Ramblings from the Notepad: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona

Following the recent five year anniversary of Ingmar Bergman’s untimely death, I thought it’d be a good idea to rewatch some of my favorite Bergman films. Really, though, it’s always a good idea to watch a Bergman film. Whether it be some of his earlier works (Summer Interlude, Summer with Monika, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries,) his middle period (Winter Light, The Silence, Hour of the Wolf,) or triumphant later period films (Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Fanny and Alexander) you just can’t ever go wrong. But there’s one very particular film in Bergman’s massively impressive catalog of work that has warranted repeated viewings for many fans and, at times, even the skeptics. A film that has been interpreted in many different ways and has been the subject of long-standing debates among film fans as well as critics. The film in question, of course, is none other than Persona. Released in 1966, during Bergman’s middle period, Persona may well be Bergman’s most complex film, yet, like many Bergman films, the story it tells is superficially simple.

Having watched the Persona yet again, a novel experience for me for this film, seeing it three times in fairly quick succession, and to some extent with the benefit of solid, backing evidence I must disagree with the notion that in any clear sense we are to understand the characters of Elisabet and Alma as having merged, whether literally, figuratively or even that they were all along the same person. I normally don’t promulgate into this sort of ‘theory’ hyperbole but it’s something so fresh on my mind that I will make Persona an exception. And if there’s any film out there that deserves this treatment, it’s Persona. First of all, I think the viewings of Persona I have had to date force me to conclude that Bergman was not really about telling a story in any conventional sense of narrative. To figure out what Persona is really about, it is necessary, I think, to take into account the framing Bergman provides for the film, which are its opening and final scenes. Cinematography in film to me has always been a great way to deliver a message and Persona is one of those rare instances where the technique is indeed the storyteller. If you don’t listen closely to the camera in Persona then you will miss something important in the story.

But, before we get into it, I am well aware that there is so much to think about in Persona, despite it being a seemingly simple film. I remember being in high school, experiencing Persona for the first time and being completely fucking overwhelmed. One major question concerns Elisabet’s silence: is it elective, as happens in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, or is it some kind of mental breakdown? The documentaries about the war horrors that Elisabet watches on the TV suggest the former; the fact that it suddenly happens during a stage performance of Electra suggests the latter. I keep thinking about it. Why the hell is it Electra of all plays? The mythological story of the daughter who hated her mother and wanted her dead, does it reflect the accusation brought up by Alma that Elisabet did not love her deformed son and wanted him dead? Did Elisabet become so utterly defeated by guilt realizing that her life reminded so much of Electra’s story? We don’t know for sure, and Bergman does not help one bit.

The identical monologue in which Alma is accusing Elisabet is the film’s resolution. We hear it twice: first time, camera is concentrating on Elisabet face, second time on Alma’s. Is Alma talking about Elisabet or herself or both? After that story of the encounter on the beach, Alma became pregnant and had an abortion. The monologue may reflect her feelings of guilt and emptiness as well as Elisabet’s. Does it really happen? Is Elisabet merely a vampire sucking the life out of her victims only to use them as characters for her acting roles? Is that the ultimate price the artist is paying for being a great artist? Does she need lives and souls of others to be able to create? Can he/she love the ones who utterly depend on them and need their love? This film and later Autumn Sonata with Ingrid Bergman as a concert pianist show famous stars as selfish women who can’t and don’t love their children. The same question was brought up also in the earlier, Through a Glass Darkly, in the relationship of the writer and his daughter.

Then there is the question of whether there are really two women at all; could the whole film be played out as a fantasy of one of them, or indeed of somebody else? Is there a sexual attraction between the two women? Are they just lesbians looking for cheap thrills but can’t face it? It might be or might be not. I believe, David Lynch has watched Persona very carefully, thought about it and used some of its ideas in his own Mulholland Drive where the lesbian aspect is fleshed out a bit more. There are so many questions in this incredible film that are left unanswered. For almost forty years, viewers and filmmakers alike have been trying to find the answers. One thing is obvious, though, this is one of the films you want to watch over and over again.

As I mentioned earlier, these scenes that have a dependency on framing/cinematography at first seem almost self consciously symbolic, but in truth are rather clear references to the film, to film in general, as being or having the quality of an object. We literally see film coming off its sprockets as it comes to its end on the reel. We see a cartoonish figure moving as frames proceed, then is halted temporarily as the film in the film as it were halts, then proceeds again. We see the arc lighting of the projector, and as the film ends, the very last image, is that light going out. I think we can only interpret this to mean that on some level Bergman has done this to say that Persona at least in some respect is consciously about the way film tells us what it tells us, with limitations and, as compared to language (obviously an important theme here), in ways that may be superior, at least in some respects.

As the opening proceeds we move from images that reference film’s objective existence as a thing, and therefore its potentially perishable quality, to some disturbing images of what appear to be dead, elderly people in a morgue. This is, again, no doubt a clear connection being attempted by Persona, which then moves to an image of a preteen boy, at first seemingly dead, like the elderly, but then who suddenly moves. He first reads a book (introducing the theme of language in its static, written form), and then gazes and attempts to touch (interact) with a hazy image of a beautiful woman, clearly older than the boy, old enough to be his mother? We actually are here introduced to an image of Elisabet, and we are tempted to connect the boy to her as son, as we later hear her son discussed in Persona, but actually the images are of both Alma and Elisabet. This in turn introduces us to the theme of duality that takes up such a large portion of the film and the aspect that is heavily analyzed.

