It must be a frightening concept to men—this idea of women having a special bond, of women containing multitudes… Men, spellbound by the secrets shared between women, can’t help but let their minds wander to the mysteries of their link—and while trying to chip away at it, they end up destroying it in their art.
–Kristen Yoonsoo Kim, “Split Diopter: Looking at Women’s Identities Through a Male and Female Lens,” Oscilloscope Laboratories “Musings” blog
A little more than half an hour into Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, the young nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), looking after the purposely mute actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), says to her, “We’re alike somehow. I think I could turn into you if I really tried.” With those words, a subgenre was codified. Persona and the films it inspired make up a set of psychological mysteries that the critic Miriam Bale dubbed “persona-swap films.” As both Kristen Yoonsoo Kim in the article quoted above and Emily Yoshida at Vulture have observed, these films have historically been directed by men. Therefore, whether good, bad or indifferent, they tend to convey an outsider’s anxiety about female relationships. While the opportunities for women behind the camera are still not quite equitable even today, one actually doesn’t need to look too far to find an alternative viewpoint. Vera Chytilová’s Daisies premiered just a couple months after Persona and has since secured its own place in cinema’s canon. Chytilová’s protagonists (played by Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová), both of them answering to the name “Marie,” get into altogether different adventures than Bergman’s.
While Alma and Elisabet enter the film with clearly delineated roles, gradually feeling the dynamics of authority and dependence shift over time, the two Maries begin as equals and partners. In her paper on Daisies, “‘So We Will Go Bad’: Cheekiness, Laughter, Film,” Anca Parvulescu notes that the characters’ shared name evokes “the two Maries of Christianity, the virgin and the whore.” The blonde (Karbanová) and the brunette (Cerhová) ostensibly fulfill these respective roles but ultimately rebel against them. Theirs is a bond that defies categories, and they gleefully inhabit a film that defies both spatial and narrative logic. As they declare at the outset, “Everything’s bad in this world,” so in response they will abandon the niceties and indulge themselves. (This ethos can be seen as the opposite of the Mister Rogers approach I wrote about two weeks ago.) Chytilová’s anarchic bacchanal, a film made of bubbles, is the perfect palate cleanser after the Swedish severity of Persona.
Shot in a softly shaded black and white, Persona is visually spare, focusing almost entirely on the faces of its principal characters. Bergman’s inspiration for the film came partially from his impression that Andersson and Ullmann look alike. They don’t, really, but the eerie power of Persona is such that as the film progresses, the comparison becomes more believable. Something about the performances and how they’re filmed — something I can’t quite describe, though the vampiric motif certainly plays a part — creates an environment in which the famous split-screen shot near the end can command true psychic force. The visual dismemberment that the two Maries experience in Daisies is of an altogether different kind. Picking up from Jean-Luc Godard’s use of scissors in Pierrot le Fou, Chytilová slices up the image, and her characters, all as a form of play. Daisies is the opposite of spare, cluttered with visual metaphors including green apples, butterflies and frosting. Parts of the film are monochromatic (either black and white or various color tints), with the overriding aesthetic being one of surprise. The editing is jittery, including several photomontages that possibly provided inspiration for such experimental filmmakers as Shirley Clarke and Jodie Mack.
Made at about the same time in two different countries on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, Persona and Daisies can’t really be said to be in dialogue with each other. Their dissimilarities are largely coincidental. What’s really interesting is what they have in common. Bergman and Chytilová were both challenged by recent New Wave innovations to make authoritative comments on the state of the art. Bergman examines the mechanisms of film in piercing detail and, in his opening montage, uses footage from an old cartoon and an ancient live-action film to express cinema’s status as a conduit for the prurient and the terrifying. Chytilová calls back to cinema’s essential truths in other ways — those Méliès-esque dismemberment special effects, the tinted shots, and multiple instances of slapstick (last, but not least, a food fight). For an art form that had only recently risen to prominence among the world’s intellectuals, these encompassing visions of cinema’s dangerous possibilities, as well as its limitations, make the perfect calling card. Both Bergman and Chytilová found their way toward grand statements about cinema and its place within modernist art.
They were also, quite explicitly, responding to the violence of their time. Daisies is too overcome with joy to be a screed, but the aerial combat footage in its credits sequence is hard to shake. Communist authorities objected to the overindulgence portrayed in the film, banning it in the former Czechoslovakia for many years, while Chytilová herself insisted that the film was meant to condemn the behavior of its characters. Daisies is a tangled political statement, but it undeniably finds fault with the world it inhabits. The behavior of the two Maries is, at worst, an overreaction with its heart in the right place. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War sears its way into Persona through a televised news broadcast of a self-immolation protest. Elisabet watches this horrifying event, and although her withdrawal from the world had already begun, we have no trouble believing that this kind of madness is a contributing factor. Bergman has his women respond to man’s wars with reclusive fracturing, but Chytilová has hers respond with extroverted resistance.
Persona and Daisies can each boast a certain elusiveness, a complexity of vision that makes any explanation of “what happens” insufficient. They are invaluable texts on the subject of women and their agency in an unjust world. They also get at the heart of cinematic expression, the ways that the motion picture distinguishes itself from any other form of communication. Anca Parvulescu concludes that the constant laughter of the two Maries is a key detail, an “unladylike” enthusiasm and satisfaction that strikes back at generations of gendered programming. Movies are unique in their capacity, not only for evoking laughter, but simply for showing it onscreen. This gift has had a revolutionary impact on society. Now what on earth does laughter have to do with an especially hermetic Bergman film? Notice, if you will, that while Elisabet says almost nothing throughout the running time of Persona, what she does, on more than one occasion, is laugh.