Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman continued his exploration of the depths of the human psyche in a stunning series of films that included Såsom i en spegel (Through a Glass Darkly, 1961), Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light, 1962), and Tystnaden (The Silence, 1963), a trilogy that interrogates the meaning of human existence in a hostile and uncomprehending world. Bergman then took a giant step forward with the shattering Persona (1966), in which two women engage in a life-or-death battle of wills. Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ull-mann), a stage actress of great renown, mance. A psychiatrist concludes that since there is nothing physically wrong with Elisabeth, she must simply be refusing to speak, and so sends her home to convalesce with Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson). Alma, a young and charmingly naive woman, is no match for Elisabeths strength of will. Treating Elisabeth more as a confidante than as a patient, she incessantly chatters on about her many problems, including an unexpected sexual encounter with a stranger, her subsequent pregnancy, and an abortion.
All the while, Elisabeth coolly observes her as if studying for a future role. After Elisabeth writes a letter to a friend detailing Nurse Alma’s past sins and childish vulnerability, Alma reads the letter on the way to the post office and realizes that Elisabeth is out to destroy her. From this point on, the film becomes a brutal psychological battle in which the personalities of both women blend into one identity and teeter on the brink of madness.
For Bergman, this is typically harrowing psychic terrain, but what sets Persona apart is his unexpectedly audacious visual presentation of the film’s narrative. Usually a highly theatrical director, he uses freeze-frames, film rips, shock cuts, slow motion, shot repetition, and clips from classic Swedish films to distance viewers and remind them that the movie is, above all, a visual and aural construct. But more than this, Bergman clearly incorporates the self-reflexivity and cinematic liberation of the New Wave in Persona, which opens with the image of the projector’s carbon arc lamp being ignited and ends with the arc being extinguished.
Bergman had started shooting the film on a studio set, as was his usual custom, but soon realized that the results were unsatisfactory and began all over again, moving the entire cast and crew (including his superb cine-matographer, the gifted Sven Nykvist) to his island home on Fårö, using a local museum to double for the interior hospital sets. The results are remarkable, suggesting an entire break from the past for the director, who now embraced a new intimacy in his work.
In 1970, Bergman made his only English-language film, The Touch (Beröringen, 1971), starring Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, and Elliot Gould, but the film failed to connect with audiences. When Bergman tried to line up an American distributor for his next film, he found, much to his surprise, that he was “unbankable” in the United States because of the commercial failure of The Touch. Never mind that he had created a gallery of superb films; in true Hollywood fashion, all that mattered was his last project. After taking Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers) to all the major studios and being turned down flat, Bergman, in a gesture of despair, contacted Roger Corman, who was then running his own company, New World Pictures, out of a small office in Venice, California. Shocked that the majors had turned away one of the cinema’s most accomplished artists, Corman immediately agreed over the phone to advance Bergman $100,000 plus a percentage of the profits for the North American distribution rights. Armed with this financing and additional support from the Swedish national film studio, Bergman shot Cries and Whispers at a country house for a minimal budget and then turned it over to Corman for American release.
To Bergman’s delight and astonishment, Cries and Whispers (1972) became the biggest financial success of his career to date and reestablished him as a director of the first rank, both critically and commercially. Bergman was then able to continue making films that won him more international acclaim, including the Academy Award winning Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander, 1982), which was Bergman’s last major work. Retiring to his small house on the island of Farö, Bergman lived there in relative seclusion until his death in 2007. For his part, Corman continued to serve as the American distributor for foreign films that were being shut out of the increasingly restricted U.S. market, including Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), Truffaut’s LArgent de poche (Small Change, 1976), Volker Schlöndorff’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1979), and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980).