Persona is a strange film, not gonna lie. The first time I saw it was a couple of weeks ago, for film class. I had no clue what the film was about, or anything about the style of the “art film” we were supposed to be studying. Looking back on it, it’s kind of hard to think about how I saw this film the first time. That’s kind of silly since it really was only a few weeks ago. I was going to review the first time, but I really just did not know what to do with this film. My brain could not handle it, mostly because of the way it was presented. There are similar themes in Black Swan, a film that also freaked me out quite a bit, but that film is a lot more mainstream I think. When you see a film that has you calling Black Swan normal, you know it’s pretty out there. I was very frustrated with the film the first time around, but after turning it over in my head for a few weeks, reading about it, and finally viewing it again, I am forced to admit that it is a very beautiful and meaningful film that deserves all the praise it gets.
The story, or at least the basic concept behind it, is pretty simple. Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) takes care of an actress named Elizabet Vogler (Liv Ullman) who has taken a voluntary vow of silence. They go to a psychiatrist’s house so that Elizabet can recover from whatever made her take that vow. However, by being so isolated with each other for a long period of time, the two women’s identities become fused together and indistinguishable. This basic premise is pretty clear in the film, even the first time around, but the hows and whys are kind of hard to figure out.
The way Persona opens is really famous and really strange, which basically applies to the whole film as well. There a lot of quick flashes of images going by, most relating to the birth of cinema. Some are references to other works of Bergman’s (which I have never seen, so I’ll just take other people’s words for it). There are varying interpretations as to how it opens, but the one I personally like and would believe if I had to pick one is that these images show that film is beginning, eventually culminating in this story. It’s really pretentious of him to assume that all of film culminates in his movie, but when he’s making the film I guess that would be true for him at least. These images are important though, because they come back later. This opening sequence ends with a boy caressing a screen with two faces (who we later recognize as Alma and Elizabet), who are merging and shifting together across the screen. Some believe that this boy is Elizabet’s son, but (and I actually thought of this on my own, and had it confirmed by a fancy critic later) I saw the boy as Bergman, investigating something he is interested in through the medium of film.
Now we get into the story, and a psychiatrist explains Elizabet’s ailment to us. She’s chosen to become mute, because she’s tired of lying and playing the roles society expects of her. The only role that allows her to be herself and tell the truth is a silent one, because every word she ever utters seems to be a lie. The psychiatrist believes that after she realizes that this won’t work, Elizabet will just drop the silent role she has taken on, like any other part she’s had in the theater or the movies before. The psychiatrist assigns Alma to her case and sends them to her house by the ocean. Alma recognizes that Elizabet must have great mental strength in order to take a vow of silence like this, and worries that she will be lost in the wake of her superior mental prowess. Which is pretty much what happens.
Since Elizabet won’t talk, Alma fills up all their days with stories of her past. She basically reveals her whole life story while Elizabet listens. Alma assumes that Elizabet listens because she’s interested and her, and having a famous actress listen to her so attentively flatters her. That is, until she secretly reads a letter of Elizabet’s that undermines the trust she had in her. Elizabet is studying her, maybe just in case she ever needs to play a role of a person like Alma in the future, trivializes her problems and darkest secrets, and doesn’t seem to care for her at all. She is interested in her problems, but not because she wants to help Alma or make her feel better by releasing them. She just wants to know what they are because it gives her something to do. Understandably, this troubles Alma and both her innocent trust in Elizabet and their friendship is broken.
Elizabet of course doesn’t know this yet, but her moment of realization comes as she steps on a shard of glass that Alma left lying in her path. The film literally disintegrates, appears to be burning and Bergman brings back the broken images from the beginning, perhaps to signify that the rift in their friendship is too painful for the film to support. Again, there are many interpretations. I was thinking that since their relationship breaks and then reforms on a new level, the break in the film could be used to illustrate this. But regardless, this is when things start to get weird. Alma does succeed in getting Elizabet to speak briefly; to protest against the death she threatens her with. Then there are dream sequences that I’m still not quite sure are dream sequences. The two women become more and more similar but at the same time more and more opposed to each other, so it’s really strange and confusing.
There a sequence, which may be a dream, that shows Alma acting as Elizabet. Elizabet encourages her in it, which is also very strange. Alma tries to resist, but she can’t. She doesn’t completely become Elizabet though, because then she wouldn’t be talking, which she is. She says things that we would imagine Elizabet to say though, based on the letters from her husband that quote her words, and the psychiatrists account of why she has chosen silence from the beginning. Then the two of them go into the most important and famous scene in the film. Alma (and I have no clue how she knows this, but I suppose we just have to accept at this point that they are the same person and have access to each other’s memories) confesses Elizabet’s past for her, and then to her. Bergman runs the scene twice, and I suppose since Elizabet can’t talk Alma has to say it for her. The first time he shows Elizabet’s face, as she is “confessing,” then Alma’s face as she “listens.” Alma’s doing the talking, but she just seems to be a vessel for Elizabet’s words. When she is done, Bergman puts the two halves of their faces next to each other, signifying how they are now one person. They both know each other’s pasts, and they are the same (in reality their pasts are really similar, but not quite the same).
The visuals are really important to the film. You have all of those “break” images in the beginning and the middle which add to the story in a really complicated way. Bergman brings back the boy that represents him at the end, as well as showing himself and the cinematographer shooting the film. It’s one of the most obvious examples of breaking the fourth wall that I’ve come across. It seems to me that in doing this, we are invited to think about how Bergman made the film, and what he wanted to discover in doing so. He makes it very personal. The boy moving his hands across the screen could be trying to separate the two women, but is ultimately unable to, questioning their identities. There are also a lot of shots here where the two women’s faces are somehow overlapped, or occupying the same area. If I’m remembering correctly, there’s one part when Alma is standing behind Elizabet, so we see Elizabet’s face, but Alma is talking so we hear her voice. It’s like she’s talking for her again.
There are so many issues presented in Persona it’s hard to identify them all. As the title suggests, it deals with different sides to people’s personalities. It also deals with the nature of art, truth, suffering, and a bunch of other stuff. That’s just what I came up with off the top of my head. The boy running his hands across the screen is a really good image for the film as a whole, but it asks questions more than it offers answers. It’s a very complex film, and it’s worth your time even though it’s really strange and you might hate it the first time. It’ll get something out of you, one way or another.
Long story short: 4/4 stars