Wednesday, May 5, 2010
The film opens with a six- or seven-minute montage of seemingly arbitrary and sometimes disturbing images, all having to do with film: inner workings of a camera reel, an upside-down animation loop, a slaughtered sheep, a silent comedy, a nail driven through a palm. Credits are jarringly interspliced with still more images. Next, people who appear to be dead begin to move. A young boy gazes at a large-screen image of a woman’s face as it comes into and out of focus, trying to connect with it. The sequence resembles a bizarre dream stream of consciousness. At last, we’re introduced to a solid storyline revolving around 25-year-old, engaged Nurse Alma, a kindly, contented person with optimistic philosophies. Despite her concerns because she’s relatively new to the profession, she is willingly tasked with caring for a new psychiatric patient: Elisabet Vogler, a young actress who, in the middle of a stage performance, suddenly ceased to speak or move, and hasn’t yet recovered from this freeze.
The hospital’s doctor theorizes that Vogler’s problem is that she is trying to escape from real life, tired of putting on masks to play different parts and realizing that this is what everyone does in everyday life. Everyone in the world is an actor. Instead of acting genuinely, they create false personas—so perhaps it is better not to act at all than to act dishonestly. (Of course, according to existentialist philosophy, action is the one necessary objective of life.) She may be fearful of living, or she may be quietly laughing at and watching, judging, or amused by others.The doctor invites Alma to stay with Elisabet in her isolated island cottage, where Alma slowly starts to reveal to her listener—something she realizes she hasn’t truthfully had in a long time--her most personal secrets (a past affair, an abortion, her sexual encounter on the beach with a teenage boy.) As time passes Elisabet seems to absorb not only the words, tales, and confessions but also Alma herself, who wistfully wonders how easy it would be for them to become one another. Bergman is deliberately ambiguous as to whether the two women’s personalities—or personas--are exactly merging together, Elisabeth is transferring herself onto Alma, they are two sides of the same person, or what is happening, precisely. When Alma reads in her patient’s letter to the doctor that Elisabet is “studying” her, she becomes angry, and things start to fall apart—symbolized by a literal onscreen tearing of the film itself. One shot of Alma blurs, fades, and burns away.
Alma struggles to pull away from whatever state of abnormality she's getting herself into with this woman. She begs Elisabeth to speak just once, accusing her of fooling others by merely acting sane, while hiding malicious intentions. When blind Mr. Vogler appears at the house, Alma strangely pretends to be his wife, encouraged by the actress. The climax is a repeated scene, during which Alma delivers a monologue to Elisabet, telling the patient what she believes she knows about her life and feelings--mainly, that Elisabet detests her son because she was terrified of all the changes motherhood could bring to her life, that she had wished for a stillborn child, and now cannot bring herself to even be with him at all. We first see Vogler’s reactions to hearing this; the second time, the camera is on the speaker, Alma. In the end, Alma asserts her own identity and insists that she is not like Elisabet, but one half of each of their faces blends together onscreen to form one visage. (When Bergman first showed that photo to his two stars, each insisted that it was the other's face!) The two are later shown back in the hospital again, and then Elisabet on stage again in ‘Electra.’ Finally, we see them packing up and leaving the cottage, each apparently released to return to her own rightful life.
This film was made in the mid-1960s, amidst a period of turbulence and change throughout the entire world. Art of all kinds, from paintings to movies, underwent transformations and artists began to actually dissect and question their own modes of expression. “Persona” is an example of a product of this self-reflective, self-conscious media. It’s referred to by the term ‘deconstructivist,’ and indeed the illusion is created that the very celluloid of the movie itself is being torn apart (much like the fabric of society.) Artists, including Bergman, endeavored to make evident through their work their own awareness that what they were making was not real, but a sort of representation of reality, physically manipulated by its creators so that the viewer would see what the director wanted him or her to see. Of course the intention of art is to inspire some type of emotion, reaction, or feeling in its audience--and each individual will still naturally form his or her own ideas based upon what they’re being shown. However, reminders of the director’s ultimate control over his vision and the fact that it comes down to material objects are strongly present.
Art is made to generate or convey something; it’s an inherent method of communicating with others. Yet while it has much power to create feelings and thoughts in us, critics of Persona remind us that it does so despite our knowledge that it is not actually real. Bergman seems to find this phenomenon curious—the magic of cinema. He nonetheless studies and breaks it down, looking from all sides, and asking whether films can ever be truly adequate to capture those complexities of reality and of spirit.
Other scenes, such as the ones in which the two women are seeing one another asleep or sharing an odd and intimate nighttime encounter, are ambiguous and, like nearly everything else about this experimentally abstract movie, open to multiple interpretations. Are they only dreams? Are they sexual? Is Elisabeth a vampire of sorts, literally sucking blood from Alma’s arm near the end? Throughout the film that character has been silent and basically unresponsive, yet much was required of the actress (Liv Ullman) in the way of subtly changing expressions to successfully portray this enigmatic woman. The only word we know for certain that we hear Elisabet speak is, “Nothing.” (Otherwise, it’s possible that the nurse has in fact started to speak for her, somehow sensing or knowing or hearing her thoughts and/or verbalizing them on certain occasions.) Alma has begun to question everything in her well-planned and essentially happy life. She starts to ramble on to Elisabet about “everything and nothing.” Is the movie intended to be about everything—or nothing at all?
I first saw Persona in one of my high school Psychology classes, and it stuck with me. Rewatching it really does remind you why it is such a highly regarded, compelling, and enduring classic; one could almost go on forever analyzing it. Through research I learned more about the director, actors, and their interesting relationships, which add a whole new dimension to my understanding of the film. Bergman was attracted to and romantically involved with both Bibi Andersson (first) and then Liv Ullman, and was fascinated by the similarities he saw between them. “Persona” is an artistic, intellectual film that truly is mostly mental—it gets into your head, makes you think, and asks you to try and put it together into your own rendition of Bergman’s unsolvably mysterious motion picture.