vanessa’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is a review I wanted to write for a while but after spending a month writing a paper on Persona I needed a break from the movie for a while. One of the things I love about Persona is that there are so many ways to read it and I still can't decide what my favourite interpretation is.
Even without looking at anything that happens in the movie the title already provides several approaches how the movie can be understood. On the one hand persona can be a role played by an actor but on the other hand there's also C.G. Jung's definition of persona as the mask of the collective unconscious that conceals the true nature of an individual.
This review will mostly focus on the role reversal in Persona but I'm planning on writing a review about the theory that Alma and Elisabet are the same person eventually.
Pretty early in Persona it becomes obvious that neither of the women are happy with their life and the expectations placed on them but while Elisabet takes a radical step with refusing to speak, it takes some time for Alma to realise how unhappy she is with her own life and to make changes. At a first glance Elisabets decision to become silent may be incomprehensible. Her life seems perfect. She's a successful actress and lives in a happy marriage. But soon it turns out that the happy mother and wife is another role for Elisabet - one that overwhelms her. By refusing to speak Elisabet stops playing the roles everyone around her want to force her into but at the same time she still can't be herself but instead she's just playing another role. Throughout the film it becomes apparent how difficult it is for her to remain in her role instead of showing her true self.
"You have taught me that we have to see each other as two anxious children filled with good will and the best intentions, but ruled by powers that we can only partially control."
Her husband's letter shows how much her responsibilities and the expectations of her environment scare her and that she maybe thinks that she isn't mature enough to take care of her family. With her decision to stop talking she pushes away all her responsibilities and her family, which explains her response to the letter and why she ripped up the picture of her son.
Alma on the other hand seems happy about her future at first but the way how she keeps telling herself that everything is gonna work out fine and that she doesn't have to worry about anything makes it obvious that she's doubtful. During one of her long monologues after arriving at the cottage she's talking about her relationship again and mentions that she never loved her fiancé and it seems like she would rather stay alone and be a nurse for the rest of her life than give up her job for her family.
Spending time with each other is an opportunity for Alma and Elisabet to change roles. Alma, who is a silent listener in her job and at home, is forced to take a more active role, while Elisabet, who is usually the center of attention, occupies a passive part. At first the change of roles between the two women only happens on the surface but the more time they spend together the more similar they become. One of the first examples is the scene where Elisabet shows Alma how to smoke. Not long after the two women start to dress similar and in one of their conversations Alma mentions the possibility of turning into Elisabet.
"You know what I thought after seeing your movie that night? When I came home and looked in the mirror, I thought, 'But we look alike.' Don't misunderstand me. You're more beautiful. But somehow... I think I could change myself into you if I tried. I mean, inside. You could be me, just like that. But your soul would be too big. It would stick out everywhere."
Although Alma says this pretty early in the movie, it takes almost half an hour until she puts her idea into action. Even though Elisabet doesn't tell Alma anything about herself Alma manages to convince Elisabet's husband that she is his wife. At first when he arrives Alma refuses to take the role of his wife, until Elisabet appears and guides her until Alma is ready to become the other woman.
After Elisabet's husband leaves again Alma doesn't give up her new identity completely but instead uses it to force Elisabet to be the person she wants her to be by taking Elisabet's story and making it her own. By talking about the other woman's life and her resistance to her role as a mother she changes Elisabet's story the way she wants it and Elisabet can't stop her unless she gives up her muteness. Therefore Elisabet's reaction can be understood in two ways. Either Elisabet's reaction is due to Alma telling the truth and seeing through her mask even though she did not say a single word or because she can't stop the other woman from changing her story without letting slip her mask.
"No. I'm not like you. I don't feel the same as you. I'm Sister Alma. I'm only here to help you. I'm not Elisabet Vogler. You're Elisabet Vogler."
The repetition of the scene focuses on Alma and shows how she takes the role of an actress who is playing Elisabet by telling her story. At the end of the scene the halves of the faces of the two women unite and they become one. That makes Alma realise how big Elisabet's influence on her really is and that being with the other woman is sucking the life out of her. For Alma the only way out is to force Elisabet to let her mask slip and to talk again even if she says nothing.