad. A passage from his book The Divided Self might serve as epigraph for Persona:

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The unrealness of perceptions and the falsity and meaninglessness of all activity are the necessary consequences of perception and activity being in the command of a false self—a system partially dissociated from the "true" self….

Bergman's film begins with an actress, young and successful, who has suffered these consequences. All activity has become false and meaningless to her. (pp. 13-14)

After the titles, the film slashes ahead with the swiftness that comes not from speed but from a superb power of distillation. Everything is lean, yet everything is rich. This we expect from Bergman. What might not have been expected, and what is highly gratifying, is that he has found an answer in art to what lately has been troubling his art.

In his last three serious films—Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence—Bergman has used increasingly parsimonious means for increasingly subjective exploration…. These films were masterfully made, but they seemed introspectively remote rather than dramatized, so much so that they gave the viewer almost a sense of intrusion. I had the growing fear that Bergman, his breathtaking techniques undiminished, his power with actors as full as ever, had become disheartened: by a sense of irrelevance, his irrelevance; by the imperative to choose what to communicate, by the hopelessness of choosing, by the hopelessness of finding artistic means after he had chosen. It seemed as if, in refuge, he was keeping a kind of private journal in public. But Persona is a successful work of art, and what is especially happy about it is that Bergman, far from abandoning the psychical questions that consume him, has plunged further into them. He has made his film unfold its matter at us, instead of hugging it close. (pp. 14-15)

Bergman is no surer than anyone else (he seems to say) as to what illusion is…. Bergman's drama is in the attraction of the truth of the "true" inner self (Laing's term) as against the generally prevailing and venerated falsity of the outer world. At the last the nurse pulls free of the actress's state, not because of any indisputable and superior standard of rationality but because of her own irrationality. That, I think, is the essence of the film. If we talk of reason, there is probably as much reason on the mute actress's side, on the side of withdrawal, of inner purgation. What moves the nurse finally is a stubborn irrational will to live—to live in the majority's terms, in terms of the world's continuity….

Persona does not break fresh ground (hardly a requisite of art), but it throws a hot light on certain ideas that make them more painful than ever. The actress's state is so compelling, the nurse's desire to join her is so touching, that we are lashed to this film as to our own psyches (and to our own unacknowledged longings for withdrawal). The bitterness of the "healthy" ending makes this all the more true. (p. 17)

Stanley Kauffmann, "'Persona'" (originally published in New American Review, January, 1968), in his Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment (copyright © 1968, 1969, 1970 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1971, pp. 13-18.

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