Written & Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Persona is a fever dream. Literally. Writer-director Ingmar Bergman says he worked out the rough draft over nine weeks while recovering from pneumonia in the hospital. The film is tangled up in Bergman’s rather complicated personal life. At one point, Bergman was involved romantically with actress Bibi Andersson. A few years later, he ran into her in Stockholm, where he met Liv Ullman, who was friends with Andersson. The director says the friends’ resemblance to each other was uncanny, and the idea of this blending of identity came from that thought. Bergman, who was married to this third wife at the time, would eventually start an extramarital affair with Ullman and would have a child with her. Persona ends up being a film as complicated and entangled as the filmmaker’s own personal life.
After a montage of seemingly disconnected & unnerving imagery, the film presents its lead actresses in a still image. When the story begins, we learn they are Alma (Andersson), a young nurse, and Elisabet (Ullman), an actor who appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown. The actress has stopped speaking or moving, and she has great hostility towards a photo of her son her husband brings to the hospital. The attending doctor prescribes a weekend at a seaside cottage, believing Elisabet only needs a firm hand to guide her and sends Alma to supervise. Alma quickly opens up about her personal life to this mute patient, particularly about an event from her teenage years where a boy got Alma pregnant, and her boyfriend believed it was his. Alma had an abortion but holds much guilt over the lies surrounding the situation. Later, Alma is driving to town to pick up & send mail when she spies a letter Elisabet wants sending out. It contains Alma’s confession and insinuates that the actress uses the nurse to further some personal goal. This sets off a confrontation between the two, leading to the steady breakdown of Alma’s perceived reality.
The most apparent theme in Persona is centered on identity, but much like David Lynch, Bergman refused to explicitly lay out his personal interpretation of his film. Because the film was born out of the physical resemblance between its two actresses, it makes sense to start from this point, though. There’s a powerful suggestion at the end of the picture that Alma & Elisabet are somehow the same people, representing a psychological split or conflict between the conscious and subconscious. Their occupations set them up as the dichotomy of human intelligence: a nurse (the sciences) and an actress (the arts). Moreover, the women have a connection in their relationships with motherhood. Alma successfully held off on becoming a mother while Elisabet had a son and resents him.
The film’s title, Persona, hints at ideas of public faces and private faces. As an actress, Elisabet takes on personas and has a public one as a celebrity. She may have broken with the parts of her genuine identity and now has no anchor to who she actually is. Alma sharing her story and opening up transforms her into a host for Elisbet’s psychological parasitism, becoming this fully realized person by the end of the picture. Alma becomes greatly concerned that her patient plans to share the nurse’s intimate confessions with a stranger. This would fracture the person Alma has cultivated with her colleagues and community. She never told her former boyfriend the truth about her pregnancy, and this story getting out would potentially harm her standing with others.
There’s a possible argument that Persona is about women engaged in a sexual relationship. It’s an element of the story, but I think it’s too reductive to see this as just Bergman giving in to his carnal appetites to watch two women he was involved with have sex. I’m not saying that wasn’t a motivator for the director, but I think his work is a bit more complex than that. So instead, I’d refer to how commonly before and after this production, he made films centered on female characters. I think due to Bergman’s own issues with his mother and the general shift in women’s place in Western society at this time, Persona incorporates female sexuality as part of the overall exploration of how these characters are confined to some extent by the roles society will allow them.
Bergman has made a movie that can be taken apart from many different angles and result in some fascinating realizations. While he had a specific meaning in mind, his decision to withhold that implies a deep interest in his art’s effect on other people. I know I see Persona as an art-house horror film, concerned not with material harm but existential dread. We watch Elisabet react to images of atrocity throughout the movie, mainly the video of a Buddhist monk self-immolating in protests to the Vietnam War and a photograph of the Holocaust she comes across in a book. But, like Bergman and like us, she so often fails to respond to these confrontations with the horror of modernity, so instead, we adopt false public personas. Bergman saw this through in-person social interactions and op-eds in papers.
Today, these false reactions extend into the realm of the lightning-fast social media circles where people rush to make posts in support or in opposition to harmful incidents around the world. The danger is that the responses can only exist if there is a shared reductive understanding of the event divorced from our personal role in its coming about. Elisabet is exercising a form of protest through her refusal to speak or move when asked. She is like that monk but not willing to push herself to the next stage of rebellion. His act sends shockwaves through her psyche as it is such a pure moment of truth. She fears the annihilation that comes with adhering to reality, but she is also dissatisfied with the accepted notion of how life is in her time. It’s also crucial that Elisabet exists as a cipher for the audience; in her silence, we can substitute ourselves and see our own cowardice in the harsh face of existential reality.
Persona is this beautiful puzzling work of art that has often been mimicked but rarely matched. Bergman has let go of so many of the structural elements of storytelling so he can allow the subconscious to direct him. This can only be achieved because Bergman is so masterful with the core of filmmaking. He has practiced his craft precisely and gone deeper with his own work than most creators are brave enough to do. Because the fundamental tools are so accessible to him, that affords the director the skill to push beyond what was accepted and break the forms. His work is not so much about the specific things in front of the camera; instead, he is interested in the emotions & deep psychological motivations that drive us.