Intermittently this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. Last week: there are many ways we could plausibly describe Midsommar, one of them being to call it a psychodrama about the disorienting, mind-breaking effects of the midnight sun of the summer solstice in Sweden. Having hit upon that notion, I could go to no other place.

Peter Cowie claimed of Persona, the 1966 masterpiece by writer-director Ingmar Bergman that has reigned as one of the pillars of the fecund European 1960s art cinema scene since the moment of its debut, that "Everything one says about [it] may be contradicted; the opposite will also be true." This is not wholly accurate (trivially, for example, it is not magically going to become a film in color, or have a car chase scene, just because I claim otherwise; also, there are actually some definite things we can claim about its narrative content and dramatic arcs), but it has Truth in it. Persona is something miraculous and maddening: a film that answers none of its own questions, but also feels like it's all right there on the surface as you're watching, like it's all almost banal in how obvious it fits together, and the second you try to put it to words it suddenly becomes impossible to keep track of your arguments as they all go scattering into rabbit warrens. To appeal to another authority, one who either proves Cowie's point or directly refutes it, Roger Ebert, in 2001, declared "I know most of what I am ever likely to know about films, and I think I understand that the best approach to 'Persona' is a literal one. It is exactly about what it seems to be about." Which feels exactly right, until one starts to dig in: what does it seem to be about? What is the literal approach?

Well, for starters, we could just sketch out the basic materials we have to work with, always a safe opening gambit. Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), most prominent owner of the most symbolically-laden surname in Bergman, is a stage actress who had a breakdown one night: she confessed to her co-stars that she could barely keep from laughing in the middle of a serious scene, and shortly thereafter she entered what we can only fairly describe as a high-functioning catatonic state: aware, alert, and responsive, but unwilling to talk or do anything. Doctors have no explanation for this state of affairs, which appears to be the result of neither mental illness nor a physical ailment, and this is where we enter the story, as a nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to care for Elisabet at a remote seaside cottage by the doctor (Margaretha Krook) who has largely run out of other ideas for treatment. Once ensconced in the middle of nowhere (played by Bergman's beloved island Fårö), Alma fills the days by chatting incessantly about her life, her history, her dreams, her fears, and so on. One day, a little bit before the film's midpoint, Alma is mailing some letters, and finds that Elisabet has left a letter to her husband unsealed. Reading it, she discovered that the older woman has been looking at her with a bit of kindly condescension, treating Alma's soul-bearing revelations as mildly amusing anecdotes that make her a good subject for "study". After this, Alma grows cold and angry, threatening violence against Elisabet and switching out her prattling monologues for more lacerating, accusatory ones. Along the way, she starts to use language that confuses the gap between Elisabet herself, and when Elisabet's husband (Gunnar Björnstrand) enters the film for a short time, he also seems to get the two women mixed up, and doesn't even necessarily seem to realise that there are two different women. Finally, Alma tells what she imagines to be the story of Elisabet's life, which we hear in full, twice, with the camera pointing at each woman's face in turn, showing them in the exact same pattern of increasingly tight close-ups and dissolves. Alma leaves, though it's not clear to where, or what Elisabet is doing.

It's easy to treat this all as insoluble and mysterious, but Persona starts off by giving us a pretty big clue: its title. This is, rather directly - "literally", one might go so far as to say - about personal identities coming into crisis. Bergman and his absolutely indispensable cinematographer Sven Nykvist visually demonstrate this in a series of some of the most famous compositions in the history of the motion picture: close-up two-shots, in which we see both Andersson and Ullmann's heads simultaneously, generally without any other discernible objects in the frame. Sometimes, they are both facing the camera, staggered on the Z-axis; sometimes, one stares ahead and the other covers her face in profile, lining up so that they resemble two halves of a Cubist portrait (this, more than anything, is "the Persona shot"). The film does not merely invite us to notice that Alma and Elisabet are blurring into one figure; it demands we notice it.

Of course, if Persona is "about" a strong-willed personality deliberately, if inexplicably muting herself, and a weak-willed personality bashing itself to pieces against the stronger one, this doesn't give us all that much. It still leaves two major narrative questions: why has Elisabet stopped speaking, and why does Alma lose track of her own personality and, at least temporarily, replace it with the actress's? I frankly don't know that it's productive to actually spend much time on either of these questions. The latter I'd be tempted to answer with some boilerplate about the poisonous core of guilt Alma has carried around due to a sexual dalliance and subsequent abortion, insisting on her own moral treachery in the absence of a God to do it for her; she views Elisabet as a combination of mentor, priest, and mirror, and when she finds the older woman is not interested in any of those roles, she turns her inward-looking guilt outwards, not so much recasting herself as Elisabet, but recasting Elisabet as the embodiment of all her own self-loathing, sort of the way that we always tend to hate most the people who share our least-favorite qualities in ourselves. As to the former question, what happened to Elisabet, it's not even worth the boilerplate: it is, I think, enough that it has happened. It is the necessary condition without which Persona does not exist, and since Persona does exist, Elisabet had to stop talking. QED.

