Persona (1966) is written and directed by the great Swedish filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, with cinematography by Sven Nyquist, and it currently occupies number 17 on the BFI Sight and Sound critics poll, 13th on the directors, (it received 3 mentions in The Avocado S & S poll). I’ve only seen several of his most famous films, and I do need to work on that, but they have been impressive, interesting films despite the filmic language he invented being copied and borrowed and repurposed so many times it can be difficult to recognize the originality, and this was my first time viewing Persona. The film certainly justified its acclaim among film critics and film lovers, a film designed to ask questions rather than answer them, as great art does. The pre-credit sequence functions as a provocation to the viewer as the film and film stock flicker to life with images as various as a spider, an erect penis, a lamb being bled out and disemboweled, and a man’s hand being nailed, slow and deliberate, through the bleeding, grasping palm are intercut with brief clips of animation, comedy, and horror from the silent film era, then a silent forest, a wrought iron fence stark in the filthy snow, and a brick wall that fills the whole screen appear, all as one of the more ominous and disturbing film scores (by Lars Johan Werle) ever devised accompanies the images, before the film drops into an unattended, existential, morgue-like waiting room, where an elderly woman, an old man, and a young boy lie on tables under sheets, a phone rings over the dripping water and distant footfalls, and the boy then gradually stirs and after looking through a book, a clear screen flickers to life, the distorted faces of two women morph and refuse to come into focus. The film disorients and demands your full attention, while also calling attention to itself as artifice, before plunging into an ambiguous story of personal crisis and questions of identity, this is most assuredly a horror film.
Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) is a famous actress, and during a rehearsal for Electra, she suddenly fell silent, and then apologized to her castmates, saying that she was overcome by a sudden urge to laugh. The next day when she is visited by her maid, she refuses to communicate or move, and The Doctor (Margaretha Krook) relaying this information says she is in perfect mental and physical health otherwise. Alma (Bibi Andersson) is the young nurse who has been tasked with caring for Elisabet, and upon meeting her doubts her capacity to help her, perceiving that anyone who consciously refuses to speak or move must have great mental strength and may therefore be more than she can handle in her youth and inexperience. Elisabet is no comatose rag doll though, she laughs when she hears a play Alma puts on the radio before she becomes upset and turns it off, she responds warmly to Alma’s solicitations of concern and idle chatter, she paces in her room alone distraught at news on the TV of the Vietnam War and the images of a Buddhist monk self immolating in protest, one which makes her own protest seem rather pathetic by comparison. Has the violence and tumult of the world to which she only contributes make believe driven her to silence, or is it more personal? Alma reads a letter from her husband while Elisabet listens until the words describe a poignant memory she doesn’t wish to hear, she takes the letter from Alma and crumples it, and then tears a photo of her young son in half.
“You think I don’t understand? The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming to be, but being.” The Doctor tells Elisabet in a fantastic monologue that lays bare how well The Doctor perceives the neurosis at the heart of Elisabet’s deliberate silence and refusal to engage with the world, no longer feeling the need to present a front of compassion and understanding when the truth may be something else entirely, she prefers to drop the facade that hides the considerate lies of civilization. Her disengagement is a role The Doctor assumes she will eventually tire of as easily as she tires of the other roles she has played in her life. Why commit suicide when you are in a position to force others to adapt to your dissatisfaction. The Doctor sends Elisabet and Alma to her summer house by the sea for a more active and comfortable therapy.
