“[The persona is] a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual… one result of the dissolution of the persona is the release of fantasy—disorientation.”–Carl Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology
DIRECTED BY: Ingmar Bergman
PLOT: Without explanation, Elisabeth, an actress, suddenly decides to stop talking and checks into a mental hospital. Alma, a young nurse, is assigned to take care of her, and even travels with her to vacation at the psychiatrist’s summer home as part of her therapy. Once there, Alma grows attached to the mute actress and begins confessing secrets to her; but as the two women spend time together, their personalities seem to merge, and Alma finds herself being mistaken for Elisabeth…
- Ingmar Bergman wrote the script while in the hospital recuperating from a viral infection. He was partly inspired by seeing a photograph of actresses Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman together and noticing how similar they looked.
- Bergman said that “Persona saved my life… if I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up.” He also said that “…in Persona—and later in Cries and Whispers—I had gone as far as I could go… I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.”
- Although they were both married to other people at the time, Bergman and Liv Ullman fell in love on set and had a child together after the film was completed. Bergman had previously had an affair with Andersson, as well.
- An almost subliminal shot of an erect penis (it lasts for about one-eighth of a second) was cut from most prints during the film’s original run. The film also occasionally ran into censorship problems due to Bibi Andersson’s long erotic monologue.
- Persona was ranked the 18th greatest movie of all time on Sight and Sound’s 2012 critics poll, and came in 13th on the director’s poll.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Beautifully lensed by Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Persona is justly celebrated for its many doubling shots where the faces of the lead actresses overlap; at one point, their images are overlaid in a mirror, and at another we actually see a composite woman made up of half Liv Ullman, half Bibi Andersson. The most meaningful of these effects comes near the very beginning of the movie, then recurs again near the very end. A mysterious, gangly young boy looks at a glowing screen with a face on it; the image blurs, then resolves into Andersson, then defocuses and morphs into Ullman. The boy caresses the screen as if he’s trying to feel the face.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The first five minutes bring us an erect penis, a tarantula, a sheep being eviscerated at a slaughterhouse, nails hammered into palms, and corpses in a morgue. It’s an assault of images from a boiling id, but mixed with formalist reminders that we are watching a film: the first shot is of a projector’s arc lamp lighting in an incendiary burst, followed by film spooling, cartoons projected upside down, and so on. All of this before the title appears. Are you convinced the director has weird intentions yet?
Original U.S. trailer for Persona
COMMENTS: If you are a fan of the identity-morphing brainteasers Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), or Performance (1970), or Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), or Fight Club (1999), or Abbas Kiarostami‘s Certified Copy (2010), then you owe it to yourself to check out Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Bergman did the psychic switcheroo first, and he did it best. Simultaneously subtle and brash, the masterful Persona tugs at viewer’s expectations. The brutally surrealistic opening warns us that, no matter how much a straightforward narrative seems to be developing, the rug will be pulled out from under us at some point. The only questions are how, when, and why.
Essentially a two-character play with one speaking part, Persona‘s first official mystery arises in the person of actress Elisabeth Volger (Liv Ullman), an actress who has decided to quit speaking, for reasons that may not even be known to herself. Ullman, who says almost nothing during the film and acts with movements and expressions only, nonetheless projects a powerful persona. Elisabeth’s silence gives her a strange power; she can become the ultimate confessor, or a judgmental observer. She can be, and often is, appalled beyond words. She reacts to a televised broadcast of a Buddhist monk on fire with absolute horror; she cowers in the corner of her hospital room as if the flaming corpse is in the room with her. Hints of what may be bothering her are few; has she simply grown tired of the world? Her psychiatrist proposes that Elisabeth protests through silence because she is tired of playing roles, that by refusing to speak she can be authentic for a while—she can be merely herself, unable to tell lies. But, of course, this withdrawal from the world is ultimately just another role. The psychiatrist’s suggestion is an existential and theoretical explanation for her condition, but Elisabeth also has a family and practical relationships. Her nurse reads her letters from her husband, who is hurt by her silence, and sends a picture of their child. Elisabeth looks at the photograph, scans it up and down as her lips tighten, then tears it in half. Significant, perhaps?
Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) is tasked with taking care of Elisabeth. Alma seems like a normal, well-adjusted woman, with a job she’s good at and a fiancé whom she’s pleasantly resigned to marrying. Yet, she’s intimidated by Elisabeth, by her fame and by her silence; she fears she is too young and not mentally strong enough to deal with such a powerful personality. Nevertheless, Alma is given primary responsibility for taking care of the actress, even going to live with her at the psychiatrist’s summer home; a strange decision, perhaps, from a therapeutic perspective. If Ullman has the challenge of acting without words, Andersson has an equally difficult but diametrically opposed task: she must carry the entire film talking for both sides in what is essentially a film-long soliloquy. As she grows more comfortable with Elisabeth, Alma begins to open up to the other woman, culminating in one of the most famous and important sequences in the movie.
