Persona: visually stunning minimalist meditation on identity, duality and the art of film-making

Ingmar Bergman, “Persona” (1966)

A visually stunning film, shot in black and white film and using contrasts of lighting and landscape to illustrate its themes of identity and the breakdown of boundaries between things thought to be separate, “Persona” is a minimalist film revolving almost entirely around two of Ingmar Bergman’s favourite actors. The plot is basic and in the hands of a hack Hollywood director could have become a campy horror lesbian porn flick. An actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman) is stricken with a psychosomatic illness that renders her completely unable to speak. A young nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to Elisabet’s care. The head nurse of the hospital where Alma is caring for Elisabet suggests the two might like to stay at her seaside cottage for a while so that Elisabet can recuperate better. The two women duly go there.

The area where the cottage is located seems very remote and Alma talks constantly to keep the catatonic Elisabet’s spirits up. At first Alma engages in idle chit-chat about herself, then she opens up with deep-seated anxieties about herself and her relationship with her boyfriend, and admits to having had a fling with two young boys behind her fiance’s back. Increasingly Alma feels herself being dominated by Elisabet – she happens upon a letter Elisabet has written to her therapist and discovers that the patient has been “studying” her – and though she fights against what she believes is Elisabet’s projection of herself onto her own personality, she repeatedly succumbs to the “domination”. Elisabet for her part withdraws more and more into herself until she is incapable of responding to anything around her except through Alma. Which of the two will find the strength to break out of this unhealthy loop?

The minimalist style of the film calls forth questions about the two women that will remain forever unresolved. Is Elisabet really manipulating Alma, is her muteness deliberate – or is Alma imagining that she is being dominated because of her own insecurity and mental fragility? In one scene, Alma believes Elisabet has crept up on her during the night yet Elisabet denies having visited her in her bedroom: who is to be believed here? Is each woman suffering from an emptiness that only the other can understand and fill? Alma has had to abort a baby she probably wanted while Elisabet (according to Alma) gave birth to a child she didn’t want: the two women complement and complete each other through their female reproductive function. Is Elisabet “studying” Alma as a character she might play in a future acting role? Is Alma projecting her own imagination and experiences onto Elisabet as though suggesting a role in a future stage play?

Other themes about family and the maintenance and continuation of family relationships and connections also come to the fore; it is likely that Elisabet’s mental problem that is causing her speech blockage stems in part from deep-seated family issues, of which her ambivalence towards her son is an illustration and symptom. Another possible cause for Elisabet’s speechlessness may be her inability to empathise deeply with the suffering she sees on television (a Buddhist monk sets himself on fire in protest at the US military intervention in Vietnam) and in a famous photograph of Jewish women and children being rounded up by German Nazi soldiers; this inability also affects her relationships with her husband and son. Once Alma has guessed what Elisabet’s real problem is, she tries to make her escape. The physical escape may be easy enough but the film makes no suggestion that the mental escape is as smooth and quick.

Bergman deliberately inserted abstract elements and collages of images at the beginning, end and in the middle of the film to suggest that “Persona” itself isn’t to be taken seriously. The film is very much also about the art of film-making and the art of acting, with a message that to be effective, actors must study other people and become other people. There is a risk that in becoming another person, the actor may lose her identity and real personality. Thus Elisabet becomes completely catatonic once Alma discovers the root of Elisabet’s sickness and decides to break free of Elisabet’s hold over her.

The cinematography by Sven Nykvist is at once stunning and subtle, and while it is probably overdone it certainly emphasises the duality in the film and its characters: shots of Ullmann and Andersson together are arranged so that the actors’ faces, hands and upper bodies are overshadowing each other or can be imagined combined. The cottage setting close to the seashore hints of the land and the sea competing for domination over the other. Contrasts between light and darkness are emphasised: the actors frequently wear dark clothes to highlight this polarity. The film’s self-referential quality is highlighted in Alma’s rant to Elisabet about the latter’s ambivalent feelings toward her son, done twice: the first time from Alma’s viewpoint and the second time from Elisabet’s. It’s as if Alma is now directing Elisabet in what to say and do, what her motivations are, so that the mute woman knows what her character is to do next.

Because the film is so spare in its narrative and so open-ended in its plot and in the way it was filmed, no two people will see this and come away with the same conclusions about it. “Persona” will remain as much an enigma to viewers as Elisabet is to Alma and others around her.

 

 

 

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