‘Mamma Mia!’ versus ‘Persona’: An Intellectual Experiment*

5 11 2009
Persona 1

My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender.

It is often assumed that smart culture is better than dumb culture. Go into a bookshop to buy the latest Thomas Pynchon, and you might get a bit of respect from the people behind the counter. Try to hustle out with the latest Tom Clancy and the odds are you won’t. Likewise, if you go and see an Abbas Kiarostami film, you know that you’ll probably have something to talk about in the bar afterwards. Go and see a Michael Bay film and your conversation might be a little more limited.

But is this fair? Is smart culture really better than dumb culture? To find out, I decided to perform a little experiment. Firstly I watched a DVD of the Abba-themed movie Mamma Mia! then, later in the day, tuned in to Film 4 to see Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. These two films seemed apt for comparison in the dumb-smart stakes. The first is based on a stage musical and has been pretty universally dismissed (and celebrated) as a shallow, feel-good movie, whereas the second is perhaps the most serious and experimental work by a famously serious and experimental auteur.

The Raw Data  

At 6pm, I began to watch Mamma Mia! The film opens with some rather nice shots of a midnight boat trip on a glittering sea. There is singing, almost immediately. The person doing the singing is Sophie, played by the actress Amanda Seyfried, who I’ve never heard of. We see her posting three letters.

In the next scene, we see Sophie welcoming two bridesmaids to the Greek island where she lives and where she is soon to be married, at the age of twenty. She tells the bridesmaids that she has recently unearthed her mother’s old diaries and, from the clues contained therein, has identified three men who could be her father. Without her mother’s knowledge, she has invited all three to the wedding. She is excited because she has always wanted to know who her father is. She expresses this excitement in the music of Abba. Upon hearing her news and her song, the bridesmaids say “Oh my God!” a lot, in the manner of irreligious young people everywhere. 

We next meet Sophie’s mother, a guesthouse proprietor played by Meryl Streep in dungarees. There is some more singing, then Julie Walters and Some Other Bird turn up. These two, we learn, used to be in a band with Streep in her young, carefree days. Streep complains that her guesthouse business isn’t doing very well. In sympathy with this, her friends join her in a rendition of Money, Money, Money. Then, just as abruptly, everyone seems to forget about Streep’s financial problems, including Streep herself. 

Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Some Other Bloke turn up: they are the three potential fathers. Sophie hides them away in an old goat shed (how appropriate). Maybe I wasn’t paying attention at this point, but for some reason Meryl Streep in dungarees decides to go to the goat shed where, peering through a trap-door, she discovers her old flames. She imagines them as they were twenty years ago. We see Colin Firth as a punk, The Other Bloke as a stoner-type in a colourful shirt, and Pierce Brosnan as a hippie. This last costume doesn’t seem to make much sense, as surely she must have dated all three men in the late 1980s… But before we have time to worry about such matters, Streep has launched into another Abba song (Mamma Mia!) and everyone dances around for a bit. Then she tells the men to bugger off.  

Mamma Mia - acting is reacting

Acting is reacting. Brosnan, yesterday.

The three men are on the verge of leaving the island when Sophie pleads with them to stay and, already a little paternal, they all agree. That night they gatecrash the hen do and there’s much singing of Abba songs. Pierce Brosnan is particularly weak in the vocal department, but makes up for this with some weak acting.

Somehow (again my attention may have wandered at this point) all three men independently come to conclusion that they are Sophie’s real father and make her promise that she’ll let them give her away at the wedding. The next day she is stressed. She hates having three dads! She confides in her under-characterised fiancé who, for no apparent reason, flies off the handle. She then talks to her mother who accidentally reveals that she’s not too happy about her daughter settling down at the age of twenty. This provokes a heated debate.

Pierce Brosnan tries to comfort Sophie with some wooden acting then, when this fails, he tries to comfort Streep. They sing S.O.S. together, which seems to help. Streep and daughter make up and do some girly bonding things, which leads Sophie to ask her mother to give her away.

The next day, the three dads turn up for the wedding, which is due to be conducted by a strangely un-Orthodox looking priest (no beard, no hat, quite pale, speaks English. Have they shipped out a Church of England vicar for the ceremony?). Streep confesses to being a slapper in front of a shocked congregation. An elderly Greek man crosses himself. The three dads agree that they’d all be happy to have one-third of Sophie in a non-sexual, father-daughter kind of way. The young couple decide not to get married, so rather than let a good wedding go to waste, Brosnan and Streep get married instead. Sophie loves having three dads!

