You don’t have to understand Persona, on any level at all, to recognize that the film is a malevolent force. The film elicits fear, emptiness, anxiety, and despondency in its viewers – feelings that often stem from watching a horror film instead of a drama. While the film matches up to its classification as a drama, there remains a threat at its foundation – an existentialist one.
The film achieves this by locking two similar, but disparate existences together – that of Elsabet, an actress, and Alma, the nurse charged with caring for her. Both, professionally, deal with empathy in their trades, the former using it to elicit the respect and understanding of an audience, and the latter using it to reduce the pain and improve the wellbeing of another. By flipping the actions of these women in relation to their roles as professionals, the film seems to examine the ability for empathy to twist into something grotesque in the wake of trauma.
Elisabet responds to Alma’s attempts to defuse the tension between them and reach out to her as a friend rather than nurse by treating her as a subject, devoid of respect and understanding of her experiences and feelings, becoming an audience member complicit in the dehumanization of the character before her. In response to this, Alma inflicts escalating acts of violence, both physical and emotional on her former charge, hellbent on inciting pain in the woman she was sent to help heal.
At some point in the film, it becomes clear that what makes Alma so appealing to Elisabeth is not a need or desire for human companionship or empathy, but that in Alma, she finds a scene partner – the only kind of person she finds herself able to contend with anymore. Following the laws of scenework and spurred on by the need to fulfill the chamber drama the both of them are engaged in, 2 women initially cast in the roles of nurturer and nurtured to one another become locked in a surreal ratcheting of tension, the only breaks in their conflict being (maybe?) dream sequences, and constaft shifts between provoker and provoked, violator and victim.
Their relationship is performative until they reach a comfortable point, wherein they (or at least Alma) become expressive. They remain on equal footing, while their friendship’s defining trait is one-sided banter, but when Alma begins to talk about taboo life-changing sexual experiences, the scales are tipped, and the game changes. The relationship becomes a task of keeping said scales balanced, out of love or hate, by way of affection or pain. Elisabet and Anna play this game well, until all they have left to play against one another, as Elisabet is made to speak at the end of the film, is “Nothing.” The same can maybe be said of relationships and how they decay or grow over time, though Persona would never confirm it. All the film ever needed to do was show its audience the glimpse of what to fear from interpersonal dynamics – the Nothing that remains when your capacity for empathy reaches its end.