Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) is an apparently confounding array of sounds and images, of words and ideas – to what end? What is the meaning of this most perplexing of cinematic experiences? What is the intended effect? On the surface, it would seem to be about a nurse (Bibi Andersson) who is assigned to take care of an actress (Liv Ullmann). The actress, having gone mysteriously mute during a performance of Electra, now refuses to say anything. The nurse, positively a fountain of personal details and experiences, takes the actress to a secluded house in the middle of nowhere and proceeds to unburden herself with extremely candid confessions about herself – her past, her present, her fears and desires. Here, an apparent transference of personalities takes place, or at least of one of them. Or does it?
First, I’d like to include here what I first wrote on the public movie review site Flixster upon seeing the film for the second or third time toward the end of 2008:
Ingmar Bergman’s eerie masterpiece creeps forth from a primordial ooze of cinematic imagery. The screen is black, lights flicker, projected onto a screen, and images take over. There’s a fat lady, Keystone Cops, a cartoon, an old horror movie, and a child wearing glasses who moves forward, reaching out toward a blurry image – is it a woman’s face?
Why do I start at the very beginning of the film, instead of a typical summary? Because Bergman’s film itself appears to be starting at the very beginning – of cinema. It’s as if he intends to place his film in the context of cinema history, and we must react accordingly.
Liv Ullmann is Elisabeth Vogler, an actress who suddenly turned mute in the middle of a performance, and who has been remanded to a hospital for observation. Her nurse is Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), a pretty young blond who has been assigned to take care of her. At a doctor’s suggestion, she takes Elisabeth to a beach house and…then what? And that’s quite enough of the plot, which only goes so far. It’s the impressions you get that are tantalizing.
The thing about Bergman’s film is that you can never be sure how literal it’s meant to be taken. The setup is sincere enough, despite the eerie quiet of the actress and the over-abundance of speaking on the part of the nurse, though the black-and-white imagery is dreamlike at times and occasionally serves to undermine the sense of “realism.”
We’re already a bit off-balance, and then Bergman springs a surprise: after a very important development involving a letter discovered by the nurse, the film literally appears to break, several frames appear to catch fire in the projector, and the image of one of the characters melts away. Then we’re back where we started, essentially, except the tide has shifted – the dynamic has changed and we’re not completely certain if these are two women or one.
Bergman himself (alongside cinematographer Sven Nykvist) appears at one point in the film, the camera cutting to show the crew of the film during its making. What are we to make of this? Is film an illusion or is reality an illusion? Is the nurse the actress or the actress the nurse or are they one and the same? You could argue that the actress, the ultimate listener, “absorbs” the nurse and plays the ultimate role of her life.
The film, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries), was released in the mid-1960s, at a time when deconstructionism ruled the world, where art films dominated, and where “What does it mean?” was the more operative question than “Did you like it?” Following in the footsteps of Antonioni and many others, Bergman sought to reflect feelings and thoughts, not a story or an idea; his film is one of tone and imagery, not plot points. The result is one of the most haunting works ever constructed – and it reminds you of its construction at every turn.
Note: Without this, we might not have Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, Altman’s 3 Women, Fincher’s Fight Club or such David Lynch works as Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire. Bergman himself went on to make Hour of the Wolf, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Fanny and Alexander and Saraband.”
Now, having seen the film yet again (third or fourth time?), I have some new thoughts on the subject – I agree more or less with Roger Ebert, who in his Great Movies essay in 2001 wrote:
It is apparently not a difficult film: Everything that happens is perfectly clear, and even the dream sequences are clear–as dreams. But it suggests buried truths, and we despair of finding them. Persona was one of the first movies I reviewed, in 1967. I did not think I understood it. A third of a century later 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.
What does this mean? Well, that what appears to take place – or almost take place – is exactly what happens. Nurse Alma (Andersson) tries to bore down the defenses of the mute actress, Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann) by telling her about herself. What she perhaps just barely begins to realize is that through this rather simple act of communication, she opens the doorway to what is left of the actress’ persona (her personal life’s details, etc.) seeping in and taking hold over her.
Consider: Elisabet is an actress who has stopped performing. She has gone mute, and now lacks for an audience. She also lacks for a need to perform. As someone whose profession requires her to constantly wear a “mask” as it were (perform as someone else, pretend to live in their shoes), she has become accustomed to hiding her “true” self. There is, however, a “true” self still there. Alma, on the other hand, is exactly what she appears to be – a young nurse who has had some difficult life experiences and is remarkably forthright about them. She pours her heart and soul out to Elisabet, who only appears to listen. Because we never precisely see things from Elisabet’s point of view, it is unclear if she begins to take on Nurse Alma’s persona in some insidious way.
What is fairly clear, however, is the fact that Nurse Alma is beginning to take on some of the properties of Elisabet Vogler. Most striking is the disturbing amount of personal knowledge she has about Vogler having just met her. As I believe someone may have mentioned in class upon finishing the film the other day, they always just assumed that Alma somehow had the information, and took it at face value. However, what if Alma has – at this point – become so open to Elisabet’s persona seeping in and taking control that she hasn’t simply discovered the information or intuited it, but has actually acquired it psychically through the apparent mental connection the two women have formed? The scene in which Alma faces Elisabet and tries to get her to talk about her son, resulting in the same conversation being seen from both points of view yet with Alma speaking the whole time is interesting. I believe that Alma is speaking for Elisabet, having nearly become her. Alma then, however, cries out that she is not her – she is herself. This, to me, seemed like the breaking point at which she knew she was truly becoming someone else and wanted to salvage her own personality.
And what about the scene in which Elisabet’s husband (Gunnar Bjornstrand) appears at the cottage? Elisabet seems to use Alma to communicate with him – there the whole time, but never apparently noticed! The husband seems to think Alma is his wife, and Alma seems to think otherwise, Elisabet uses Alma’s hand to caress her husband’s cheek – without either person noticing, and they appear to have sex, again with an “invisible” Elisabet Vogler in the room.
This, to me at least, seems to underline the apparent transference between the two women, with Alma being a vessel for the all-but-completely absorbed actress, who has disappeared into a miasma of her own creation.
And what are we to make of the boy, who at the beginning touches what appears to be a screen or window of some kind, with the out of focus actress looking out at him and, past him, at we in the audience? Or of Bergman and Nykvist on a crane at the end, aiming their camera down as the psychodrama comes to a close? Is this finally just another performance for the actress Elisabet Vogler, having now implicated the once innocent Nurse Alma in her act? Or is it simpler than that? Perhaps we’ll never know…