Bergman’s “Persona” is a dark a beautiful film that deals ultimately with heroism; an uncommon theme in our time.
“As Kelly Oliver writes, alluding to the enigmatic opening sequence with its images of sacrifice, vampirism, crucifixion and death, “in their exchange, Alma is figured as the sacrificial lamb of the opening visual poem, while Elisabeth…is figured as the vampire.” However, the potentially devastating results of this psychological vampirism are insufficiently appreciated by most critics. Even Oliver claims that, at the end of the film, “they each go back to their respective lives to take up their duties, their personae, as they did before.” For Alma, at any rate, that is not likely to be as easy as it sounds.” ( Daniel Shaw )
The word “persona” has several meanings: among them, mask; person; and a character in a play.”Persona” is the consummate title for Ingmar Bergman’s film. Made in 1965, it was the twenty-seventh film he directed. Born in 1918, near Stockholm, the son of a Lutheran minister, he began in the theatre, but film, of course, is what made Bergman’s international reputation. By the time he came to “Persona” he was known as one of the cinema’s prime explorers of psyche and spirit; strongly influenced by August Strindberg through such films as “Winter Light” and “The Silence”.
Bergman’s specific impulse toward “Persona” he said, came through featuring a then new Norwegian actress, Liv Ullman. Some have called the film difficult and abstruse which is not mistaken; its materials are dark and its difficulties are the source of its fruitfulness. Also, in addition to engaging profound subjects it is, through its very being as an artwork, a profound statement on modern life.
The picture begins with a nurse in a hospital, Sister Alma, ( Bibi Anderson ) assigned by a doctor to the case of Elisabet Vogler ( Liv Ullmann ) Elisabet is an actress about Alma’s age, successful, who has become mute. She is physically well, she is intelligent; but from the psychic imperative she has decided not to speak, not even to her husband and young son.
Though Alma has seen the actress on stage and film and idolizes her, she has inexplicable misgivings about taking the case after she meets Elisabet. However, the doctor persuades her to continue and then has a talk with Elisabet. While the actress keeps absolutely silent as usual, the physician shows sharp perception of her patients condition. The doctor claims that Elisabet is in a state of revulsion with the world and herself, and is convinced that every word she might speak would only add to the sum of the world’s lies.What can she do? “Suicide?” reflects the doctor. “No, too vulgar”. But at least Elisabet can decide to keep silent. Elisabet’s quality of attention indicates that the doctor has not erred in making a fairly accurate diagnostic.
In what follows, … the impact on Alma will most certainly be disastrous, perhaps to the point of causing her to commit suicide. Freudian diagnoses of the behaviour of both women, based on parallels to actual case histories recorded in his Collected Works, will serve to substantiate this contention. According to the concept of femininity that emerges from those volumes, women are more likely to take out their aggressions passively, in psychological rather than physical violence. While Nurse Alma acts out her aggression in physical ways, by leaving a piece of glass out for Elisabeth to step on, and by threatening to throw boiling water in her face, Elisabeth’s assault is far subtler and (potentially) far more devastating. ( Daniel Shaw )
…The doctor has a cottage by the sea. She says there is no point in keeping Eliabet in the hospital so she is sending the patient and the nurse to her cottage until, as she puts it, the actress is ready to move on to other roles. Most of the film takes place in this small isolated house on the rocky Swedish coast; and all the rest of the action, except for one episode with another person, is between these two women, only one of whom speaks.
Precisely because the other woman only and always listens, Alma soon progresses into details of her life at its most intimate and recessed. The cottage becomes a kind of confessional. Alma feels drawn almost entreatingly to Elisabet, her patient, and stimulated by being here alone with this famous artist, who listens to her; she tells Elisabet about a loretched love affair she had with a married man, about the fiancé she now has, and more.
The one day Alma drives to town to mail some letters, including one from Elisabet to the doctor. Curiously, Elisabet left this letter unsealed, and Alma can’t resist reading it. In it Elisabet has written patronizingly of Alma, saying that she like the nurse who has taken to telling her secrets, and that she finds it amusing to study her.
