Film essay by: Witney Seibold
Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” (1966) has the perfect opening for a film: we see a projector lamp igniting, and film spooling through a projector. We see the countdown on the screen, and then images of early film hurrying silently across an off-center frame. We see flashes of a sheep slaughtered, a nail being forced through a human hand, and other seemingly unconnected images (in an alternate cut of the film released outside of the U.S., there was an image of an erect penis as well). Bergman seems to be reminding us right off that this is only a movie. Reality, he seems to be saying, is not going to be the focus of what we’re seeing. We’re going to be seeing something more abstract, perhaps symbolic.
Reminders like this are important. Film is a medium that can reflect reality to any degree ranging from actual reality (documentary), to complete surreal abstraction (the films of Oskar Fischinger, an animator who only works with shapes and colors). By forcing us to acknowledge the unreality of what we’re seeing – the place of the piece of art as a piece of art – we’re free to accept the film’s reality more freely than we would otherwise. Our minds are open a bit wider, and when we being to see two women living in a summer cottage merging into a single persona, we’re more conducive to the experience. There is a great German word for this breaking of the fourth wall, so to speak: Verfremdungseffekt. Anything, intentional or otherwise, that takes you “out of” the experience of the art. I love that word. But I digress. If we didn’t get this self-acknowledgement, this accepting of unreality, we may not be able to see the film as a piece of art, and even if we could, we would be less likely to be emotionally involved in the proceedings.
Before I begin to delve into the relationship between the two lead characters, let me give a little insight into the Scandinavian mind, seeing as this is a Swedish film.
Scandinavia is pointed to by many way-leftist and Communist people here in the States as a paradise of Communism can work.
Denmark especially, but the rest of them as well. It’s a place where most all people are well-off. Employed, middle-class, comfortable. Not a care in the world, right? Well, as it turns out, it also has a rather heavy suicide rate. People do not live in a kind of communal bliss. When you’re comfortable, and there’s nowhere to go, your mind becomes anchored in one spot, and you begin to narrow into yourself, cut off from others. I noticed this when traveling in
Scandinavia, but it wasn’t until I read an article recently on Danish director Lars von Trier, that I was reminded of it. Many people are very hollowly focused out on the streets of most Scandinavian towns. When we entered their homes, they were warm and inviting. When we needed help on the street, it was readily available. But looking at the people walking down the street, they seemed to be looking vaguely at a spot about two feet in front of them, lost and empty and alone.
I don’t mean to belittle or make pitiable the rather ample Scandinavian population; the warmth and kindness is what I remember first. But a kind of empty oneness that seemed to sneak into my consciousness seems pertinent when coming to “Persona.” There seems to be less casual connection in a place like
Sweden. Ingmar Bergman, in making a film about two women who not only merely connect, but merge into one being, is making a strong social commentary.
“Persona” is a film about two women: Alma (Bibi Andersson), a perky young nurse, and Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann), a successful actress. The film is about their relationship. Their relationship is as follows:
Layer 1: Professional. The setup for the film begins with Elisabeth in an asylum of sorts, mentally healing for a while after mysteriously going silent in the middle of a performance of “Elektra.”
Alma is assigned by the doctor to look after her. In these hospital scenes, the film seems pretty straightforward. Easy-to-follow. The women do not really know one another except as professionals. The profession involved, though, is psychology, so we get a sort of prescience that they are going to get to know one another better; there will be, however cold and clinical, a level of analysis. Mounting drama to come: good setup for any film story.
In these hospital scenes, there is a bit where Elisabeth is horrified by television footage of the war in
Vietnam as a protestor burns to death. Her reaction is not mere disgust or aversion of eyes; rather she backs up away from the screen, covering her face, utterly enshrouded in fear. This seems to be a hint of some deeper terror within her. Why is she so scared? Some horror is lurking beneath the surface.
Elisabeth’s doctor suggests that the reason she has become silent is to distance herself from real emotions and responsibility; it’s easier to be apathetic than, well, anything else. She also suggests that Elisabeth play the game as long as she needs to, for eventually she’ll bore of playing this part just like any part she’s played, and come back to her husband and child…
Layer 2: Friends. The two women, moving into Elisabeth’s doctor’s summer cottage, soon become friends. We also get to know them a little better.
