Ingmar Bergman: Persona (1966) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Ingmar Bergman: Persona (1966)

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Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYI got angry tonight, and in the second that it took me to switch from emotional neutrality to barely contained rage pot I became an entirely separate person.  If I were to describe here the events that led me to make that switch someone might understand what I was going through.  Someone might even be able to recall when they were feeling the exact same way I was just a few hours ago.  Where does that leave me?

If my emotions can be so easily manipulated and extrapolated into someone else's experience does that mean I'm really me anymore?  Or am I really just fragments of someone else?  Worse still, let's say that this hypothetical individual decides to take my experiences and make some art out of it (let's say, oh, a movie is made).  Then my naked emotion, which I thought was unique to me just a few hours ago, stands there as a spectacle for others to connect to.  Then I'm not just a fragment of one person, I'm really a barely pieced together individual made up of the collective experiences of hundreds, if not thousands.

Why do we experience such things?  All it does is show that what we feel and experience doesn't make us as unique as we would like.  But am I being too cynical?  What about the other side of the coin.  Someone who feels as though their light is a tiny spark against the always encroaching darkness knows that there are other dreaming flames that could unite us all.  Alone in the dark with the candle flickering images of pain, happiness and anger we finally connect through images in a way that all of us feel, but no one fully understands.  Sure, modern nueroscience can make some guesses about why this happens but they're still just guesses.  This is a shared experience, make positive or negative light of it as you will.

Such are the thoughts I have when I watch a film where two people become one.

These are just a few of the many pages of thoughts and notes that I took while watching Persona, Ingmar Bergman at his most experimental.  It was made after Bergman spent some months in the hospital and in recovery trying to get over a bout of pneumonia.  There were many points that he felt he was losing his mind, suffering extreme bouts of vertigo as his caretakers faces began to fuse together in one grotesque montage.  As he regained his health he began to write about his experiences, the result of which became the screenplays for Hour of the Wolf (which I will be covering next week) and Persona.

After Bergman freed himself of most of the extreme religious weight that was pressed on him by his father he became more obsessed with matters of perception and the mind.  Persona is the greatest fruit of that particularly fertile path.  Remember, this was the man that gave us God as a spider emerging from a wall.  Now he's focused his attention on how we perceived that spider to begin with.  The results are punishing even as they are fascinating.

The film opens on a disorienting montage of images that only slowly become clear.  A single light emerges amidst a chaotic background of noise, slowly revealing itself to be a projector bulb firing up.  The images slowly become clearer and flash onscreen only momentarily.  A man being chased by death, an animation of a woman cleaning herself, an erect penis, a mouth with lips pursed open slightly so as to resemble a vagina, and a young boy who wakes up to caress a fuzzy image of a woman that will never become completely clear.

This is film as birth.  We connect to what's real from beyond a place of understanding that seems ingrained in us even as we are born.  But Bergman never let's us forget that this is all a carefully constructed experience, even going so far as to turn the camera around and show he, Sven Nykvist, and the other crew members filming the movie itself.  This is fake, this is constructed - but this is primal and real all the same.

Bergman knows that we can't just try and free associate genital imagery for an hour and twenty minutes, so he anchors his ideas around two women and their battle of wills.  The first, Alma (Bibi Andersson), is a nurse who lives to care for others and is tasked to take nurse the nearly catatonic Elisabet (Liv Ullman, in her first of many Bergman films).  Elisabet fell mute during a performance of the play Electra because she was suddenly overcome with the desire to laugh.

One will share secrets with the other and surely all will be alright.

One of the doctors decides that Elisabet will be better treated if the two go to a private cabin next to the beach.  Alma uses this time to project all of her fears and emotions onto Elisabet, telling Elisabet of her fears and desires and sharing personal secrets that she thought were absorbed into her being.  The most potent of these is an extended sequence where Alma tells Elisabet of a foursome that she took part of on a whim during a hot summer day when she thought she was forever bound to her lover.  Strange how quickly circumstances can change us into someone that we never thought we could be.

Alma struggles to make Elisabet talk, trying to get her to show any kind of emotion.  Things then boil over after Alma reads one of Elisabet's letters and sees that she regards Alma as nothing more than an endearing specimen in her observations about emotions and relationships.  Elisabet's silence starts feeding into Alma's darkness, and Alma threatens her with a pan filled with boiling water and leaves glass around for Elisabet to step on.  When she does the film literally breaks, reforges the montage that we saw at the beginning, and then reopens on the two women as they seem to slowly become one person.

More perplexing things happen.  Elisabet's husband arrives and has sex with Alma, thinking that she is Elisabet.  Their faces seem to fuse together at moments of heightened emotion.  Then as quickly as it all began, Alma succumbs to the dark feelings growing inside her and brutally deconstructs Elisabet's past.  It ends with a quiet that was not provided in the beginning and Alma leaves the cabin alone with Elisabet, presumably, still inside with her silence.

