Persona ★★★★★

Added to: Sight and Sound Greatest Films
Added to: My 100 All Time Favorite Films
Added to: Ingmar Bergman

Persona is one of the greatest film, if not the best of all time, of Ingmar Bergman whose body of works ranging from sex comedy to bleak existential crisis, from Mozart’s opera to television series. I have incessantly awed by the uniqueness of Persona ever since I encountered the film a decade ago. Its equivocal narration cover the various, inexplicable themes, like the integration and disintegration of identity, the power struggle between women, the futility and barrenness of living and being, the lesbian sexual content, and the dismissal of “normalized” image of women and motherhood in a patriarchal society.

This 80-minute artistic work has been discussed and analyzed over and over by numerous film historians and critics, I don’t expect my point of view in the following has any significant breakthrough. Hence I intend my writing to be introductory on the film itself, and a celebratory record on the 100th anniversary of Ingmar Bergman’s birth on 14th July, 2018

Persona is renowned in having a illusory prologue: the first shot is two carbon arcs radiated in illuminating heat, then it cuts to multiple close-ups of a film projector, along with a disturbing and eerie soundtrack. Flashes of title card appeared, including inverted number counting down from ten, an erected penis, a fragment of a farcical silent sequence (inverted again) that calls back to the one appeared in Prison (1949). The images, physically and metaphorically, are produced by light, so does cinema. Association with religion is undoubtedly present, as Bergman films usually tackles with themes and imagery from Christianity. “And God said, “Let there be light," and there was light.” Without light, Earth and living creatures would be absent, and no cinema of course. The projector is the creational force of cinema, and the metaphor of the artist himself.

By showing a series of cinematic references, a short animation, a silent comedy film, a documentary video of animal slaughtering, one may generate a sense of Brecht distanciation: you are not only watching a film, but also the film itself. These kinds of images would come back at the end of the film in reciprocal form, showing a cameraman working on a crane zooming-in onto an actress. Besides breaking the fourth wall of cinema, the religious images are either subtly displayed liked a spider, a reference to the image of God as in Bergman’s previous film Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1963), or directly shown with a nail penetrating a human’s palm, indicating crucifixion.

The second half of the prologue comprises a series of images of a bleak outside world, multiple shots of a lifeless face and immobile limbs of an old woman. Then a telephone ringed, the presumably dead woman suddenly opens her eyes, and subsequently cuts to a pre-teenage boy (Jörgen Lindström) waking up from his bed. The boy, along with the previous hollowing images, generates a sense of emptiness and loneliness, very much echoes the spiritual statue of the female protagonists Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) and Alma (Bibi Andersson) we are soon to meet; the boy himself is a mirror reflection of Elisabet’s abandonment of her son and Alma’s abortion of her unborned child.

The yearning of maternal love is further reinforced with an iconic image of the boy. Firstly he looks straight to the camera (thus the spectator) and holds out his hand, and then a reversal shot reveals his attempt to touch a transparent screen with a blurred facial profile of a woman. The profile interchanges between two women (later on we would meet them as Elisabet and Alma) continuously while the projected images becoming more lucid gradually. The gesture of the hand (boy) caressing the face (mother) represents an intimacy that would somehow only be achieved between the two female protagonists, but never the child, thus an allegory of how the spectators (boy) could merely touch the surface of the film but hardly the core (director).

Psychologically, a persona is the mask that one wore to be someone that we expect people to see. As the film’s title is Persona, one may expect the characters’ behavior is just their personal façade to protect their inner self, similar to The Magician (1958) as its original Swedish title is called The Face. As soon as Nurse Alma entering a room to receive the instruction from the doctor (Margaretha Krook) on her new patient Elisabet Vogler, we are prepared to identify the nurse uniform and the well mannered behavior as a disguise, a persona that attracts the doctor’s (as well as our, the spectators) fondness and trustfulness. With her calm and attentive look, the camera firstly shows Alma’s left profile, than a fast cut to her right side like a mirror image, then the back of her head and a quick downward pan to her two hands behind her back, creating a sense of her inner uneasiness in contrary to her present attitude.

Elisabet’s sudden retreat to silence while performing Electra on stage is told in a highly suggestive mis-en-scene. With Elisabet facing the audience (shadowed in darkness) and her back towards us, she suddenly turns her face to the back, hence to us, in confusion and shock. The film is filled with characters looking directly to the screen as a continual interruption of the fourth wall, most notable in a later scene when Alma taking a picture (of us) with a camera directly to the screen.