Alma does all the talking, of course, and Elisabeth, a silently detached, aloof, only node or shakes her head. She smiles occasionally. They go for walks on the beach. They seem to be unwinding and growing closer.
Alma, uncomfortable with the silence, fills it with confessions. It’s not long before they’re drinking together.
Layer 3: Sexual. There is something undeniably sexual between these two women. Not least of which was
Alma’s rather extended and explicit monologue describing her encounter on the beach (I’ve seen many films, and, as part of the territory, have seen a lot of sex scenes. Few sex scenes are more detailed and erotic than the one that is merely spoken in “Persona.”).
Alma, in opening herself up, is making herself vulnerable to Elisabeth. The tears, the emotion, and, along with it, the physicality. The intensity in their eyes. There’s even a shot of
Alma laying on her back in bed next to Elisabeth, who looks intently on her.
The following scene, when
Alma has retired to bed, depicts Elisabeth sneaking into her bedroom, backing out, then reentering. They embrace. They both face the camera, and Elisabeth brushes
Alma’s hair from her face. They have an odd closeness in this scene, one beyond the mere drunken physicality of the previous scene which brings me to:
Layer 4: Confusion. Anyone who has ever been close to another person will know that said other person can sometimes drive you crazy. While this is clearly the case with Alma and Elisabeth, I think there’s something else going on here.
Alma feels mildly betrayed that she had revealed secrets, opened herself up to Elisabeth, and then received nothing in return. Not a word. This much is clear. And when
Alma reads the letter in which Elisabeth describes how she’s only been watching
Alma as a rather insulting study, she feels further betrayed. This is clear as well. What’s not so clear is why she’s that outraged.
Alma, I think, is connecting to someone for the first time in her life. And not just a mild friendship, but a kind of trust never before expressed. She says that she doesn’t usually open up to people, not even her fiancée. Also that her ideals and her actions don’t match. This is not casual stuff. She wasn’t merely betrayed, she was wounded. And her reactions are violent.
Layer 5: Violence. “No, don’t!” Don’t throw the hot water on me. Don’t hurt me. I don’t want to feel pain. I have feelings. I exist. I am.
Elisabeth’s spoken words reveal that her objectivity is slipping. She may have, in a letter, declared that she was outside her relationship with
Alma looking in at her with an actor’s objectivity, but she is not. She exists, and her façade, the part she was playing, is slipping.
Until this moment, Elisabeth was sort of able to have a subtle power over
Alma. Liv Ullmann, with soft eyes, quiet smirks, and a subtly changing mask, is able to communicate Elisabeth every emotion, and on every step she looks down on
Alma. Consider the scene on the beach. Did you speak? No. Did you come into my room last night? Smile. No. Did she? Well, we can’t be sure, but we know that Elisabeth is thinking something about last night, and
Alma can’t know what it is.
But the violence. Consider the glass on the walk.
Alma leaves a piece of broken glass on the walk outside, hoping that Elisabeth will step on it. She passes once, and misses it.
Alma is still hoping to hurt her. Elisabeth passes again, and steps on it. She then enters the house, and just looks at
Alma wasn’t guilty of anything until Elisabeth stepped on the glass. After, she was guilty. She was caught, open once again. By stepping on the glass, Elisabeth wasn’t hurting herself, she was belittling
Layer 6: Fusion…
But it is at that very moment that the film “breaks.” We’re pushed back away from reality. Remember? This is only a film. Whatever important connections you have made with these women are not real. They are only images. We can now accept that these women are not only connecting, they’re overlapping. They now have looked so deeply into one another and learned so much, that they’re kind of taken on a few of the other’s personality traits.
Alma has undoubtedly picked up some of Elisabeth’s uncaring assertiveness, while Elisabeth, only ironically feigning the need to be unrecognized has taken on some of
Alma’s vulnerability and weakness. Elisabeth now craves oblivion, and
Alma now needs to return to the world.
Layer 7: Acknowledgement of fusion
Two scenes on this one:
First: Elisabeth’s husband arrives and cannot differentiate between the two women. Indeed, he only sees
Alma, and think that she is Elisabeth. They kiss, they discuss their son, who misses his mom, and make love. All with Elisabeth silently and blankly watching.