This gets us to the other thing the film is "obviously" about: it is a movie about the cinematic medium. Maybe the movie about the cinematic medium. It is, I think "really" about cinema more than it is about identity in crisis: I cannot pretend to be the first or hundredth person to point out that the very first thing that happens in the movie is a film projector bulb warming up, a light appearing in the blackness like the Big Bang creating the universe, and not anything to do with a human being at all, let alone Elisabet or Alma (having exorcised God in his previous films - Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence most obviously - it's too tempting for me to pass it up to suggest that Bergman is now trying to make cinema his new God, the creative force from which all existence flows. Certainly, all the existence that Elisabet and Alma will ever experience). There then follows an extraordinary montage sequence, one of the best in the history of the art form, which is in some sense not "about" anything at all, except demonstrating the cinematic medium as a vehicle for depicting. In the uncut version (which was not, initially the version available in English, though you'd be hard-pressed to find a censored copy now) the very first image "within" the film - it's maybe going too far in our assumptions to say that we're seeing the images being projected by that bulb - is a still of an erect penis, just long enough to clearly register; it is startling now even as it must have been completely shocking in 1966, that Bergman's great montage of the capacity of cinema to create meaningful images out of light and dark suggests that it is fundamentally a medium of pornography, but it sure as hell creates a vibe that the movie will reside in for quite a long time.

It is perhaps worth recalling that, against all reason, Bergman's early career outside of Sweden, and his status as one of the first-ever international blockbuster art filmmakers, was mostly because he was perceived as a dirty filmmaker: his 1953 hit Summer with Monika was marketed, in the English-speaking world at least, as something almost exactly like smut, but with a veneer of class to make it socially acceptable. So perhaps showing a penis was leaning into his reputation (one that his earlier '60s films did nothing to uphold, mind you). Perhaps it's also pointing to Persona's most conspicuous absence. One of the most celebrated bits in the film is Alma's long story about the time she and a lady friend and two strange boys had an orgy on a beach, an endless scene - the first time that her cheery prattle is allowed to go on without a scene transition skipping ahead (the editing pattern always strikes me as the film getting kind of bored with her just like Elisabet might be, only slowing down and taking notice when she gets to the erotic stuff) - that consists of nothing but close-ups of Andersson talking and Ullmann listening (my understanding is that Ullmann's reaction shots were all recorded in real time as she listened to the monologue for the first time). It is a powerfully evocative moment, with Andersson giving, I think, one of the all-time great monologue recitals in cinema (even though it's not even her own personal best monologue delivery in this very movie), losing herself in the cadence of the words and turning them from a bubbly anecdote to an embarrassing secret to something fairly like the incantation of a religious ceremony. And these vocal shifts are powerful enough to register even though she's speaking entirely in a language I don't know.

Anyway. The point is, Persona is, in a profound way, about sex: guilt over sex and its consequences is the thing that motivates Alma to have her psychological collapse, and she suggests that something similar is at play with Elisabet, rightly or wrongly. But actual sex is absent from the film, except in that single, jarring phallus, right at the start, priming us to think about sex from the get-go. Going all the way back, like, 600 words, the point I was driving at is that by placing the erect penis as the first in the litany of images evoking "cinema itself" in the opening montage, Persona suggests that cinema is sex, perhaps disguised in certain ways, perhaps marked primarily by being withheld from us, as in that amazing monologue - but the artform is primarily an expression of erotic energy, whether explicit or not.

The other thing that primarily marks the opening montage is its striking hand imagery, imagery that will continue into the film proper. Among the images flashed before us, we see a tarantula scrabbling about, which wouldn't necessarily mean much (though it's impossible not to read into it the symbolism of a spider as a delusional woman's idea of God from Through a Glass Darkly), except that it's shortly followed by a weird, morbid echo. A  nail pounded into a hand, an apparent reference to Christ's death, the only expressly religious gesture in the film; in a second shot, the fingers on the hand curl up in an apparent death spasm, closely resembling the curling legs of a spider. And shortly later, we see a hand hanging limply, possibly belonging to a young boy (Jörgen Lindström), possibly to a corpse - the confusion between living bodies, dying bodies, and dead bodies is also a motif in this montage, and it will come up in sneaky ways in the film as well. Lastly, in possibly the only image more indelible than that profile/direct address shot, we see the black silhouette of the boy standing in front of a huge, blurry projected image of a woman's face - maybe Ullmann's, maybe Andersson's - trying to touch her, but remaining on a separate plane.

