Persona ★★★★★

“But somehow…I think I could change myself into you if I tried. I mean, inside. You could be me, just like that.”

It seems a fool’s errand to write about Persona. Being a fool, I will try.

Watching Persona for the fifth or sixth time, I was once again struck by how engaging it is. Such an aggressive, avant-garde film could easily be off-putting on any number of fronts, slipping into didacticism, boredom, or smug impenetrability. And yet Persona remains mesmerizing. Bergman’s scenario, enacted by two brilliant actresses operating at the top of their form and realized by Sven Nykvist’s stark, beautiful cinematography, seems to open up limitless possibilities for cinema. If film can have this sort of impact, if it can move you emotionally and linger with you psychologically, if it can be plainly narrative yet dreamily surreal, if it can lodge unshakeable images in your brain while consisting largely of monologues…what can’t it do?

The story seems so simple. Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), a celebrated actress, stops speaking during a performance of Electra. She convalesces in a hospital, where all manner of tests show nothing wrong with her physically or mentally. Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse, is charged with Elisabet’s care, and the two head for the doctor’s (Margaretha Krook) seaside cottage, hoping the serenity and change of scenery will speed Elisabet’s recovery. There the women bond and merge and diverge while Elisabet maintains her near-total silence and Alma compensates with untamed discourse.

One interpretation is that the narrative at the seaside is occurring in Alma’s mind. Alma notes early on to the doctor that she is worried she is not strong enough to cope with caring for Elisabet; if Elisabet has simply chosen to be mute, it demonstrates more fortitude than Alma believes she possesses. Later, Alma talks of becoming Elisabet and of Elisabet becoming Alma, and still later pretends to be Elisabet to Mr. Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand), who strangely seems not to notice the imposter pretending to be his wife. Alma thinks she hears Elisabet tell her to go to bed and remembers a haunting visit from Elisabet in her bedroom, but we do not see Elisabet speak and her visit is ethereal, bathed in gauzy moonlight as she floats spectrally in and out of Alma’s room. Toward the end, the two women are again briefly seen in the hospital; we then return to the cottage, where Alma is cleaning up and leaving alone. Has Elisabet’s fortitude caused Alma to question her supposed lack of ambition, her willingness to marry a man she may not love and leave a career she wishes to maintain? Has she played this out in her mind, constructing a narrative through which to process her feelings of inadequacy and to attribute Elisabet’s withdrawal to other inadequacies, thus gaining comparative strength? It’s certainly plausible.

But what to make of the frequent reminders that we are watching a movie? Persona begins with a famous montage, starting with a film projector slowly coming to life and proceeding to images from early film and from early mankind, including a crucifixion and a sheep being slaughtered. When Alma learns that Elisabet is writing dismissively of her nurse in letters to the doctor, Alma retaliates by leaving broken glass in Elisabet’s path. Alma’s steely reaction to Elisabet’s injury is interrupted by the film seeming to catch and burn in the projector, followed by another montage. Near the end, we see Andersson as Alma being filmed by Bergman and Nykvist, operating their camera on a crane. The film ends by literally running out of the projector. Certainly these are all Brechtian reminders of the inherent artifice of what we are viewing, suggesting its contrived nature. But what about the boy we see in a white, morgue-like room, touching what appears to be the backside of a movie screen onto which images of Elisabet and Alma’s faces are projected—the boy who, in the closing credits, is referred to as Elisabet’s son?

Upon this viewing, it seemed to me that Persona is about an artist reconciling with the need for his/her art to be interpreted—a commentary on creating and watching movies. Elisabet silently contemplates Alma as she prattles on about her fiancé, her job, her books, her ménage à quatre with two young boys, her abortion. Elisabet’s letter reveals her to have been “studying” Alma. Elisabet is an audience member, quiet, taking in and processing what she sees but without interacting or responding. Yet her presence is necessary for the story to take place—without her, Alma is speaking in a vacuum. And Elisabet’s subtle reactions inform the story, moving it from touching and mildly amusing to something darker and more harrowing. When Alma lashes out at Elisabet for her detached examination, it literally destroys the film—Alma’s personal expression is sullied by her audience.

When the film reconstitutes the tables seem to have turned, with Alma studying Elisabet, forcing her to recoil and cry out in fear of harm and speaking harsh truths about Elisabet’s coldness, her selfishness, her lack of compassion for her son (who in turn reaches out to touch her but finds only an image where she should be). Elisabet has performed for years, but no longer wants to—instead, she wishes to be performed for, to be catered to, but what she watches reveals uncomfortable truths about herself. Elisabet is scolded for trying to own a sort of truth through her silence, as though speech is inherently deceptive. She wants control, and when her mouth opens she cedes control to the listener. Art is creative but also inherently interactive and communicative. The transformative, revealing power of art only occurs if there is in fact revelation—an audience is part of the bargain. But the audience brings its own baggage to the theater, stealing meaning from the artist’s hands. In the end, the film just runs out—the artist stops speaking—but the silence can’t stop those gaps from being filled.

Ultimately, Persona isn’t about the answers to the questions it poses so much as it’s about the questions themselves, about the thoughts rattling around inside your head, about the indelible images, about the lingering feelings. Interpreting something so vast and yet so contained, with its soul sticking out everywhere, is folly. Better just to let it wash over you, bathing in the projector's glow until the light flickers out.

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