Alma delivers a long, slow-burn erotic confession that starts as a tale of innocent sunbathing and ends in a tawdry orgy. Andersson falls into a hypnotic reverie as she tells the story, and both actresses eyes glaze over with distant passion as the monologue continues. But the interlude, so vivid and still titillating in Alma’s memory, comes with an unhappy epilogue: an unwanted pregnancy. Alma moves from abandon to regret in the course of the story, and ends crying and complaining “It doesn’t make any sense. None of it fits together. You feel guilty for the little things.” Then, a bit later in the same speech, an apparent non sequitur: “Is it possible to be one and the same person at the same time? I mean, two people?”
This speech would be merely a memorable standalone moment if it was not mirrored later in the film by another, even more tragic pregnancy tale, this time belonging to Elisabeth. Between the telling of the two anecdotes, a strange event occurs. Elisabeth’s husband shows up at the cabin and mistakes Alma for his wife. Alma denies being Elisabeth, but he insists, and eventually she gives in and pretends (?) to be his loving spouse. In the next scene, Alma catches Elisabeth looking at the photograph of her child that she had ripped up earlier in the film. Alma now confronts the actress with revelations about Elisabeth’s pregnancy—private details which the nurse could not possibly know or guess, and which, like her own story, contains a shameful confession. But Elisabeth’s secret is far more horrifying than Alma’s was. The camera focuses on Ullman’s guilty and tormented face for the entire speech, which sounds like a therapeutic breakthrough. To underscore the significance of the moment Bergman pulls a trick that would only be possible in cinema—then punctuates it with another cinematic trick. The scene ends with Alma suddenly crying out, “No! I’m not like you!”
Some view Persona as the tale of two women who switch personalities; others (like me) believe that Alma and Elisabeth are really one woman, and that Alma’s investigation of Elisabeth’s condition is a metaphor for self-(re)discovery after psychological repression and breakdown. Others contend the movie is a metaphor for the process of psychoanalysis, that the silent actress symbolizes the therapist who causes the patient to reflect on themselves. There’s some support for that interpretation in the fact that Alma discovers a letter from Elisabeth to her husband where she explains that “it’s very interesting studying her.” No single theory, however, appears that magically explains everything that happens in Persona. Do the symbols that appear in the opening montage—the tarantula, the crucifixion—have any actual significance in the story that follows? Who is the boy who caresses the screen, and what sort of magical realm is he trapped in? In the prologue to the published screenplay, Bergman himself said about Persona, “On many points I am unsure, and in one instance, at least, I know nothing.” The one thing that is clear is that Persona is a deeply psychological and labyrinthine story, one whose very title suggests the idea of multiple versions of the self: there is our “real” self, and the mask or persona that we presents to the world. Persona suggests that there may even be masks that we present to ourselves, to hide parts of ourselves from our own prying eyes. Persona is a strange and mysterious psychoanalytical horror film; Ingmar Bergman paints the Self as a scary place, one you wouldn’t want to visit on a dark night.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…rich in poetic intimations of subconscious longings and despairs, and it is likely to move one more deeply as poetry than as thought…. we are left with the haunting wonder: Was this something that happened, or a dream?”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Persona (1966)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Persona – Film (Movie) Plot and Review – This film reference page includes an extensive bibliography and a short essay by P. Adams Sitney (which briefly lays out the psychoanalytical interpretation of the film)
Bergmanorama: Ingmar Bergman: Films: Persona (1966) – This Bergman fan site collects excerpts from reviews and interviews and a galley of stills
Persona – Margarita Landazuri’s short primer on the film for TCM gives a nice overview with good background information
Persona :: rogerebert.com :: Great Movies – Roger Ebert’s essay on Persona for his great movies series
Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (Cambridge Film Handbooks) – A collection of essays on Persona from a variety of critical perspectives, including, most significantly, Susan Sontag’s influential review declaring the film Bergman’s masterpiece
DVD INFO: MGM’s Special Edition DVD (buy) is a surprisingly reverent release of a foreign arthouse classic by a major Hollywood studio. The remastered image looks fantastic and helps you fully appreciate such amazing moments as when the Nordic twilight slowly falls across Liv Ullman’s melancholy face. Extras include the trailer, the thirty minute documentary “A Poem in Images,” separate interviews with stars Ullman and Andersson, and a “gee-whiz” audio commentary by Bergman scholar and admirer (and Jesuit priest) Marc Gervais. The out-of-print disc can be a little pricey; for just a little bit more you can spring for the six-disc “Ingmar Bergman Collection” box set (buy), which comes with Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Serpent’s Egg, and Passion of Anna, plus a disc of supplemental material.
Criminally, Persona is not yet available on Blu-ray.
UPDATE: In 2014 The Criterion Collection released a DVD/Blu-ray combo edition of Persona (buy) which immediately becomes the standard.
(This movie was nominated for review by Eric SG, who praised its”hyper-weird montages.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)