The women grow closer as Alma fills the silence created by Elisabet with her life story, her memories, saying she is relieved to be able to talk to someone and feels that Elisabet is really listening to her. But the more she drinks wine and talks, and in the process thinks about her life and experience, the more doubt begins to overcomes the certainty of herself and the quiet life she desires and feels destined for with her fiance Karl-Henrik and her career as a nurse, satisfied by attending to other’s needs. The cracks become impossible to ignore after she relates a story of spontaneous infidelity with a young woman and two boys she had never met that happened while sunbathing nude on holiday while Karl-Henrik had gone into town. It is one of the most erotic scenes ever committed to film, and another fantastic monologue, and Andersson nails the intense pleasure and transgression, “It’s never been as good before or since. Can you understand that?” she asks as the sadness creeps in and she begins to cry, “ It doesn’t make any sense. Nothing fits together. Is it possible to be one and the same person at the very same time – I mean, two people?” The film begins to play with this notion later that night as Alma thinks she hears Elisabet speak and later wakes or perhaps continues to dream and finds Elisabet in her room, the two women embracing with tenderness and affection and beginning to merge as Bergman literally uses smoke and mirrors to compose the Swedish twilight in the bedroom while a foghorn sounds in the distance.
Alma drives into town to deliver some mail and reads an unsealed letter that Eliisabet has written, where amidst hopeful words of Elisabet healing her broken soul, she finds herself described as simple and star struck, her deeply personal story from the beach repurposed to her eyes as amused gossip and fodder for a future performance, “She complains that her notions of life fail to conform with her actions,” Elisabet writes. Wouldn’t Elisabet assume an unopened letter would be read from curiosity? Is she oblivious or cruel? Alma is hurt and angry and when she returns she begins first with passive aggression, leaving a shard of glass on the ground where Elisabet is sure to step on it, as what good would the silent treatment do, before the film literally breaks on screen and the artist again shatters the illusion of his story and intrudes with the violent, disconnected images from the pre-credit sequence that then become a blurred image of Elisabet in the house before suddenly becoming clear as Elisabet stares through the window. When Elisabet finds Alma outside, the aggression turns to actual confrontation, when after begging for conversation, a word of any kind, that she knows won’t come, Alma throws the unsent letter at Elisabet and unburdens her anger and disappointment and hurt feelings of being used and mocked to the maddeningly silent Elisabet, who slaps her in response, and then finally speaks, “No, don’t!” when Alma grabs a pot of boiling water to throw in retaliation, confirming her will to live whole and unharmed when confronted with violence. Alma tells her that she knows her pose of noble suffering to be a lie, and that she knows her to be rotten.
Alma soon breaks down and begs for forgiveness, though none is forthcoming. She was right to be afraid of Elisabet’s strength before taking the assignment, while Elisabet may be genuinely experiencing deep existential anxiety and doubt, her silence is cruel and self-serving, a burden inflicted on others to no real purpose. Alma remains a strongly sympathetic figure who tries to ease the discomfort and fill the silence, to care for and heal Elisabet, and is honest enough to recognize that she enjoyed being observed by an artist and was even in a sense looking for validation, but this further honesty is met with the same silence and Elisabet continues to exploit her advantage to foster guilt. And far from becoming more alike, they couldn’t seem more different. Two famous scenes follow where the idea that these two women are becoming one finds expression. In the first, Alma awakens to a man calling, “Elisabet” and finds Elisabet’s husband has arrived, but he appears to think Alma is Elisabet, and they speak touchingly of each other and their son, and all the while Elisabet is over Alma’s shoulder encouraging her, until the man and Alma seem to make love, and she expresses her despair, this Alma as Elisabet, “I’m cold and rotten and indifferent. It’s all just sham and lies.” And then in a tour de force of a monologue delivered twice by Andersson with precise emotion, once with the camera squarely focused upon Elisabet, the second framed over her shoulder focused on Alma, Alma describes what she sees as the circumstances of Elisabet’s son’s conception and the strong desire she felt to not bear the child or shoulder the burden of his care, that she pushed on to relatives to return to the theater, and the subsequent hatred Elisabet felt as she found herself unable to love the boy, who loved her in return unconditionally anyway as children do. It’s a powerful, accusatory monologue, and after it is delivered for the second time, the left side of Elisabet’s face is joined to the right side of Alma’s in a disturbing composite, and though Alma insists she is her own woman, she is not like Elisabet, yet the question lingers, and Alma finally manages to force a single word from her before the film ends, “Nothing”.