Alma only half goes along with it, but knows now that she and Alma are one. This scene contains the famous shot of one face in profile, and the other, full-moon. One of them is watching us, the other is distracted. We’re drawn into the crisis by the stare. We’re part of this scene as well. Watch carefully after this scene, though, as Alma and Mr. Vogler are in bed together.
Alma is ultimately embarrassed by what just happened, and shouts that she wants things back the way they were. Elisabeth, simply by being present, knows what’s going on. They are acknowledging that what has happened between them… has actually happened. They open up even further…
Second: The oddest and most important scene in the film; the story of Elisabeth’s child.
Alma finds Elisabeth clutching one of the last things that she can call hers: a picture of her son.
Alma, now seeing fully into Elisabeth’s mind, tells the story of the child. The camera stays on
Alma’s face in a long unbroken shot. The child came, but was unwanted. It was deformed. It made the mother feel guilty. It loved the mother to an irrational degree. The mother needed to escape. Then, the scene is repeated, word-for-word, this time the camera staying on Elisabeth’s face, as if it’s her telling the story. They each get a turn to tell the story. Both in
Alma’s voice, both using the same words, both feeling slightly different about it. Elisabeth is the unsure one, and
Alma is assertive and powerful in this scene. A switch from the beginning of the film. The guilt and horror, the ironic detachment and assertion, have switched places.
The shot of the two faces as one. We now see, visually, for the first time, the actual fusion.
Alma, in a final act of defiance, claws her arms, making herself bleed. Look what I can do, she seems to be saying, I still have some power over how I feel. I can still control this, I can still feel. It’s pain, but I can feel. Elisabeth then leans down and suckles the wound, caring for it. Elisabeth is also showing her final act of defiance in this gesture: I can still care about another, I’m not cold, I’m not ironic, I’m not vanishing, I still do have some power over you.
Alma slaps the dickens out of her.
They are now essentially the same woman.
Layer 8: Oblivion
“Nothing.” Elisabeth speaks it. She has now vanished.
Alma has changed into someone else, and leaves the house prepared to go back to her life. Or is it Elisabeth’s life she’s going back to? Did Elisabeth merely drop the part of herself that was afraid, and transform into someone a little more spunky? Did they actually switch positions. Or was Elisabeth longing of oblivion all along, and achieve what she wanted?
I’m not one to answer these questions. Better for a lecture hall.
It seems to me, though, that they both took on, completely, the characteristics of the other, making them both a perfect fusion of both women.
The boy is glad to have his mother back, and knew from the beginning that this would happen (remember his loving stroking of his mother face? The one which was Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson slowly mixing into one another?)
We also get a shot of Ingmar Bergman and photographer Sven Nykvist filming the very last scenes of the film. He’s giving us the final message that what we just witnessed was all false. Not keeping us at arm’s distance with his style and objectivity, mind you. But gently reminding us that we were savvy to a part of the human mind that we can’t ordinarily see with our eyes.
Oh what a sublime film. I think the film’s central triumph is in how it takes a subject that is murky and “artsy” and pretentious, and actually keeps us emotionally involved. It’s an “art” film in every sense of the word (both exploiting the facets of filmed art, but also, from the perspective of the average filmgoer, a tiresome and pretentious bit of self-indulgent hokum. Or whatever belligerent complaints people have about “artsy” films), but does not for an instant feel like an “art” film.
Liv Ullmann gives a performance of the age with Elisabeth. We are able to read, through slight looks, and the way her body moves, exactly how she’s feeling at any point, and exactly where she stands in the relationship between the two women. She is strong and detached at the beginning, and sinks into weakness, guilt, and oblivion at the end. In fact, some people (hi, Nora) saw that Elisabeth, in fact, had the upper hand throughout the film, that she never once was weak or out-of-control. It’s a credit to Ullmann’s performance that she was able to seem in control and knowing without speaking at all.
Certain filmmakers just know what they’re doing. Some great filmmakers have missteps along the way (Scorsese comes to mind. Coppola too. Altman), but Bergman whenever he sits behind the camera, or sits to write a screenplay, seems to have very clear ideas, and very definite ways to express them. Kurosawa also had this gift. Kubrick too, especially when it came to visual craft. Ingmar Bergman has made some of the best films of all time, and “Persona” ranks rather high.