At the reception, there’s much merriment and singing of Abba songs. Julie Walters chases the guy who’s not Pierce Brosnan or Colin Firth around, singing Take a Chance on Me. At first he runs away from her with a horrified look on his face, but eventually he gives in to her advances.      

Mamma Mia - Streep in dungarees

Streep in dungarees

With the cockles of my heart thus warmed, I settled down later in the evening to watch Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 identity crisis drama.

The film opens, intriguingly enough, with the image of film running through a projector. A series of startling images follows: A spider! A penis! A slaughtered sheep! We see nails being driven into somebody’s hands and bodies lying in a mortuary. That warm fuzzy feeling left over from Mamma Mia! is disappearing fast.   

One of the bodies in the mortuary sits up. It belongs to a skinny young boy. He puts on his glasses and turns towards a screen on which is projected an ever-changing, indistinct image of a woman’s face. He reaches out towards the screen.

We then meet Alma, a nurse in a psychiatric clinic played by Bibi Andersson. Alma is charged by her superiors with looking after Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who has not spoken since falling silent on stage three months previously. The nurse fusses around the actress, but cannot get a peep out of her. One night, unseen by anybody, the actress freaks out while watching footage of burning bodies and violent demonstrations on TV. Has the horror of the world led her to retreat into herself? Hmmm…

The next day Alma reads Elisabet a letter from her husband. Elisabet tears up the photo of her son that has been sent with the letter, with not even a short burst of Abba to explain herself.

A psychiatrist suggests that nurse and patient should go and stay for a while at her seaside cottage (this seems to be a pretty cushy clinic). They do this, spending their days sunbathing and shell-collecting on an artfully over-exposed beach. Alma slums around in a bathing costume not doing much work and jabbering on at her still-silent charge. She reveals all sorts of things about herself and her relationship with fiancé Karl-Henrik. One night, she tells Elisabet about an angst-ridden bout of summer holiday sex, then cries on her shoulder. Later, while she’s sleeping, the actress sneaks into the nurse’s room and messes around with her hair, giving her a creepy side-parting.

Persona 2


The next day, Alma offers to take some letters of Elisabet’s into town to post. She sneaks a peek at an improperly sealed missive and discovers that Elisabet has been analysing her and making notes about flaws in her character. The cow! Her faith in the acting profession is shaken.

Alma confronts Elisabet about this and, after a slappy match, threatens to throw a pot of boiling water over the actress. “Stop!” Elisabet responds, not unreasonably. So, the cat hasn’t entirely run off with her tongue! Elisabet runs off down the beach and Alma takes off after her, belatedly realising that she’s not paid to slap her patients around.

But it’s too late. There is a breach between the women. They take to wearing black, and skulking around the house smoking. If this were an Abba-themed musical comedy they might consider a duet on S.O.S. at this point. But it isn’t, so they don’t.  

One night, Elisabet gazes intensely at a wartime photo of Jewish children being rounded up by Nazis. Was she one of these children? Is this the source of her horror and silence? Who knows?

In the next scene, who should show up but Elisabet’s bloody husband! He’s blind and doesn’t seem to have a very heightened sense of hearing or touch either, as he soon mistakes Alma for his wife. At a vague prompting from Elisabet, Alma takes on this role, telling the husband that she loves him and that she’ll be back soon. They sleep together too, I think, although they seem to keep their clothes on (those Swedish summer nights can be a bit chilly). Then she tells him to bugger off.

The confusion of identities extends into the next scene. Alma sits down opposite Elisabet (who now looks a bit like Charlize Theron in Monster) and guesses that she is secretly repelled by her child, telling her things that imply an insight into the other woman’s very soul. But who is revealing themselves to whom here? Alma becomes more confused about who she is, and the scene ends with a weird face-meld thing happening.

Persona 3

Happy slapping - the way forward?

Just to clarify matters, Alma puts her nurse’s uniform back on but then, in a moment of self-lacerating angst, scratches her arm, drawing blood. The actress starts sucking her blood, vampire-like, and is rewarded with another bout of happy slapping.

Now the boot shifts to the other foot. It is the actress who appears vulnerable and weak. Who is absorbing who? Alma rocks Elisabet to sleep getting her to repeat the word ‘nothing’. The next day, the nurse tidies the place up, gives herself the side-parting of doom and leaves.


Below I’ve tried to summarise the information gained from watching both Mamma Mia! and Persona.

Information gained from watching Mamma Mia!

–         Abba songs are fun.

–         There’s an Abba song for almost every occasion.

–         Having three dads can be stressful, but it can be a lot of fun too.

–         Pierce Brosnan can’t sing for shit.