The silence of Elisabet onstage is accompanied by the doctor's narration. Then she moves one step closer to us, her eyes are bewildered with horror, foreshadowing the later scene of Elisabet watching the self-immolation monk amid a newsreel and the historical photo of a ghetto boy raising both of his hands in surrender. Onstage her glance penetrates the screen, and finds us, discovers the "outside" world, the reality. At that moment she realises the meaninglessness and the futility in human existence.

Later on, when Elisabet is transferred to an isolated island for recovery in solitude, Alma is assigned to take care of her. Elisabet apparently has the upper hand in the power struggle, her will to remain silence was much stronger and overpowering than Alma's mental strength. The difference in class and the henceforth power struggle between the "master" and "attendant" is presented in a similarly fashion in Joseph Losey ‘s The Servant (1963), which involves an interchangeable, masochistic relationship between two males (the master, played by James Fox, slowly becomes inseparable and dependent on his servant, played by Dirk Bogarde). The Servant, came out 3 years before Persona, is explicit in the homosexual implication (though one may argue the characters were bisexual).

In Persona, one could interpret a lesbian love between Elisabet and Alma from their caressing gesture, not to mention the blood sucking scene near the end of the film is erotic and bold at its time. In Bergman’s later work Cries and Whispers (1972), sisters Maria (Liv Ullmann again) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) also have a moment of sexual intimacy reminiscent to Persona, implying incest. Elisabet has her silence as her weapon and shield. As a result, even though Alma dominates their living space with speaking word, Elisabet maintains her controllability over Alma through the one-sided communication, results in a observatory study on Alma where the roles of nurse and patient are reversed.

Alma's constant chatter is the self-reflexive mechanism against her own fragility and uneasiness. She has a desperate need to fill up the silence: a soliloquy when she is alone and sleepless, or a confession to Elisabet on the sexual encounter she and her girlfriend once experienced with two young boys. The scene of confession is masterfully executed and lit with high contrast lighting by Bergman’s long term cinematographer Sven Nykvist. When Alma recalls her sexual experience on the couch, a medium shot is used with light focusing on her body. A bright lamp is placed on Elisabet's side with her lying on bed in the background. Once Alma moved to the bed besides Elisabet and confesses her abortion, she is under a dark shadow, thematically representing her dark and formidable past.

Without the use of flashback, the verbal power become much stronger. Bibi Andersson's performance is simply superb and unforgettable. Alma's abortion is juxtaposed with Elisabet's uncaring, and almost a fear, towards his own son, who is briefly visible from a photograph. One may imagine the boy in the prologue somehow correlates to the lack of maternal love in Elisabet's son. The consequence of an artistic mother not fulfilling her child’s emotional love request and the resultant failure in motherhood is later used as a major theme in Autumn Sonata (1978), with Ingrid Bergman as the musician mother and (once again) Liv Ullmann as the daughter.

The first half of the film after the avant-garde prologue is mainly told in a linear and naturalistic fashion. The lucidity ceases once a dreamy sequence appears in which Elisabet enters Alma's room at night, both standing in front of the mirror (as the screen), with Elisabet caressing Alma's forehead, and subsequently the profile of their head overlapping. Thus the birth of the most iconic image in the entire film: a union of two human, two souls, and two identities. This split second is erotic and sexual, in contrary to the horrifying and shocking split image appeared later in the film, where the screen shows a face that is half Elisabet’s, half Alma’s, with a strikingly close resemblance between, almost like an unified single person.

Alma begins to adapt the personality and identity of Elisabet in the subsequent hallucinating scene. Elisabet's husband (Gunnar Björnstrand) appears like a blind person (literally or figuratively?), recognises Alma as his wife Elisabet. Alma rejects at first but soon embodies the identity of Elisabet willingly. Persona is filled with equivocal close-up of characters profile, often with one character face positioned perpendicularly to another character, which kind of becomes the signature composition in Bergman's films.

The concept of identity disintegration is supplemented by a sudden shot of a burning negative in the mid-point of the film, like the projector being on fire and the “film” itself burns. Once again reminding the spectators we are watching a "film", a product of artificiality and subjectivity. As a reference to the opening shot, the last shot of Persona is two carbon arcs burning out and cooling down gradually, then all light is out and darkness occupies the scree completely. No light, no film.

Peter Cowie has written: “Everything one says about Persona may be contradicted; the opposite will also be true.” The story of these two female protagonists is indefinable as either reality or dream. This ambiguity could also be found in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), with its linear multi-character storylines suddenly sinks into a rabbit hole with characters’ persona rearranged. In comparison, Mulholland Drive is like a logical game of disillusionment. Persona, on the other hand, occupies an unique realm by demolishing the permeable boundary between cinema and spectators. There is no film like it from before and no film like it ever after.

(Original post on my blog: