‘Persona is bound to trouble, perplex and frustrate most filmgoers. Or so one would suppose.’
– Susan Sontag
In 1963 Ingmar Bergman was appointed head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. The subsequent workload – he did not scale back his film output in any discernible way – led to poor physical and psychological health, and subsequently he was struck down with double pneumonia and acute penicillin poisoning. In spring 1965 he was admitted to the royal hospital, Sophiahemmet, where he began writing a new screenplay, in his words ‘mainly to keep my hand in the creative process’. He was starting to question the role of art, and his own work in particular, and the resulting work was Persona.
Deceptively simple-looking on paper (or, as is the case these days, on computer monitor), Persona is anything but: it’s a troubling, complex and striking study of identity that has been interpreted in a number of different ways by critics in the years since its mid-1960s release. Convincing cases have been put forward that suggest the film’s primary concerns lie with acting, the artistic process, violence, motherhood or even insanity, but despite all that has been written about it Persona retains its mystery: Bergman’s films regularly deal with sexual desire, religion and mortality and this is no different, the director creating a surreal patchwork of images related to such themes that simultaneously intrigues and confuses. It is filled with split-second freeze frames that are both memorable and initially shocking – an erect penis was cut out by concerned censors – and the disconcerting nature of these, allied to Bergman’s trademark minimalism, ensures that a tale ostensibly about warmth (at its base level the story details the relationship between a nurse and her patient) is in fact as cold and hard to decipher as they come.
The nurse in question is Alma (Bibi Andersson), the convalescing patient is successful stage actress Elisabet (Norwegian Liv Ullmann, who was already establishing a good reputation, though Bergman cast her without seeing her act). Elisabet is seen abruptly becoming mute on stage; in hospital there is no diagnosis. On the suggestion of a doctor the pair stay at a remote coastal cottage, where the existing, simple nurse/patient relationship changes: Alma’s long confessional about an earlier foursome and an abortion are met with no verbal response, and she discovers that her patient is actually surreptitiously making her own notes, seemingly using the nurse as a case study; initially Elisabet is the subject but their roles appear to be reversing. Gradually Alma’s earlier fear, confessed to a superior, that ‘I might not be able to handle her…mentally…I might not be able to cope’ begins to come true, and she becomes angry with Elisabet. Meanwhile Elisabet’s husband pays an odd, ghostly visit, but mistakes Alma for his wife.
While the story itself is relatively straightforward, a synopsis ought to mention everything else that Bergman includes, which certainly isn’t. The film begins, for example, with projectors and camera equipment starting up, before a series of images are flashed up on screen: a crucifixion, a tarantula, clips from a silent-reel comedy that were first seen in Bergman’s Prison, the slaughter of a lamb. Finally the camera rests on a boy waking up in a stark, minimal hospital room (next to, it would seem, a number of corpses). When the boy is foregrounded we can see a screen in the background, onto which blurry, transient images of Alma and Elisabet’s faces are projected, shifting from one character to the other.
There are other experimental touches throughout. At a critical point the screen flashes white, scratch marks appear and the sound level rises to a wince-inducing screech. The film appears to be winding back on itself and images from that strange opening montage reappear. When the action resumes the screen is blurred, only snapping back into focus when Elisabet looks through a window. Elsewhere the narrative includes war-related images (a Vietnamese Buddhist monk’s self-immolation, a young Jewish child during arrests in the Warsaw Ghetto). Later, near the end of the film, the camera abruptly turns away from the women and focuses instead, briefly, on the director himself. What does this all mean?
It’s difficult to interpret and tie everything together, particularly when images come and go at such speed, but clearly Persona is about identity and the fragmentation of personalities, as well as being a thinly-veiled metaphor for the process of acting. The name Alma traditionally means ‘child who lifts the soul’ or ‘feeds the spirit’ – and that obviously applies to the character’s role as a nurse and as a ‘muse’ of sorts for Elisabet. She is referred to as ‘Sister’ Alma, a title that can be interpreted in different ways; though it is the job that confers this upon her, the word indicates a stronger, more personal link to Elisabet. It seems that Elisabet is the strong, dominant personality and Alma is a reflection of something else: a manifestation of some inner conflict, or fear about motherhood, perhaps? Bergman and regular DP Sven Nykvist regularly use the trick of overlapping the two actresses while the characters share a conversation (well, I say ‘share’, but naturally it’s always Alma speaking), at first having one in profile while the other faces forward, before later framing their heads as if trying to create a Venn diagram. Finally we see half of the front of each face stitched together, a shot that is extremely creepy. Bergman suggested: ‘In most people one side of the face is more attractive than the other, their so-called good side.’ Here Nykvist splices together ‘their respective bad sides.’ Are they becoming one person, or is Alma being subsumed into Elisabet’s personality, or are they one-and-the-same all along? Everything leans towards the latter, but Bergman enigmatically ends his film by separating the pair once again.
Woody Allen is famously a big fan, but I’ve seen a number of films that borrow a little (or a lot, in some cases) of Persona‘s identity. Robert Altman’s 3 Women owes a debt, while David Lynch cast Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring in Mulholland Drive as a result of their similarity to the two leads here (and there are of course many thematic similarities with Lynch’s film, as well as a number of shared images). The point in which the structure of Bergman’s film ‘fractures’ was approximated, relevantly, by Peter Strickland for Berberian Sound Studio, which contains its own version of the young boy and the blurry screen, while Paweł Pawlikowski and his Ida cinematographer Łukasz Żal also owe a debt to the Swedish director and his DP. It’s unsurprising that this film is still resonating with a new generation of arthouse directors today; it’s as inspiring as it is haunting, the kind of film that stays in the mind of the viewer, and the willfully-difficult work of a master. Hard to interpret and hard to forget.
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman.
Written by: Ingmar Bergman.
Starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann.
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist.
Editing: Ulla Ryghe.
Music: Lars Johan Werle.
Running Time: 82 minutes.