The film has been subject to voluminous critical writing and interpretation over the years, some of which may even be correct, and its greatness lies in the multitude of ideas that arise from the questions offered in what is really a fairly straightforward story. I never particularly felt that the women were becoming one despite all the visual cues, that Elisabet was consuming Alma’s personality, or Alma transmigrating Elisabet’s, they remained distinct characters. Elisabet is basically a sociopath adopting a persona of silence, and when Alma is forced to fill it with her own reminiscences, she finds the certainty of her worldview crumbling into anger and recrimination the closer she examines it. Though the film is squarely focused on women, and by extension motherhood, the intrusion of the filmmaker reminding us that this a film, and the occasional fourth wall breaking, pushed my focus past the two characters and made it more universal, the existential dread that face most people as they simply try to “be” while also “being” and continually try and reconcile the various masks and personas they show to the world with who they really are inside and who they like to imagine themselves to be, what they really think and feel with what they show or what they hide, how they maintain a pose of engagement with the world, this question of personal identity, and the breakdown that can occur if they can no longer reconcile this dissonance and maintain the expected facade. An intelligent, challenging film, I rewatched at soon as it ended, and I expect to revisit it over the years, looking for answers to the questions it asks, though assuredly none are forthcoming.
Robert Altman paid his dues old school, spending several years making industrial shorts before getting his chance in TV when Alfred Hitchcock hired him on the quality of a cheap, independent youth-in-revolt film he made, The Delinquents (1957), before he finally stepped behind the camera for his first studio picture ten years later with Countdown (1967), a not very good sci-fi flick with Robert Duvall and James Caan that he was actually fired from after shooting was finished because the executives amusingly thought his overlapping dialogue was incompetence. He would go on to make another 40+ features in the ensuing 40 years, which led to a number of misses along with the hits, but his finest films are truly great, and while 3 Women (1977) is not name checked as often as some of his others, it is definitely among his top shelf work, I would be torn among a half dozen or so if asked to pick a favorite, and while only Nashville (1975) is recognized on the BFI critics poll, at 73, he doesn’t rate on the director’s. Altman has said in interviews that the film came to him complete after a dream, including the cast, and it bears a superficial resemblance to some of the themes of Persona, and not for the first time had he used the film as inspiration, as his earlier film Images (1972) also delved into the territory carved out by that masterpiece.
3 Women was written and directed by Altman, filmed by Chuck Rosher, and the atonal, flute heavy film score by Gerald Busby disturbs and creates a mood of horror. The three women of the title are Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek, exceptional) a childlike, naive young woman newly arrived to a California desert town from Texas; Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall, who won best actress at Cannes) a flighty, talkative chirper building her life around the suggestions in women’s magazines; and Willie Hart (Janice Rule), an enigmatic, mostly silent and pregnant artist and the proprietor along with her husband Edgar (Robert Fortier) of Dodge City, a western themed bar and park with defunct attractions that still has an active dirt bike track and shooting range patronized by the local law officers. The two also own and manage Millie’s apartment complex, Purple Sage. Millie works at a geriatric treatment center across from a hospital and is tasked with training the new hire Pinky in the care of their elderly clients. Pinkie blows bubbles in her Coke and skips chillike behind the other girls, and is quietly awed and immediately girl crushing on the seemingly more confident and worldly Millie. While for her part, Millie talks and talks while the other girls, and the doctors at the hospital, ignore her constant chatter and attempts to connect, one of those people who carries on oblivious or indifferent to the rejection they face, and it is painful and cringe inducing throughout, none more so when she is mocked out loud repeatedly by the fellow tenants at her apartment complex who treat her with contempt while she prattles on undaunted as if they are the best of friends.