And that, I think, is the most critical image for Persona: it is a film about our attempt to make contact with cinema, while remaining separate from it. It is customarily said that we relate to movies as though they're in some way real to us: nearly all of film theory, and certainly all of the psychoanalytic theory that was ascendant when Bergman made his masterpieces, takes for granted that the viewer becomes emotionally invested within the film. Persona is a film that disrupts that investment - perhaps more than any other film I can name. There are obvious ways this happens: the opening montage, the shot of the boy and the woman's face, the ending sequence where a film crew erupts right into the diegesis, and most crucially, the moment after Alma commits to violence against Elisabet, which seemingly triggers a moment in which the film actually breaks. There's a (fake-looking) simulation of film catching in the gate and burning, and another miniature montage echoing the first, as though cinema is briefly having a panic attack or an aneurysm trying to repair the rupture within the narrative that has also thrust the viewer back out of the movie.

But there are less obvious things, too. The film does a preposterously bad job suggesting reality: a stunning quantity of the scenes, especially early on, take place in featureless voids that to no degree represent the spaces they nominally should. It's also so invested in complicated compositions that it becomes hard to see them as anything else other than interactions between performers and the flat plane of the lens. Even the fact that the story is so cryptic invites us to think about it as a puzzle to unlock, rather than a reality to engage with. This time around, I especially found myself noticing the moment when we're told that Elizabet almost started laughing during her performance; Ullmann's face is onscreen at that line, and it looks like she's about to break into a smile - but does it? Or is it just the power of suggestion making me interpret a random flicker of Ullmann's mouth as an emotion (and I was, in that instant, definitely thinking of Ullmann's mouth, not Elizabet's)? It is a film so tangibly constructed, so opaque and impenetrable, that it somewhat calls into question the whole illusion of the medium.

And yet! One of the things that Bergman played at throughout his career was using close-ups in sustained, overwhelming ways; I think this culminates in the extraordinary TV miniseries Scenes from a Marriage, but Persona is probably the next-most important use of faces in close-up in the director's career. Which makes it a good candidate for the second-most important use of faces in all of sound cinema. The point being, this is a film that is, more than anything else, made up of shots of Ullmann and Andersson, often looking us square in the eye. And these shots can be extraordinarily powerful. Near the end, when Andersson delivers her final monologue and the camera is trained on her face, she is perfectly divided in half, between light and dark, and her expression is rendered almost impossible to read. It is, however, extremely intense, whatever the emotion. In fact, it is almost as though the sheer fact of emotional intensity has taken over for any specific emotion or other kind of meaning. A few minutes later, the final repetition of hand imagery in the film completes this: she starts pounding her hands on a table, a high-contrast shot of black movement against light grey, and she moves her hands in such a frenzy that it almost becomes impossible to parse this as a visual event. Between the speed and the contrast, she's moving beyond what the limits of 24-frames-per-second cinema is capable of depicting, and here, at the borderlands of the medium, we find that same kind of intensity stripped bare of any definition, just a strength of feeling that goes beyond sense or words. In a film that routinely gets associated with horror, generally because of the bottomless terror that the narrative evokes in creating the loss of self, I don't know if anything is more generally horrifying than Andersson's flailing hands, breaking my eyes, the screen, and the universe.

So, in short: how dare I suggest that Persona doesn't invite me in to experience feelings? Because I feel them intensely, to a degree that is frequently uncomfortable and distressing. And somehow, this most self-evidently artificial and formalist of all movie is also a faultless match of style and content: the sense that we are watching cinema rip itself apart and cease to function as a medium is exactly the right match for a story about personal identity collapsing and blurring and itself ceasing to function. Either way, it's a crisis of identity, a sense that life in modernity is an unsustainable sham, and that we have, in 1966, reached the point that both cinema and the self have exhausted themselves and run out of ways to be expressive. And yet, while I think it's an open question if Alma ever resolves herself or if Elizabet ever speaks again, Persona is able to reconstitute itself, to provide all of the heady intellectual and emotional wonders displayed in its stupefyingly rich, dense 84 minutes. Bergman has not taken us to the out reaches of cinema and broken it apart for the sake of destroying an art form; he has done it in order to show us what cinema is, in it rawest, truest state: the human face exuding pure feeling, the interplay of light and dark, and thee complex beauty of movement across a two-dimensional plane. Persona is cinema's death and rebirth, and in some ways I really do wonder if there was any point to ever making another movie after this; in a very real way, it seems to have completely exhausted the medium's potential in one staggering blaze of monochromatic glory.