Light. Celluloid. Camera. Projector. Erection. Crucifixion. Slaughter. Animation. Spider. Slapstick. Morgue? People. Asleep? Dead? Boy. Wake. Screen. Face? Faces? Women? Hospital. Nurse, Alma. Actress, Elisabet. Mute. Introduction. Fade to black. Soliloquy. TV. Reality. War. Self immolation. Cottage. Letter. Peace. Confession. Guilt. Resemblance. Bedroom. Doorways. White. Ghost? Spirit? Dream? Outdoors. Rocks. Pictures. Of us? Letter. Betrayal. Anger. Resentment. Split? Glass. Broken. Revenge. Veil. Stop. Projector failure? Film failure? Death. Slapstick. Crucifixion. Eye. Out of focus. In focus. Pleading. Breakdown. Threatening. Speak? Slap. Smile. Composure. Reconciliation? Insult. Picture. Boy. Holocaust. Seizure. Sleeping. Feeling. Analyzing. Man? Husband? Blind? Mistake? Not her! Sex. Hands. Motherhood. Failure. Close-ups. Twice. Suffering. Split. No! Not her. Grabbing. Hands. Pounding. Nonsense. Chaos. Obscuration. I, You, Us, We. Scratch. Blood. Drink. Vampire? Slapping. Beating. Brutality. Separate. Nothing. Repeat. Nothing. Same? Alike? Return. Mirror. Reflection. Actress. Director, DP. Leave. Boy. Screen. End.
Truthfully, I don’t feel I could improve in the above description for a plot synopsis. Persona is one of those films where the plot seems almost inconsequential to what makes it a cinematic—nay, artistic—masterpiece. But just to provide some context, after an extremely abstract opening, Persona introduces us to a nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) who is hired to take care of an actress named Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) who has recently been stricken mute. The two escape to a small cottage near the rocks and beach. Alma spends her days talking and confessing to Elisabet, who listens but never speaks. As the film wears on, any sense of narrative coherency begins breaking down. Questions of identity, self, others, art, artifice, comprehension and so many others arise. It was Bergman’s first film with actress Liv Ullman, his eighth with Bibi Andersson and his seventh with cinematographer Sven Nykvist and it represents, perhaps, the finest of all parts of the quartet.
After the critical and commercial failure of The Virgin Spring, Bergman abandoned his classical, theatrical mode of film-making and began making films in the mode that he would term “chamber dramas”. Bergman’s chamber dramas were much more intimate affairs with small casts, few settings, that took place over a small period of time. His Faith Trilogy, composed of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence, found Bergman wrestling with one of his life-long themes of religion, doubt, God and His absence. In each subsequent film Bergman’s style became sparer and sparer.
Persona is the pinnacle of Bergman’s chamber period: a complex, demanding, rich, intense, modernistic, minimalistic, nightmarish psychological drama that’s so powerful it will likely leave you questioning everything you know, or think you know, about yourself, truth, insanity and life. The film borrows bits and pieces from the entire period that precedes it, taking the milieu of Glass Darkly and the suggestion of insanity, the epistolary laden motif of Winter Light and the female/female relationship of The Silence. But Persona also piles on a multitude of levels, including the element of modernistic, cinematic self-awareness, that metafictional recognition of the director pulling the strings. It also adds glimpses of an outside world that Bergman largely ignored in his preceding trilogy, namely images from the on-going Vietnam war.
One of the film’s greatest triumphs is that instead of enlarging its compass, these intrusions from reality make it feel even more painfully intimate and introverted than the preceding Faith Trilogy. Bergman achieves this by paring down every aspect of the film, resulting in a minimalism that seems monumental. The art design is sparse and yet Bergman finds ways to situate objects in the frame that cut through the screen like a katana blade. Almost nothing seems arbitrarily designed or shot. Chairs and beds can either enclose its characters like wombs, or expose them as if they were naked. Candles and lamps provide sources through which Bergman and Nykvist can conduct their shadow play, carving shapes out of light.
Indeed, this is no less an achievement for Bergman than it is for Nykvist. His lighting designs are, much like the film, paradoxically complex in their minimalism. He frequently plays with visual planes, lighting one, for example, in soft, high-key lighting with another bathed in a hard, low-key lighting. While he does use high contrast, it’s much more subtle and he rarely resorts to eliminating grays like Gunnar Fischer did in The Seventh Seal. But Persona is much more than just a technical marvel, because all of its visuals are focused as sharp as a razor on Andersson and Ulmann.