When Millie’s roommate moves out, Pinky grabs her “roommate wanted” ad from the bulletin board before anyone else can read it and places herself in Millie’s orbit, and all three women come into sharper focus as their lives become intertwined. Millie takes Pinky to Dodge City on the way to her apartment, where they find Willie outside painting (Bodhi Wind, artist) the murals that opened the film and which are returned to throughout, disturbing images of merwomen and mermen writhing in opposition to each other, images she has reproduced on her patio and inside the swimming pools on her property and at the apartment complex, an obsession for the artist, and water figures prominently in the film, from the spa where the patients are cared for, to the swimming pool and fish tank at Millie’s, occasionally filtering over the scenes and bisecting the images on screen like a wave. Where Willie is silent, Edgar talks, a garrulous drunk and former stuntman who ignores his wife while chasing after other women. There is a great little exchange when he first meets Pinky and asks her real name, and she replies, Mildred, but says with vehemence that she hates it, and to never use it. When the two women get into Millie’s car afterwards, she says hurt and angry, why didn’t you tell me your real name, and Pinky says she hates it, and Millie says, what’s my name, and gives her a look, when it finally dawns embarrassingly on Pinky that Millie is short for Mildred. It’s a great little exchange as Millie is already annoyed by the socially awkward and goofy Pinky, and both actresses convey so much character detail with their expressions and body language, gestures and tones, incredibly detailed and impressive performances that both ladies helped create to flesh out the film treatment Altman provided.
Pinky quickly goes from strange to disturbing as she begins to transgress Millie’s privacy and make herself over in Millie’s image. They share a single bedroom, and she steals her Social Security number and personal info, she reads Millie’s diary and borrows her clothes, she falls into an obsession seeing Millie as the ideal person she wishes she could be with her own unformed personality. And again, it is so sad to watch Millie’s cheerful oblivion while she is mocked and ignored by everyone in her orbit and still blithely views herself as popular, her magazine formed taste particularly pathetic, from her fashion to the recipes organized by the time it takes to prepare the meal, and all seemingly involving canned tuna and condensed soup, and she also wants a microwave because she likes her hot dogs burnt, and you can set the microwave to burn them. When Millie’s old roommate Deirdre calls and plans to bring over three guys, she prepares one of her “famous” dinner parties, and I wanted to cry when she unpacked the grocery bags of canned and processed junk, to make pigs in a blanket, canned pudding and Redi Whip for premade pastry cups, Sociables crackers with aerosol cheese and cocktail olives, jarred cocktail sauce for pre-cooked shrimp, and the “wine” that any 70’s party required, Boone’s Farm Tickle Pink and Lemon Dream.
Pinky screws up and slops a jar of cocktail sauce on her dress while opening it and sets Millie off as the table clearly can’t be unbalanced with five jars of sauce and she heads backs to the store in a huff. Pinky cleans up and takes out the garbage just as Deirdre pulls up in a truck drinking beer with three dudes and they tell her unconcerned and goofing off to let Millie know they are bailing to head to Dodge City, Pinky just grunts, uh huh, and when Millie finds out she loses it, blaming the cancellation on Pinky’s awkward weirdness and sloppy appearance and heads to Dodge City by herself. Millie returns home with a drunk Edgar and sends Pinky to the rollout bed in the living room, and when Pinky haltingly protests, having earlier seen Willie in the courtyard cleaning the pool, Millie unleashes a torrent of abuse ascribing all her social failures and unpopularity to the presence of Pinky, and tells her to pack up and move out as soon as possible, she just doesn’t care and doesn’t want her around. Pinky silently walks out the door, climbs up on the balcony railing, and plunges into the pool, floating face down before she is pulled from the water by the tenants roused from Willie’s screams, and Wille sees Edgar descending the stairs with the rest of the gawkers.