–         Pierce Brosnan’s acting isn’t much to write home about either.

–         Pierce Brosnan is remarkably well-preserved for a man of 56.

–         Getting married at twenty can be a good thing or not such a good thing.

–         People still went around dressed as ‘60s hippies in the late 1980s.

–         Greek people cross themselves when something untoward happens.

–         Just because your mother used to be a slapper, that’s no reason not to love her.

–         Meryl Streep is more attractive than Julie Walters.

–         After a few drinks, Julie Walters isn’t a bad consolation prize if Meryl Streep turns you down.

–         Young people say “Oh my God!” a lot, without much religious feeling. Middle-aged people say it sometimes too.

Information gained from watching Persona

–         It’s not easy being an actress.

–         It’s not easy being a nurse either.

–         Sex on the beach can be traumatic.

–         Swedish summer evenings can be chilly.

–         Blind people cannot distinguish one person’s voice from another.

–         If you’re Sven Nykvist (the cinematographer here) you can get away with over-exposing stuff.

–         A side-parting can get you into all kinds of trouble.

–         Hell is other people, especially when they start face-melding with you.

–         A good bout of happy-slapping will relieve all kinds of angst.


* With apologies to P.J. O’Rourke



9 responses

5 11 2009
Rosie Niven

So which did you like best then, or have I missed the point?

5 11 2009

The films are so different that it’s not really fair or appropriate to compare them. Which is kind of why I decided to write the piece in the first place. ‘Mamma Mia!’ is certainly the happier film, but it perhaps lacks the intellectual rigour of Bergman’s work. What would be interesting would be Meryl Streep and Julie Walters in a remake of ‘Persona’, with Abba songs. I for one would pay good money to see that!

7 11 2009
Swedish Beach » 'Mamma Mia!' versus 'Persona': An Intellectual Experiment*

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10 11 2009
paul baxter

Nice work Mr K, I hope you wore the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment during this experiment.

In the past I have found myself on the receiving end of the high culture snobbery you mention. I once lived in a shared house with a depressive German Photography PhD student(!). She had a party with her various arty friends there, one of which was waxing lyrical about Apocalype Now. I said I thought it was over-rated (imperialism with self-pity etc) she asked me, as a film student at the time, what my favourite film was. When I replied Ghostbusters she was disgusted.

She wouldn’t see the depth that film has (Faith versus secularism/capitalism etc)…

“No-one steps on a church in my town!”

10 11 2009

Thanks for the wise words Mr. B., and for tekking a luke at me ‘blog.

I’m afraid that, deep down, I’m probably one of those film snobs that you mention, although I do like to leaven the mix occasionally with a bit of ‘Team America’ or the Marx Brothers or Pierce Brosnan singing. Any road, I try to mix things up for the ‘blog. You can read my thoughts on high and low film culture here, here, here every Friday, Friday, Friday.

10 07 2010

as a huge film snob…i’m glad i don’t have to watch mamma mia now, thanks 🙂

also, i’m curious, did you like and/or “get” Persona? it’s been awhile so i don’t know if i had to read the IMDB boards or i just got it from the film what the eventual twist was..personally i loved the film, one reason being now I can see where David Lynch gets a huge portion of inspiration/storylines from.

10 07 2010

Apparently Lynch isn’t much of a film buff at all, so I’m not sure how much of an influence Persona has had on any of his work. As I understand it, his ‘metamorphosis’ films (Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, Inland Empire) have been more influenced by Franz Kafka than anything else, along with his usual visual references (Edward Hopper, Francis Bacon etc.).

I do like and admire Persona, but it’s far from being my favourite Bergman film. Cries and Whispers, The Seventh Seal, The Silence and Wild Strawberries are all personal favourites. But Persona occupies a space of its own I suppose, and is certainly a unique film. And probably one that you get a lot more from on the second viewing.

6 07 2011
Mark Fee

I can’t comment on the comparison as I have never (and probably never will) seen Mamma Mia, however I was watching David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive again last night and was reminded that the scene where he references the face merge from Persona (ie one face in side profile merges with one in forward profile) also reminded me of the Abba Promo Video for Mamma Mia the song. So I googled to see if the video was a homage/rip off of Persona and found this site

6 07 2011
Mark Fee

Sorry I forgot to finish my post with my conclusion that you theory/lemma is sound and something that I have often wondered myself. Feelgood films satisfy an itch and keep me occupied for a couple of hours but don’t leave much to discuss afterwards. On the other hand, and in all honesty, intellectual films can be a right bore. Maybe this is why I like Lynch so much as he seems able to span the gap between the two camps well.

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