“In Persona the stunning sensuous-mouthed Liv Ullmann plays Elizabet Volger, an actress who suddenly, during a performance, gets an overwhelming desire to laugh. (She’s acting in a tragedy, so the laughter seems inappropriate to her) And after she gets the desire to laugh – she opens her mouth to speak – and nothing comes out. For months.
She ends up being put in a hospital, where she lies in bed, mute – not speaking. Her silence reminded me of Holly Hunter’s in Piano, where the not speaking is an act of will and ego, a giant ego withholding from the world. A kindly doctor says to Elizabet, “I think being in the hospital is actually harming you. There is nothing wrong with you mentally. I think you and Nurse Alma should go stay at my summer house – she can take care of you and you can rest.” And so begins this descent into hell. A two-person hell.”
In Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” ( 1966 ) there is extensive use of minimal composition and extremely tight close-ups to illustrate the theme of psychological deconstruction; a prevalent use of single camera shots throughout the duration of a scene. The lack of camera movement forces us to study the characters’ faces. Persona, after all, as the title suggests, is not about who the person actually is, but the different identities, or facades, that the person projects. Figuratively, Elisabeth Vogler ( Liv Ullmann ), having played the role of celebrity, wife, and mother, has decided to abandon her persona and walk off the stage. A variation on the idea of duality provides an essential ingredient to the plot development. The themes of experience, children, and romantic relationships take on very different meanings for the two women. Among other central themes, there is a demonstration among two women about how cruel and destructive the human will can be.
“Persona” is perhaps Ingmar Bergman’s most challenging and experimental film, in part because it delves into the psychology of women, where essentially is a “do-go” zone for a man to tread. Except he is a witness on the perimeter. A male permitted to rest his own weary psyche in a DMZ .He kind of voyeuristically “gazes” at Alma and Elisabet duke it out, as is above the fray, a non-participating participant in a threesome. Elisabeth is an accomplished stage actress who, in the middle of performing Elektra, ceases to speak. Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), the young nurse assigned to care for her, learns that there is nothing physically or even psychologically wrong with Elisabeth – she has simply, consciously decided not to speak. Alma (the name, not accidentally, is the Spanish word for soul) describes her initial impressions of Elisabeth as gentle and childlike, but with strict eyes. She takes Elisabeth to the attending physician’s remote summer house to facilitate her recuperation.
At first, the two seem ideally suited: a talkative, candid, and inexperienced nurse, and a sophisticated, enigmatic, and silent patient. They take long walks, bask in the sun, and read together. It is obvious that their isolation has cultivated a sense of intimacy between them, albeit one-sided. But it is a curious attachment. At first, Alma attempts to fill the void of Elisabeth’s silence. She talks incessantly about her life, unburdening her soul to the seemingly attentive patient. But soon, it is obvious that Elisabeth’s interest is more than mere politeness or voyeuristic curiosity. She is, in fact, “willing” her identity – the facade she created as Elisabeth Vogler – to the mentally weaker Alma. Elisabeth’s struggle for absolute transference – the proverbial battle for the soul – is a means of further divorcing herself from the pain of her own existence. Persona is a provocative, highly cerebral, and artistically complex depiction of human frailty, cruelty, and identity.
One of the masterstrokes in the script is that Bergman has made Elisabet an actress, not because she must “lie” every night, pretending to be someone else, but because the truth in that pretense- the truth of art- is greater than any truth she can achieve in her own life. Late one night, Elisabet watches television, a filmed report of the Vietnam war. In her nightgown she shrinks into a corner of the hospital room, now lit only by ghostly television light, and watches a Buddhist monk burn himself to death, a man whose protest against imperfection is so strong that it takes the form of permanent silence. Elisabet watches in horror, perhaps with a touch of shame but possibly with some touch of reinforcement for her present “role”
It is an isolated place, “the human interior” in which these two physically similar women, dressed in similar country clothes, partake in a drama of virtually isolated forces, opposed yet melding. One woman of strength and intellect has had a vision of nullity. The other woman, of strength and intelligence, is there to bring Elisabet back, in effect, to her point of view, to a plane of function. Yet the reverse happens. without philosoal process, Alma is drawn more and more to the cavern in which Elisabet is now hiding.