The film bifurcates at this point, much as Persona broke midway, and becomes a much stranger movie. Shelley Duvall really conveys Millie’s chastened regret and selfless concern, she is actually a sweet, kind person, and tries her best to care for Pinky who lingers in a coma. She tracks Pinky’s parents down in Texas with some effort, and when they arrive, they are very old, ancient small town farmer hicks lost in the desert city, but they do recognise Pinky and when told what happened, the woman is like, yup, sounds like Pinky, always falling down. Pinky emerges from her coma soon after, and she screams that those people aren’t her parents, and really they seem far too old, and could maybe be her grandparents or adoptive parents, but that mystery is unanswered as they disappear from the movie and aren’t mentioned again. She does seems to recognize Millie and is sent home with her to recuperate, Millie being told dismissively she has temporary amnesia. Pinky knows who she is though, she’s Mildred Lammoreaux.
The film can certainly be viewed literally, with Pinky suffering from a dissociative personality disorder, or symbolically, with her emerging from the pool reborn, yet it feels like Pinky has just simply decided to become the person she desired, Millie. Sissy Spacek plays the transformation so well, the subtle changes in her looks with the mousy straight hair now full bodied and wavy, painting her toenails and wearing makeup, fast friends with everyone in the building, drinking and smoking and flirting with Edgar, bolstered by her easy confidence and assured manner, she is a new person. She boots Millie to the rollaway in the living room and takes her bed, makes new entries in Millie’s diary, takes her wardrobe, her life, she becomes Millie, and in an echo of the earlier scene insists she be called Mildred, because she’s not Pinky. Shelley Duvall matches Spacek scene by scene conveying the confusion as she watches helplessly while she is swept aside and conquered, her identity absorbed by Pinky, reading in her own diary that “Mildred” can’t wait to kick her out of her own apartment. Millie even quits her job out of loyalty to Pinky who they won’t rehire her after they discover she has used Millie’s SSN, and Millie walks out to find her car gone. Driving around with the police after filing a report, they find it parked in the Dodge City lot, Pinky shooting on the range, cooling asking Edgar to give her a pull on his beer while she takes aim. Millie is by now beyond dumbfounded and her inability to understand what’s happening or convey her disbelief and disorientation is something to behold, and again I have to say how great Spacek and Duvall are, providing a couple of amazing performances that they helped to shape and improvise which find the heart of the story and completely elevate the film above the already great script.
That night Pinky dreams of the mercreature images of Willie, flashbacks of her life, her real self and Millie’s merging and floating in the watery netherworld of her subconscious, she awakens scared and walks into the living room and asks if she can sleep with Mille, who obliges and kindly reminds her friend dreams aren’t real, she needn’t be afraid. They are disturbed from their sleep and find Edgar drunk, having entered with his passkey, grabbing a beer from their fridge and making lewd suggestions about the two of them in bed practicing for his third to join them. When the women discover he has left Willie alone, giving birth, they rush over and Millie tries to help deliver the baby, while Pinky who is told to get a doctor stands rooted to the ground. The baby is stillborn, and Millie slaps Pinky with her bloody hand for failing to get help. The movie then fades into a new day as a Coca Cola truck makes a delivery to Dodge City. Pinky, behind the bar, says her mom has to sign for it, and we see Millie, dressed like Willie, outside painting on the patio, and she enters, and to the driver’s condolences about Edgar, -so surprising he would have an accident like that, as skilled as he was with firearms- she says, yes, they are all grieving. The women return to Willie and her house behind the bar to make dinner, the personalities changed and reconfigured and absorbed and forming a strange new family, daughter, mother, grandmother, perhaps, in the desert from the wreckage of their old lives and personalities. A mysterious, enigmatic end to a great film that captures the idiom and menial work and 70’s lifestyle of these young women with a documentary precision in the first half only to become strange and surreal and troubling in the second, yet somehow still stubbornly plausible in its dream logic, as it burrows into the nature of identity both born and borrowed.