Both give stunning, nuanced, nakedly emotional, overpowering performances. Andersson is asked to carry the plot of the film through her series of monologues and soliloquies with the mute Elisabet. But she has never been better than the scene in which she confesses to Elisabet about an orgy which resulted in her getting pregnant and having an abortion. Ulmann may not get to show off verbally, but her ever expressive and receptive face says as much visually as Andersson does aurally.
Persona is one of those artistic masterpieces that can’t be understood by its technical achievements. It screams out for hermeneutics, and it certainly doesn’t limit one’s options. Perhaps the biggest question is: are Alma and Elisabet two aspects of the same person, or are they completely different? Bergman doesn’t spell it out, and he certainly offers evidence for both. If the film is read strictly allegorically, then it’s easy to make a case that they’re the same. A persona is an assumed role someone, like an actor, plays. In psychoanalysis, it’s also defined as the part of us we choose to show to the world and society.
Here, Elisabet represents the persona by her very profession; that, then, would make her the personal subconscious, the part of the self which has regressed into the recesses of the mind. It turns all of the scenes of Alma’s confession into an allegorical conversation between the internal truths that we don’t want to recognize and the constructed self which we want others to recognize. But what’s missing is a link between the two, some kind of mediation. Where’s the connecting element between the extremes of muteness and volubility, between the truth we hide from others and the constructed lie (or half-truth) we show?
What about Elisabet’s muteness? Is it possibly brought on by the horrors of the outside world? In a telling scene, Elisabet can’t stand to watch the TV and images of the Vietnam war and, in particular, the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức. If the persona is the part of us we put out there to deal with the outside world, what happens when the outside world becomes too much to cope with? If the persona cracks, does the self fracture? Does the psyche sputter, spurt and breakdown like a computer with a virus? Later, it’s the picture of a boy during the Holocaust which triggers the lengthy, repeated monologue by Alma in which she accuses Elisabet of failing as a mother. This presents one of the many extremes between the two women: Alma, who had an abortion and can never have kids but desperately desires one, and Elisabet, who had a child she didn’t really want, pretended to want him to enhance her appearance to others and now despises.
And where does Bergman and the metafictional level fit into all this? Perhaps in recognizing the film-making process, Bergman is equally recognizing the limits of film and, perhaps, all art to capture, depict and replicate reality, truth and the human condition, much less its ability to do anything about these things. Yet, in recognizing that limitation and the artifice of art, perhaps Bergman has pushed beyond it all to find something that lies between the cracks of where reality and fiction meet. Like the characters who lack a link between their extreme conditions, Bergman recognizes the lack of connection between reality and fiction. They reflect each other, to a certain extent, but they also reflect us, because we are only capable of apprehending truth and reality in a manner that’s relevant to ourselves. But does that relativity lead to any truth, or just more lies?
If nothing else, Persona perfectly captures the doubtfulness that has pervaded post-modernism with regard to the meaningfulness, or lack thereof, of signs, symbols and communication. Like two of the film’s spiritual predecessors, Godard’s Contempt and Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Persona has to manufacture a world of artifice and symbols before it can provoke questions about their significance. Godard does it, like Joyce, by reconstructing the Ulysses myth for the modern world. Resnais does it by conjuring a realm that’s in a constant state of temporal, spatial and memorial flux, perhaps a realm that imitates the workings and failures of memory. Bergman does it by provoking questions about identity, how the world forms it, how it forms the world, while asking what art can tell us about it.
This is less a fictional film and more of a cinematic, surgical dissection of the human psyche with the camera lens substituting for a scalpel. Bergman pushes past the artifice of film, film-making and fiction by recognizing it and using it as a mirror by which to reflect truth—deep, aching, horrifying truth—behind the veil of all personas. Or does he? Maybe the film is just another guise itself. Bergman’s own persona that he’s willing to show the world, a piece of artifice that’s as calculating and full of lies as anything else. Perhaps all of its provocations merely stand in to mask the fact that it’s all meaningless and there are no answers. Maybe the film is, like life, a nightmare from which we’re trying to awake. All we can do is pretend, construct our personas and play our parts, and woe to the man or woman that dares to look inward and examine it for cracks or objective truth. Madness follows there. Then death. Then nothing. Like this review, a collection of 1800 words full of sound and fury, but, ultimately, nothing. Nothing.