What attracts Alma consciously is Elisabet as artist; the nurse is pleased to be with this gifted and renown woman. What attracts Alma unconsciously is the sense that Elisabet has found some sort of explanation for the bewilderments of existence, that the actress’s so-called abnormality may be a “reasonable” reaction to the confusions and pollutions of life. Alma’s hunger for clarity is shapest in the sequence where the two women draw closest, a sequence where Alma recounts the story of a sex orgy:
“The significance of the orgy at the beach is that Alma was able to let herself go only because of the presence of the aggressive Katarina, her female companion. It was Katarina who initiated sex with the older of the two boys, who showed up at the beach to watch the women sunbathe naked. Alma admits that she felt strangely attracted to Katarina’s big breasts and thighs. She went so far as to interrupt the initial coupling of Katarina and the older boy, insisting the boy enter her as well (as if he could serve as a conduit between the two women). Alma orgasmed immediately, and was aroused yet again when Katarina subsequently seduced the younger boy as well. The intense sensuality of her experience on the beach was sufficient to carry over to her intercourse with Karl-Henrik that same evening, which was better than it had ever been before or since. Her pregnancy, and the resultant guilt caused by an abortion of convenience, no doubt contributed to her inability to experience satisfaction since that day….
…It is in this very bruised emotional state that Alma finds herself when she meets Elisabeth, who is everything Alma is not. Proud and self-sufficient, a great beauty widely acclaimed as an actress, Elisabeth has an indomitable will. Alma’s obsession exhibits the same love-hate ambivalence that often characterises the breaking (even unconsciously) of the taboos that have repressed our constitutional bisexuality.” ( Daniel C. Shaw )
Eventually, Alma gets more and more desperate as she realizes that soon she must leave this place; as she sees that she is getting further and further away from acknowledgement by this woman in whom she has confided so much. ; as she hates herself for still wanting that acknowledgement ; as she feels snared and infuriated by Elisabet’s unshakable silence, which is now colored by pride and resentment. That silence seems to have vanquished everything in Alma: her competence as a nurse, her attempt to draw close as a friend, even her unconscious attempts to hover on the edge of Elisabet’s philosophical view.
The entirely rational disaffection of Elisabet sucks in and almost swamps the extra-rational, vitalist Alma, who pulls herself free to go on living on the other side of this experience, profoundly altered but not by untruth. Effectively, these are Bergman’s explorations on the possibilities for modern tragedy. It is modern, because it is unhinged from past conventions; the tragedy lies in the realization of the insuperable distance between truth and possibility. Not death or blindness or suicide is the outcome but “existence” with greater perception for both women.
Elisabet knows, as the doctor indicated, that she will go on living her various roles in the tragedy of “life” , rather than completing an architecturally modeled tragedy in one sequence of her life. Alma’s tragedy is that, though primed by experience to be vulnerable to Elisabet’s vision, she might not have reached it by herself and must now discover whether she can bear it. Her ealy misgivings about taking this case may have been a premonition of her vulnerability. Now her premonition is realized: she is not an intellectual “role player” ; she now has a new persona to live with.
In an essay on “Persona”, Robert Boyers wrote: ” the tragic hero is one who loses confidence in reality as he has always known it, and articulated it.” The life that Alma will make for herself, he says, “will be tragic, because to be conscious, and to go on living, is to suffer as only our heroes can.”
This condemnation due to consciousness, does seem a bit severe, even provocative; but fits with Bergman’s eschewing of the traditional tragedy seen as a conscious comprehension of the dimensions of imagination and concept, trumping the dimensions of act and fact. As Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister, it does seem ironic that his point of departure is a God-hungry probably godless universe. And his assumption that self awareness is a contemporary phenomenon, the literal awareness of self as an entity to be watched; the compulsion, almost injunction to observe one’s own life as a performance, may be both hubris and a strong dose of narcissism on his part. The view that authenticity is a quest only in the sense that one is sentenced to observe oneself seems equally short sighted. What he calls modern truths are simply ancient neuroses transposed into a modern context.
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” – Rumi
“The critical points come quite close together in the film. Firstly where Ullmann seems to speak for the first time, then denies it and then when Andersson says “I think I could turn myself into you, if I made an effort.” Until then the thought had been that Ullmann was studying Andersson, but then we suddenly become aware that the reverse is equally possible. However, the real clincher is when Ullmann’s blind husband returns home and Andersson pretends to be Ullmann and indeed has sex with him. Surely a blind man would have enhanced hearing having lost one of his senses, so why didn’t he recognise the different voice? Could it be possible that Andersson is actually the wife who has taken Ullmann home? As speech is so symbolic here, one recalls the line from Sophocles’ play where Electra cries out “tell me of anything worse than this I suffer now and I will say no more.” Is it at this point she is as good as her word? I suppose we’ll never know and that’s half the film’s magic.” ( Alan Fish )