…Freud proposed a primary and normal narcissism, which, in turn, led him to postulate a difference between ego libido, which is essentially narcissistic, and object libido, which is directed at the external world. The normal individual transfers much of their initial ego libido to object libido, thereby passing beyond the limits of primary narcissism. The factors alluded to in Persona that contribute to this “damming up” in Elizabeth include her great beauty, her choice of profession and her oversensitivity to the horrors of the objective world ….
Such individuals find themselves incapable of loving. Their chief aim and source of satisfaction in relationships consists instead in their being loved. Their “self-regard” cannot permit them to be humble, or to sacrifice the part of their narcissism that love requires. Reacting to demands for love from others, paraphrenics withdraw their libido from its natural objects (husband, lover, child). They do not wish to undergo the feeling of dependence that inevitably lowers self-regard. ( Shaw )
The shock is severe for Alma who, though not naive, is straightforward. Her attitude to Elisabet changes readically. No longer a nurse and an aspiring friend, she becomes a competitor, an avenger, desperate to vindicate herself in a particular way; by being recognized as a person. Eventually, this leads to a physical fight between the two women, during which Alma, in a fury, almost pitches a pot of boiling water at Elisabet, her patient, and provokes the one unequivocal utterance the actress makes in the film, a cry of “Don’t!”
Later, the tearful Alma follows the outraged Elisabet down to the beach, explaining how fond she had become of the actress and how badly the letter had hurt her, saying that she knows they must leave the place soon and that she hopes they can part as friends. But Elisabet keeps walking, as stony as the stony beach.
Now Alma, failed as a nurse, offended as a person, scorned as a supplicant, starts to crack. She begins to have fantasies that border on hallucination, including one about Elisabet’s hisband whom she has never seen. In an effort to reclaim herself, Alma takes off her informal country wear and puts on her nurse’s uniform. This does not help. She has only ceased to be her earlier self, she has slipped even closer toward Elisabet, as she imagines her.
“The behaviour of Elisabeth Vogler exhibits precisely this degree of narcissism. She withdraws from the world after performing in Electra, and shows little concern for her husband and son. Indeed, she fails to respond to her husband’s letter, and tears up her son’s photograph near the beginning of the film. Her treatment of Nurse Alma reflects the same callousness to the feelings of others. As a letter to her doctor reveals, Elisabeth sees Alma as an interesting “case study,” bemused by the recognition that Alma is “a little in love” with her.
Her megalomaniacal attitude is demonstrated in her willingness to use Alma as a vehicle for her own recovery: “as you see, I am grabbing all I can get, and as long as she doesn’t notice it won’t matter…” But Alma does notice, and confronts Elisabeth with her need to hold a conversation. In denying her this human courtesy, Elisabeth shows her inability to respond to Alma (or anyone else) in a caring fashion. While Alma shared her confidences in the hope of securing (at least) a friendship with Elisabeth, the latter only observes her in a detached fashion, enjoying her nurse’s guilty torments.”
She confronts the actress and tells her; twice, once with the camera on the other woman, once with it on herself; why she thinks Elisabet had a child and then rejected the the boy: That the actress had thought of motherhood as a role but the reality had frightened her. The account ends with Alma gibbering.
These are the last words she speaks in the film, except for some dream utterances. We see he two women packing in silence, closing the house. We see a very quiet Alma leaving. A voice on the soundtrack tells us that Elisabet returned to the theatre “in December” and continued her career, of which we get a glimpse of her acting again. Then we see he quiet Alma getting the bus to take her away from the coast. There iis a quick reprise of two images from the very beginning, and the film ends.
The performances are A+. Andersson , carrying almost all the dialogue, never fluctuates from a complete grip on the truth of the moment, and the means of conveying it truly. Ullmann, nevertheless creates creates a complex human being in herself and by the use of things that are said to her.
It is revealing in this context to examine Alma’s analysis of Elisabeth’s behaviour, offered twice near the end of the film. Alma contends that Elisabeth had a child in response to the suggestion by some that she wasn’t “motherly” enough. She conceives only to develop this aspect of her personality, and then bitterly regrets her decision. Though the child loves her, she cannot accept the self-sacrifice that raising it requires. Shoving the child off on a nurse and some relatives, she returns to the theatre, which alone can assuage her incessant craving for adulation.Elizabeth’s impenetrable self-regard, her great beauty and success, and the strength of will that she embodies all prove irresistible to Alma, whose own neuroses dovetail tragically with her patient’s.
