“Persona” - Ingmar Bergman (1966)

Persona (1966), written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, is one of that great Swedish filmmaker’s most challenging films.  Many viewers and critics alike have found this film, mostly just showing two isolated women looking to interact with each other, to be largely incomprehensible, and they could not understand even what the film is about.  Their difficulties were exacerbated by the problems they had making out which key scenes in the film were supposed to be imaginary and which ones were supposed to be “real”.  Not surprisingly, Persona won few awards when it was released, and it has drawn heavy criticism from such leading critics as Andrew Sarris [1] and Jonathan Rosenbaum [2].

Nevertheless and despite the film’s supposed inscrutability, Persona’s novel and artistic treatment of fundamental aspects of personhood has gradually attracted an enthusiastic global following, and it is now regarded by many as Bergman’s masterpiece and as one of the greatest films ever made [3,4,5,6,7,8,9].  The British Film Institute's 2012 international poll of film critics ranked Persona as the 17th greatest film of all time [11], and its 2012 international poll of film directors ranked Persona as the 13th greatest film of all time [12].  But even though Persona has attracted a devoted following, there is still widespread disagreement about what it all means.  As a result, there have been several books and collections devoted to the film, and film scholar Thomas Elsaesser has suggested that Persona may be the most seriously written-about film ever [6].

The film concerns two women, Elisabet Vogler (played Liv by Ullmann), who is a famous stage actress, and Alma (Bibi Andersson), who is a young nurse.  But before introducing these two personages, Bergman begins his film cryptically by showing an old film projector and then some disconnected images, including a slapstick silent-film sequence, a spider, a crucifixion, and a lamb being slaughtered.  Then we see a young boy waking up in a hospital cot and looking around, finally gazing on a large screen showing a blurry image of a woman’s face.

Then we are introduced to the two women, Elisabet and Alma.  In the middle of one of her stage performances, Elisabet suddenly and mysteriously became mute.  Her doctors subsequently determined that there is nothing physically wrong with Elisabet and that her now-total silence is the result of a stubborn decision on her part.  Elisabet’s psychiatrist doctor (played by Margaretha Krook) believes that Elisabet’s total withdrawal is due to a fanatic concern about her personal authenticity – Elisabet apparently doesn’t want to express anything that is not fundamentally true about herself, and so she is holding to her silence.  Consequently the doctor assigns nurse Alma to take Elisabet to the doctor’s remote island cottage and see if she can spend some relaxing time with the actress and help bring the woman out of her malaise.  

As I mentioned, it is argued by many (e.g. [5,6]) that the events shown in the film don’t add up to a single coherent story, thereby leaving viewers to construct their own stories out of the subsequent narrative shards that are presented.  These narrative shards can be grouped into six collections.

First “Conversation”
At the cottage, Alma tells her mute companion that she is happy to finally find someone to listen to her own babbling.  She begins talking about her current fiancé and also about her first romantic affair that was with an older man and that lasted five years.  

Then she tells a more detailed and sexually explicit story about a time when she was already involved with her fiancé and she went alone to the beach.  There she met another woman and the two of them engaged in some nude sunbathing.  Two young men then appeared, and Alma’s new woman friend uninhibitedly got them involved in a sex orgy.  Alma describes experiencing some intense orgasms, and film critic Roger Ebert commented that this was “the most real experience Alma has ever had” [4].  Later, however, Alma became pregnant and had an abortion, and she still feels guilty about this.  All this is told verbally, and there are no flashbacks here, as the mute Elisabet listens attentively.

Nighttime Encounter
It is becoming increasingly evident that Alma idolizes her patient, Elisabet, and wants to be like the famous star.  In the evening Alma thinks she hears Elisabet whispering to her to go to bed.  And then later at night, Alma wakes up to see (or perhaps dreams) Elisabet coming to her and embracing her tenderly.  In the morning, though, Allma asks Elisabet about these two incidents, and the woman silently denies that they occurred.

The Argument

One day Alma drives to town to mail some letters they have written, and she notices that Elisabet's letter to her doctor is not sealed, so she proceeds to read it.  It is a patronizing letter that is dismissive of Alma and mentions the nurse's personal story about her beach orgy and abortion. Alma, of course, becomes angry and withdraws from her hitherto worshipful feelings about her patient.

At this point the film briefly breaks up with some artificial cinema edits like in the opening sequence, thereby reminding the viewers that they are just watching a movie.

When Alma returns home, she angrily confronts Elisabet and threatens to scald her with a pot of boiling water.  Frightened, Elisabet speaks out for the first and begs Alma not to do it.  Then Alma furiously goes on to tell her that she knows the woman is a very bad person.  Elisabet runs off, and when Alma, coming to her senses, chases after her and begs her for forgiveness, Elisabet refuses to forgive her.