Ultimately, Bergman seems to be creating a situation in which we are forced to acknowledge that a great deal of what we believe we know about others rests largely upon what we ourselves project upon them. Elisabet’s face and its expressions become akin to a blank screen on which we see our own hopes, dreams, torments, and tragedies projected while the person behind the face constantly eludes our understanding. In this respect, the theme is remarkably well-suited to its medium: the blankness of the cinema screen with its flickering, endless shifting images that can be interpreted in infinite ways.

The introductory sequence ends, and the main part of the story begins, with an image of Elisabet in character as Electra, made up, speaking her lines, and suddenly stopping. The voice over explains the transition to her then being seen in the mental hospital or clinic, and then rather suddenly Alma is introduced, as her nurse. I think this context, or contextualizing by Bergman in the verbal sense, requires us to say first and foremost that Persona is a conscious effort to use film, but also to understand how film as a medium is quite different, unique and apart from other media and modes of discourse, to explore the themes and experiences contained within it. Film as a medium was, certainly by the time Persona was made, no longer tied to conventional forms of narrative. In fact Bergman I think was telling us that as a film, in the way he has showed us that he, personally, as a filmmaker, is understanding both film in general and this film in particular, need not follow, perhaps should not follow, a narrative in any conventional sense at all (as distinct from the term “conventional narrative” meaning a story told in roughly chronological order).

And yet this does not lend itself or require so simple an “understanding” of Persona as some extended dream or fantasy wholly existing in some person’s mind (whether Alma, Elisabet or Alma/Elisabet). The film instead has several elements that we have no reason to think are not being portrayed as they “really” occurred, such as the rare interaction between one of her main characters, in this case Elisabet, with someone else, that being the psychiatrist. Yet other scenes in the film also quite clearly were some form of dream or fantasy, such as “the visit” of Elisabet’s apparent husband and his sexual encounter with Alma. Or I would similarly add Alma’s dream of Elisabet entering her room late at night when Alma asks Elisabet the next morning if she had been in her room, Elisabet clearly indicates no, and we have no reason to think she is lying.

Turning our attention now to the much talked about bus departure scene, arguably the film’s denouement at least as concerns Alma’s stay with Elisabet, it is left out where Elisabet is. We are not shown whether Elisabet has left already or will ever leave, for that matter. As far as that is concerned, we do not know where Alma is going, in what psychological or existential condition she is in (with her suddenly impassive, if a bit broken down, looking demeanor). This lack of information on Ingmar Bergman’s part, if you will, is not from sloppiness or intentional obscurity. I do not think there is enough there to view it in some narrative sense as a tying together of the two characters into one, either.

I think the “story” to this point, and the information we are given and not given, leads to one better conclusion about its meaning. I think the bus scene represents that, however much the two women had become intertwined, in experience, understanding, learning from, and taking from, and being hurt by the other, they had reached an impasse, and remained distinct. That they did so raised the question why, and the answer to that I think has to do with the film’s title.

Persona refers to the mask we present the world around us, to other people in society, our daily life, and also even to ourselves. We must be comfortable with it, and not delve too deeply beneath it, unless we risk destroying it (as is alluded to in the middle scene where Alma’s face is shown to literally fragment as the film itself is altered). In short, I find Persona to be about how there is a limit to just how much we can understand someone else by becoming them, which of course is not meant literally but instead through means of shared experience, and particularly language, conversation, which has its obvious limitations themselves. The reason is not merely limited to problems or limitations of perception, either. It is that, in a general sense, too much knowledge takes us past a point where we can maintain, and perhaps not get back, our own persona. Hence the title.

The point at which Alma leaves the film, at the bus stop, is not only one where she has tried everything to get Elisabet to return to Alma’s vision of normality (and generally to our own general view of normality). She has had some limited success, in fact, as Elisabet has begun to throw off her inactivity, and even has said a few words (even if most were under threat of injury). But at what cost to Alma? She has been shaken, rendered hysterical on occasion, transforming her caretaker self identity to one who watches and waits to see Elisabet walk barefoot over cut glass.

Alma’s departure by bus shows us that the best intentioned will have to in effect drop their pursuit of any such search for further knowledge. It is not merely because Elisabet herself is too unsettling to know her full depths, but also because the process risks too much to Alma’s own persona. ( I would merely add here to clarify that there is no suggestion that a lack of courage on Alma’s part prevented some merging or understanding that would or might have otherwise occurred. Further efforts of the sort that might have been pursued would have led nowhere, but would have brought the increasing risk of disintegration that might not be capable of being overcome.)

In short I believe that Persona is a film about how there are, and will always be, barriers to true understanding among and between us, how we are always separate in some ways as long as we have and maintain our separate persona. As in many of his films, Ingmar Bergman seems to be stating that we cannot know another person, and that our inability to do is our greatest tragedy. But however the film is interpreted, it is a stunning and powerful achievement, one that will resonate with the viewer long after the film ends. I’m not an expert and I don’t fully ‘understand’ Persona, but repeated viewings have helped and it’s always rewarding thereafter. That’s what makes Ingmar Bergman such a wonderful director, with a special talent, who is deeply missed in the world of cinema.