The beginning of the film sees a pastiche of images , disjointed falshes, rolling thorugh a projector: old slapstick, a sheep being dissected, a spike being driven through a hand. Then we are in the morgue, with bodies under sheets. A phone rings. A dead old woman’s eyes blink open. A dead boy sits up, puts on glasses and starts to read; he reaches toward the camera and, in a reverse shot, we see that he is reaching toward a woman’s immense face behind glass. It becomes another woman’s face, Elisabet and Alma. The faces blur together. The credits appear.
The very start emphasizes that what we are going to see is a film: reality is not going to be recreatred, it is going to be abstracted and represented. Bergman seems to be giving us a quick , jagged tour of Elisabet’s mind; one of the few sequences in which the film is subjectively hers; usually it is either Alma’s or objective. It can even be argued that the film-projector and film strip opening are Elisabet’s , since, as the doctor notes, she sees life as a show, a succession of roles.
Elisabeth’s stereotypically masculine rationality and self-control are coupled with a tendency that is common in narcissists: “They are plainly seeking themselves as a love object.” Such individuals are practically impervious to outside influences. In a lengthy epilogue to the original Bergman script, Elisabeth’s psychologist is represented as saying: “In December, Elisabeth Vogler went back to her home and her theater…the whole time I was sure she would come back. Her silence was a role like all her others. After a while she didn’t need it any longer, and she laid it aside.” Having nourished herself by feeding off of Alma’s pure spirit, Elisabeth returns refreshed to that most narcissistic of professions, acting.
The film begins with the insinuation that Alma is abstracted from the world, a distilled presence, and that what we are seeing is only a “seeming” realism. When the doctor says that Elisabet stopped dead in the middle of a stage performance of “Electra” , we see a flash of this, but there is a camera filming the performance, surely a theatrical oddity. Again, Bergman seems to be reminding us that everything we see here as reality is itself observed by at least one other reality. Thus his very method keeps asking the question: What is truth?
“Alma is threatened by her first meeting with Elisabeth, wondering whether she is up to confronting such a strong-willed person. She nervously reaffirms her conventional goals during the restless night that follows. Trying to initiate a friendship (and perhaps more) between them, Alma soon shares intimacies that she had never before revealed to anyone. When rebuffed, and reduced to a mere case study, her obsession escalates to the point where possessing Elisabeth is not enough: Alma wants to be Elisabeth, and failing that, to hurt her terribly in retaliation.
A crucial moment in the film, is early, when Alma puts some music on for her. It is powerful in its simplicity and power. The camera holds on Elisabet’s face turned to the radio; she listens, her eyes unblinking. The light dims; it is twilight, yet this is a theatrical fading. Bergman is leading us subtly over the edge of realism. In the dusk Elisabet stares intently, held by the music, “feeding” on it. After a long, motionlress moment, she turns her head as if in pain.
This scene is no facile utilization of great music. Bach is not mere soundtrack accompaniment; he is in this scene, the music is part of the drama. It provides the best statement that Bergman could find of the perfection that is out of Elisabet’s reach, so unattainable that she has decided to be silent rather than settle for less. This music, we may infer, is particularly pertinent because of what we know about her. 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.
“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. Freud contends that bisexual desires are less thoroughly repressed in women than in men, because women (having already been “castrated,” so to speak) avoid the castration anxiety that drives those desires so deeply into a boy’s unconscious. … ( Shaw )
… So Elisabet is constantly abraded by the difference between the truth of concept and the circumscriptions of self and action as woman and wife and mother. Remember, too, that she stopped cold for the first time while playing Electra, the Argive princess whose fierce mission is to cleanse away stain and impurity at whatever cost to herself. This crystalline moment of bach is a statement in art to an artist, of a perfection that never existed except in imagination; it is also a reminder of a time when such imagination was possible: a time now gone.