“The hopeless dream of being”: Persona (1966)

dir. Ingmar Bergman

Bergman is such a big name in the industry and I’ve personally always wanted to see one of his movies to see what all the ‘hype’ was about. Now that I have, I can say that I don’t think I was ready for this film nor do I think I ever will be. I mean, where do I even begin?

That opening sequence had teeth. We see quick flashes of moving celluloid and various instances of graphic violence. The camera lingers on a particularly gruesome moment: several seconds dedicated to a closeup of a crucifixion; a hand bleeding profusely from a nail being driven right through it. It’s a quick-fire montage that serves as an attack to the senses. Unforgiving, unflinching, in-your-face goodness. It sets the tone for the rest of the movie and it’s just like what people say about car wrecks. It’s horrific but you can’t bring yourself to look away.

The narrative begins with a surreal quality to it, opting for a bare bones production design and instead focusing on the actors’ performances. Bergman chooses to train his camera mostly on faces, seeing how his characters react and deliver their dialogue. Majority of the film is focused on two characters: Alma (Bibi Andersson) and Elizabeth (Liv Ullman), who he mostly places in shots together. The characters often face the camera, almost looking into the lens but never fully. We see the eyes — windows to the soul — but never in their entirety. Bergman plays with lighting to ensure that for the most part, one of their faces is covered in shadows. In film, this often signifies secrecy and we later find out why.

Elizabeth is an actress turned apathetic to her surroundings. Someone who supposedly relates and understands everyone else in order to play their roles chooses to turn her back on the world and its horrors. There is nothing medically wrong with her, her apathy is a conscious decision. There is a determination behind it which Alma recognizes, realizing that she may not be strong enough for it. Alma is her nurse and at first, is somewhat presented as Elizabeth’s antithesis. Alma is optimistic, choosing to see the beauty with the life that she is given. But she has her own doubts, her own fears, and own insecurities which slowly consume her.

“The chasm between what you are with others and what you are alone.”

These two people are then secluded in an island together. Although one of them doesn’t speak, there is a connection between the two. French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas claims that the face of the other is the key to human consciousness. (I’d like to take this moment to thank my PH102 professor for giving me something to add to this review.) Alma is honest and raw when she sees Elizabeth as a mirror. Alma confesses her deepest secrets to Elizabeth and she lets it all out because she feels that there is no judgement whatsoever. When she later finds out that Elizabeth may only be studying her, her feelings instantly shift. Alma’s paranoia switches to her and she spirals out of control. She becomes hostile towards Elizabeth, even going as far as letting her get hurt by a shard of glass, becoming the opposite of her role as Elizabeth’s nurse.

Their differences feels smaller. This is Elizabeth’s retreat but it is Alma who undergoes a more significant transformation. Who then is the patient and who is the nurse? Who is treating who?

The climax of the film is a lengthy dialogue about Elizabeth’s past. The scene repeats to show the reactions of both women. It ends with both of their faces merged in one image. There is a blurring of identities. Although initially different, they have the same fears at their core. Elizabeth turns away from them while Alma chooses to face them and live with that knowledge.

The ending leaves the viewer with several questions. Are both of these women real, or is one of them just a figment of imagination of the other? There are two scenes that may be used for this theory. Only Alma leaves the island. Earlier on, Elizabeth’s husband mistakes Alma for Elizabeth. His eyes are covered by heavily tinted shades so it’s possible that it means that he’s not really seeing. Whatever it may be, there are no answers here.

Although very different, this film reminds me of ‘Under the Skin’ (2013) in the sense that they have a few similar themes, have the same uncomfortable/upsetting feeling all throughout, and they leave the viewers with more questions than answers. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend that you give it a watch.

Overall, I’m still confused (haha). I don’t understand all of it but I still really enjoyed it. Both actresses deliver great performances, with Andersson delivering majority of the lines and having to carry most of the dialogue while Ullmann does her best to express using only her facial expressions. One thing I found really interesting is that this film passes the Bechdel test despite one of the characters having only around 2 lines of dialogue. Definitely would give this one a rewatch but not any time soon.

“I think I could turn into you if I really tried. From the inside.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s