Elisabet’s Husband Comes
One night, Alma hears a man outside calling for Elisabet, and it turns out to be Elisabet's husband (played by Gunnar Björnstrand).  The man seems to have bad eyesight, and he mistakes Alma for his wife.    Although Alma tells him he is mistaken, she very soon succumbs and assumes Elisabet's identity.  Alma and the husband then go on to have sex together while Elisabet, close by, silently watches.

Elisabet's Confession
Earlier, Elisabet had received a letter from her husband that contained a picture of her son, which she had proceeded to tear up.  Now Alma meets with Elisabet to talk about why Elisabet tore up the picture.  Elisabet proceeds to give her account, and we see her face, but her account is told in Alma’s voice.  The voice says that the only thing that Elisabet wanted that she did not have was motherhood, and so she became pregnant. However, she soon regretted her decision and tried to have a self-induced abortion, but she failed in this effort.  She wound up giving birth to a boy who she hoped would die and whom she has since always  despised.  Nevertheless her rejected son has always craved her love.

Strangely, this same story is then repeated word-for-word, only now showing Alma’s face telling the exact same story.

The film ends with Alma in a distressed state.  She adamantly asserts to Elisabet that she has her own identity that is very distinct from that of Elisabet.  She later finally manages to get Elisabet to say something – the word "nothing".  Then Alma packs up her things and gets on a bus to leave the cottage, which is accompanied by a shot showing  a modern film crew filming her.

So what can be said about the overall meaning of this odd, disjointed work?  As one watches it, it is possible to make out some key themes that resonate throughout:
  • Personal authenticity (and inauthenticity).  What is the true essence of a person and how is it revealed?  
  • Images of the face and the degree to which they can reveal or mask one’s true personhood.  
  • Touching with hands and the degree to which that can confirm the reality of what one sees.
  • The inadequacy of language for revealing the essential nature of experience.
  • The never-ending quest for the true meaning of life.
These various themes and metaphors in the film have elicited a range of commentary over the years, but the most interesting thoughts I have come across have been those of Susan Sontag, who wrote an insightful essay on Persona in 1967, soon after the film was released [5].  For example, on the issue of plot and how one might best construct a coherent narrative with what is shown in the film, Sontag doesn’t believe that Bergman ever had any intention offering a real plot [5]:
“Once it is conceived that the desire to ‘know’ may be (in part) systematically thwarted, the old expectations about plotting can no longer hold. At first, it may seem that a plot in the old sense is still there; only it’s being related at an oblique, uncomfortable angle, where vision is obscured. Eventually though it needs to be seen that the plot isn’t there at all in the old sense, and therefore that the point isn’t to tantalise but to involve the audience more directly in other matters, for instance in the very processes of ‘knowing’ and ‘seeing’.”
And on the interesting topic of what is Alma’s authentic self and to what degree does she move to find herself, Sontag has an interesting take.  She asserts that Alma and Elisabet can be considered to be two sides of one person [5]:
“It’s correct to speak of the film in terms of the fortunes of two characters named Elizabeth and Alma who are engaged in a desperate duel of identities. But it is no less true, or relevant, to treat Persona as what might be misleadingly called an allegory: as relating the duel between two mythical parts of a single ‘person’, the corrupted person who acts (Elizabeth) and the ingenuous soul (Alma) who founders in contact with corruption.”
(Indeed, at one point Bergman shows a special image of a single face that consists of half of Elisabet’s face on one side and half of Alma’s face on the other side.)

Sontag’s comment here is,  to me, the most compelling interpretive observation on the film, and it fits well with several other expressionistic sequences of the film, too, such as (a) the nighttime encounter between Elisabet and  Alma, (b) Elisabet’s husband mistakenly taking Alma for his wife, and (c) the exact repetition of Elisabet’s confession, showing first Elisabet’s face and then Alma’s face, but each time spoken in Alma’s voice.

So Persona is a challenging and perplexing film, but it also has a fascinating focus, and I believe it is worthy of your interest.  

  1. Andrew Sarris, “films”, The Village Voice, (23 March 1967).  
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Scenes From an Overrated Career”, The New York Times, (4 August 2007).   
  3. Roger Ebert, “Persona”, RogerEbert.com, (7 November 1967).   
  4. Roger Ebert, “Persona”, Great Movie, “RogerEbert.com”, (7 January 2001).   
  5. Susan Sontag, “Persona – Review by Susan Sontag”, Sight and Sound, (Autumn 1967).  
  6. Thomas Elsaesser, “The Persistence of Persona”, The Criterion Collection, (17 March 2016).   
  7. Chuck Bowen, “Blu-ray Review: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona on the Criterion Collection”, Slant Magazine, (21 March 2014).   
  8. Peter Bradshaw, “Persona review – Ingmar Bergman's enigmatic masterpiece still captivates”, The Guardian, (29 December 2017).   
  9. Acquarello, “Persona, 1966", Strictly Film School, (25 December 2017).   
  10. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).      
  11. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).      

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