The way to make sense of all this is to start asking the kinds of questions that I was posing at the beginning.  In truth, the "answers" and scenarios that I posit are just one of many that I had pouring out of my notes.  I also had thoughts on the way gender roles play out in formation of the self, the determining factors of violence and orgasm in identity formation, how we process the horrors of the world to our own means of comprehension, and on....and on...and on...

Bergman once said that with Persona and Cries and Whispers (1972) that he had pushed cinema as far as it could go.  Obviously, film has progressed a lot in the means of technical innovation and special effects, but no other director has made a narrative feature length film with as much subjective trickery as those two films (coincidentally, these are two of my favorite).  All the time we are questioning the meaning of what is transpiring onscreen, what motivates each of the women to act as they do, and how it is that they each arrive to their emotional conclusions (which we are still left to guess at).

Don't be alarmed if the films breaks. That just means it's all going according to plan.

Persona moves at a pace that is completely foreign to Bergman's other productions, especially compared to the film trilogy that he just wrapped up.  It is not nearly as desolate as Through A Glass Darkly and has a photographic beauty that is of a different breed.  Sven Nykvist worked to provide visual clues and confusion to rival what was going on with the characters.  He works with lighting that contrasts much higher with the surroundings, visibly forcing each woman into light or shadow as they attack one another.  Then those famous Bergman poses as one woman is seen facing us as the other stands in profile, one examining the other as she examines us, probing for clues about what the other is feeling.  It's masterful camerawork, and achieves some startling effects that the actresses weren't even prepared for.

The actresses who each help us make sense of all this.  Bibi Andersson, as Alma, has to undergo the transformation but she has the benefit of verbal dialogue to get her emotions across.  Liv Ullman, as Elisabet, does not have that luxury and only speaks fourteen words throughout the film.  Both are amazing, but the core of the movie belongs to Elisabet.  It is her silence that we must read into, and Ullman (in her second film and first starring role) is such an amazing actress that she speaks volumes with a perched eyebrow or dimming smile.  Her performance is a testament to the needless complexity of words, while strongly utilized here, that get in the way of emotional truth.

I can go on at length about other facets of Persona, but then this might become a scholarly journal entry instead of a fairly detailed analysis.  Persona is a film that I have visited six times now, each time growing more fascinated with a different aspect of it's chosen reality.  The questions grow in number and complexity with each viewing, which just adds to the genius of Bergman's fragmented vision.

As mentioned, next week I'll be discussing Bergman's tussle with modernist gothic horror in The Hour of the Wolf.

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Persona (1966)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I have always thought that Elisabet and Alma are the same person. It seems incredibly obvious to me, given all of the camera angles that Bergman uses, the fact that the faces are juxtaposed after the double monologue, and the fact that Elisabet’s husband does not seem to notice that she is even there (and yes, I know he is blind, but come on: he knows his wife). This seemed too obvious to me and so I searched for an even deeper meaning and found too many. It doesn’t help that Ingmar himself didn’t have much to say on the subject. Susan Sontag had too much to say about it. I’m staying with my original thought: Alma and Elisabet are the same person. And let’s not forget: the word “alma” means “soul.”

    I’ve resisted the temptation to go with that interpretation in part because of my own personal bias. I find it more interesting to see a stronger soul find ways to break down and transform a weaker one, just to see it become an even more hideous reflection of what little good remained in the original. Plus it feels like Bergman lays it on so thick that it is one person that any hint that there are really separate is terribly enticing. Like the nurse – we could pull the “but they’re never in the same room together!” card but she clearly treats each woman as a different entity. At that point it’s too early in the story to see the two totally fused together.

    The film is divided into pre- and post- tear with the identity issue. The faster it approaches the end the more it becomes like a hallucination (as if the boy groping at a blurred mother wasn’t enough). One starts to imagine life in the other’s shoes and then play out those fantasies accordingly only they both begin to lose sight of where the original one began (the double monologue, the fusion, the husband). Then “Alma”, the “soul” – or the one that can be more thoroughly infected because she has one.

    Yes, Bergman was notoriously tight lipped about Persona and methinks I’ll have to hunt down Sontag’s writings on the subject.

    As always, your comments are most appreciated.


  2. Andrew/Emily

    I haven’t got time to leave a long reply. I just wanted to say I saw the stunning Persona for the first time last night and I also thought that the two women were one and the same. Elizabeth tells her own story through Alma. Her alienation from her child is partly due to the way the boy was conceived (beach story, right?). Maybe one day I will be able to elaborate further on my view of the film. These two women are absolutely majestic.



    • Thank you very much for taking the time to comment! It’s one of the Bergman’s I revisit most frequently (the others being Cries and Whispers and Winter’s Light) and the story of her child’s conception is still one of the most riveting and astonishingly sensual performances captured on film. I still haven’t quite cottoned to the 2 as 1 story but it’s still a very strong reading supported by the film (Emily’s previous soul comments with the camera fusing the two frequently, joining together in peace at night, the conception scene as a way of compartmentalizing what happened).

      I hope you journey on with Bergman and please feel free to comment in the meantime.

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