I love the films of David Lynch, as all fine, tree ripened Avocados do, and while I hardly needed an excuse to revisit Mulholland Drive (2001), the occasion of watching two films of women struggling to find themselves amidst the chaos of their fears, dreams, and desires, it seemed a natural progression and a fitting capper to this Double Feature. It ranks 28 on the BFI critics Top 100 poll, and 75 on the directors, (it received 19 mentions and placed 14 on the Avocado S & S, I voted for Lost Highway (1997) to be contrarian and because I find it disturbing). No matter how many times I view the film, I’ll never again experience that same sense of awe and disorientation I felt walking out of the theater on opening weekend, feeling that I’d understood the strange language and structure of the film only to have it slip from my grasp, the comprehension fading away much as a dream does soon after waking no matter how hard you try to remember. It remains unbelievable that Lynch was able to fashion such a coherent and moving story from an unfinished TV pilot, and the discarded scraps of some other film, like Robert Forster’s detective, or the mysterious black book that recounts the history of Hollywood in phone numbers, or Michael Anderson’s man behind the glass, float around still comfortably at home in the fractured, disorienting story. Of course, when the classically styled film noir mystery that forms the first two hours of the film is revealed to be an elaborate dream and hallucination that repurposes the memories and impressions of Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) into a poignant life where she is Betty and her love for Camilla Rhodes (Laura Harring) is found in Rita rather than lost to director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) and the final jealous despairing bile of murder that finds expression in hiring a hitman, while she stares broken on the verge of suicide at the evidence of his success, a small blue key that sits accusingly on the coffee table.
And speaking of the hit man, is there a funnier scene of cold blooded murder than his triple homicide while stealing that black book, or the “Oh, man” resigned shrug of exclamation when his shot to the vacuum cleaner sets off the fire alarm, such a deft bit of deadpan slapstick. Or the scene where the gigantic mob muscle punches out tough guy gentleman lover Gene (Billy Ray “you corrupted my daughter, Lynch” Cyrus) the pool cleaner and Adam’s wife Lorraine (Lori Heuring) while she rides his neck like a tiny writhing scarf, also mining comedy gold, and also a rather strange disconnected thing for Diane to be dreaming, much as the dream Dan (Patrick Fischler) precisely and ominously recounts to the man in Winkie’s before they head outside behind the diner, the camera prowling forward in anticipation of the space being filled, as it also does down the hallways and highways of Lynch’s films, while alternately looking back and documenting the subjects approach before the filthy homeless trash man fills the screen with demented unspeakable terror only Dan can see. And who is that blue haired woman, and where precisely Club Silencio comes from to find expression in Diane’s hallucination still eludes me, but after all, it’s an illusion, it’s all recorded, there isn’t an orchestra.
These three films all examine psychologically fragile women descending into varying degrees of madness and violence, and while they are quite unique in their expression and subject matter, a debt is cleared owed to Bergman who blazed the trail and showed the way to influence Altman and Lynch among many other students of film. Three beautiful amazing films, and at this moment I think The Cowboy’s words linger the clearest for me because “A man’s attitude goes some way as to how his life will be,” and I always wonder if I hadn’t been such a smart aleck maybe things could have been different for me as well, because every night I dream of another life I never lived still populated with the people come and gone and the places lived and worked but reimagined in that immutable though paradoxically ever changing swirl of the subconscious.
Persona, 3 Women, and Mulholland Drive are all available from Netflix on DVD. I’ve also noticed that 3 Women and Mulholland Drive have bounced on and off of streaming in the past, though last I checked 3 Women streams in 16:9 rather than the intended 2.35:1 because Netflix has contempt for their subscribers. I error messaged them both times I saw that, though it didn’t change the last time and probably won’t in the future, so it may be best to get the DVD from them or the library if you want to watch the film.
I’m heading out of town for a few days next week and may try to hack something out beforehand, but otherwise I will have a new post the following week.