Recently released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion, “Persona” (1966) is a film that can be watched over and over again without losing its power to scramble the brain and stir the soul. Charmaine Li explores the psychological aspects of the perplexing film.
Directed by Ingmar Bergman, 84 minutes.
“Life around me – the darkness, the emptiness of the house, the sunshine – everything could have some magic inside that could be, suddenly, very insecure,” said Ingmar Bergman in a conversation with Dick Cavett in 1971 about his childhood experiences. “Suddenly, I didn’t know if I dreamt things or if they existed.”
Although Bergman was asked about how he burst into making films during his youth, the esteemed auteur veered to recalling what it was like to grow up in Sweden in the 1920s and its constricting social milieu. He went on to describe how his parents’ rigid expectations led him to revolt against them by leaving home at the age of 18 and ceasing contact with them until five years later.
After hearing this, it’s not surprising, then, that Bergman wrote and directed Persona, an electrifyingly enigmatic film centering around two women struggling to resolve individual consciousness and certain behaviours forced on them by the world. One is a famous actress named Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) who suffered a breakdown on stage and thereafter refuses to talk. The other is a young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) who is in charge with caring for Elisabet.
In an earlier scene where Alma’s supervisor, a psychiatrist, suggests the pair move from the hospital to spend some time at her seaside summer house, the audience is faced with a lowering monologue that becomes a central motif underlying the movie…
“Don’t you think I understand? The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming, but being. Conscious at every moment. Vigilant. At the same time the chasm between what you are to others and to yourself. The feeling of vertigo and the constant desire to at last be exposed. To be seen through, cut down, perhaps even annihilated,” said the doctor matter-of-factly while the camera split to shots of Elisabet self-reflecting apprehensively.
“Every tone of voice a lie, every gesture a falsehood, every smile a grimace. Commit suicide? Oh, no. That’s ugly. You don’t do that. But you can be immobile, you can fall silent. Then at least you don’t lie. You can close yourself in, shut yourself off. Then you don’t have to play roles, show any faces or make false gestures,” continued the doctor. “You think…”
There’s no doubt that Bergman was in some way or another deeply influenced by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of the persona – “a kind of mark, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual”.
In the beginning of the film, distinct roles of nurse and patient are defined through Alma’s uniform and Elisabet’s hospital gown respectively. But as the pair spend more and more time together at the isolated summer cottage, the way in which the two women express themselves through dress, action and thought appear to merge. Roles and identities begin to blur as Alma initiates one-sided conversations about her past, fears and future while Elisabet looks on inquisitively.
As the film progresses, sequences between Alma and Elisabet become increasingly intertwined and elusive. For the viewer, the ability to decipher whether certain scenes belong to dreams or reality becomes difficult.
But Persona’s perplexity and multifariousness is evident from the very beginning, with a seven-minute experimental prologue that is dissected as much as the film itself. From a blank black screen a glowing light ignites a projector, propelling a sequence of frenzied, dizzying images that seem to “represent the very stirrings of the cinema itself” – as Susan Sontag suggested – or use dream logic in narrative flow: an erect penis, a child’s’ moving hands, a large black spider crawling, a gruelling scene of a nail being hammered into a hand.
Essentially a film composed of fragments, Persona attempts to mirror the texture the mind – portraying how the idea of our “self” is not a direct product of our experiences but a mental montage of memories, ideas, societal expectations, dreams, roles, hopes and fears.
Though it’s necessary to look at the film beyond a psychological point of view, Persona is undoubtedly held together and driven by one central force: the unconscious.