Ingmar Bergman once said that “The human face is the great subject of cinema. Everything is there” and nowhere is this approach to filmmaking more obvious, intriguing and haunting than his 1966 masterpiece, ‘Persona’. Not just Bergman’s best film, not just one of the best films of that era, or even just a great film, one of the most prominent and complex pieces of art ever to emerge from the 21st Century, ‘Persona’ is a film that I can’t imagine myself ever fully understanding. It defies basic logic and every interpretation, from the literal to the metaphorical, seems just as likely as the last. I can think of no other film that has stayed with me in the same way this has, one that haunts my memories to the same extent and continues to intrigue me in such a way.
The film’s plot is deceptively simple, an nurse named Alma (Bibi Anderson) is given a new patient, a famous actress called Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann) who in the middle of a performance simply stopped speaking and has not uttered a word since.
“That sounds fairly simple”, is perhaps the only way one cannot describe this film. I am delving into spoilers from here but frankly, even a vague plot summary only scratches the surface of what lies within ‘Persona’. The plot itself spirals into one of infinite complexity and limitless interpretations. As they spend more time together Alma begins to compare herself to Elisabeth, and despite the fact that the latter remains mute Alma makes various confessions to her patient including the fact that she has cheated on her fiancé, had sex with underage boys, became pregnant and had a subsequent abortion. Later it is revealed that Elisabeth also became pregnant but during the pregnancy built up a resentment of her own child that developed into an irrational hatred to the point where she wished the child would die and rejected him when he was born, starving him of attention.
‘Persona’ is concerned primarily with identity, how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. It also plays with the concept of how our destiny is ultimately determined by the actions of others. Early in the film Alma laments at how any children she has with her fiancé will be raised by her, as if her destiny is already defined by other human beings around her. It is this precise reason why Elisabeth rejects her own child, she fears it will bring an end to her independent life and career as an actress. “Both women share similar traits”. In fact that is about as big an understatement that you can possibly make on the film.
The entire concept of Bergman’s film hinges on the idea of the two women and their similarities. It was conceived and written over a period of fourteen days. Bergman was in hospital, recovering from an operation when he noticed a resemblance between two actress’ he had been considering to hire for a different project, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Anderson. As the Alma and Elisabeth spend more time together their personalities seem to merge into one, the similarities become too obvious to notice, and both are potentially doubting their entire existence when they meet. Elisabeth has responded by remaining silent, an attempt to reject her own existence, while Alma doubts the validity of her relationship with her fiancé, she doubts her abilities as a nurse and doubts the strength of her own morality. Once again we find ourselves toying with the concept of our own identifies being consumed by the actions of others due to our interaction with them.
At one point in the movie, Elisabeth writes a letter (intended to be private) in which she believes that her nurse has doubts about her own perception of herself and how it doesn’t conform to her actions. There is definitely some truth to that, it only takes a brief amount of time for Alma to start unloading all of her deepest secrets onto Elisabeth, with no clear prompting or encouragement, almost as if the nurse was craving such an opportunity. But there’s another meaning to it, the way in which Alma doubts herself comes across as if she is two separate people. At the very least she cannot be summarised with a definitive explanation.
That, more than anything, is what ‘Persona’ is all about. Just when you think one character is definitely pinned down Bergman throws in a new riddle to decipher, a new puzzle to piece together. The film’s most famous scene is arguably ‘the repeated scene’, in which Alma recounts the revelations about Elisabeth’s pregnancy to her and the actress’ failure to cope with the event. As Alma narrates the camera zooms in to an intense close up of Elisabeth as she listens to her own personal failings laid out in front of her. It’s an emotionally brutal scene but just when you think it’s done we go back to the start and this time the camera zooms in on Alma as she tells the same story again. Apparently this arose because Bergman was so torn over which perspective to shoot from and was so reluctant to cut between the each spate shot that he just said, screw it, and played both perspectives. It forces you to notice the separate sides of each women’s personality and their journey, while also highlighting their similarities. At its conclusion, one half of the face of Alma and the other of Elisabeth’s visage are shown in split screen, such that they appear to have become one face.
Does this mean their personalities have literally merged into one, are they one entity? I’ve juggled several theories about the nature of their interaction that have ranged from the absolute metaphorical, such as one woman merely being the imagined personification of another’s personality. Another is that Elisabeth is playing a malicious game with Alma, pushing the nurse’s personality as far as she can, almost to overcome Alma with her own willpower. I’ve no more evidence that one of these is true than the other, as well as numerous other theories I’ve concocted since first seeing the film.
But wait, there’s more, much more. While this is all well and good, what stops ‘Persona’ becoming a pretentious, sprawling mess of ideas and concepts, what elevates it to a true work of art? Well ironically, it’s the personal nature of it. Bergman’s earlier films were more concerned with man’s relationship with god and the cosmos (you know, the easy going subjects), they were thematically broad. ‘Persona’ came at a time when he doubted his own place as a filmmaker, whether or not it was his duty to respond to the turmoil of modern society and the artists relationship with the audience. He was insecure of how his audience perceived him, so he created a film that addressed how others perceive an individual.
While ‘Persona’ is on the one hand a film about personalities, it also a film about art itself, specifically film. As the film infolds an audience starts to question what is real and what is fantasised. Halfway through the film the images are broken up as the film reel from which they are projected tears and burns. Though the film reconstitutes itself the narrative is much more fragmented and stray further away from reality. But then again what was reality in the first place? By showing the physical film reel, Bergman has forced his audience to confront the notion that everything they have just witnessed was a lie.
Or was it? Earlier in the film we see two images of history that are implied to have played a part in triggering Elisabeth’s mutism. One is of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk's self-immolation on television in protest to the war in Vietnam. The other is a photo of Jews being arrested in a Warsaw ghetto. With such horrors in the real world how can an actor continue to act out fabricated stories, is this silence an attempt to reject the real world? How can an artist be expected to reflect the real world?
Bergman must have had his concerns about this as well. One of the last shots of the film is that of a film crew and director as they are filming a scene (presumably for one of Elisabeth’s films) but the way in which it is edited almost make it appear as if we are watching the scenes of the film being shot right in front of us. Bergman has turned the perspective on himself, trying to discover how people perceive him as an artist. That is ‘Persona’, an introspective of the mind and a reflection of oneself.