“I am living permanently in my dream, from which I make brief forays into reality.” – Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 masterpiece is probably one of the most powerful cinematic incursions into the fragmented human psyche. Despite the vastly differing sensibilities of the two filmmakers, Persona ranks right alongside Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (which came out the same year) when it comes to artistic explorations of individual identity. Often regarded as one of Bergman’s more accessible works, it has been 54 years since Persona was first released but it is safe to say that it has lost none of its magic/horror.
Bergman begins his experimentation with our minds from the opening scene of Persona itself. A sequence of images, ranging from cartoon characters to an erect penis, flood our consciousness but they don’t signify anything other than the associations we are capable of making. In hindsight, it is impossible to think of a better starting sequence because these endless subjective interpretations help curate a personal experience. Bergman sheds a light on the horror of the postmodern human condition, clutching at arbitrary meanings in an ocean of uprooted signifiers. Rather than touching the reality of mental illness, Persona bases its investigation on this terrible state of unreality.
It starts off as a relatively simple story about a celebrated stage actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) who has stopped speaking altogether. After medical checkups fail to identify her problem, she finds herself in the care of Nurse Alma (played by Bibi Andersson). The doctor-in-charge advises Elisabet to go on vacation to a beach house on the Baltic Sea with Alma. However, she knows that Elisabet’s dilemma is not medical in nature but psychological. “The hopeless dream of being,” she says while dissecting the life of Elisabet, an individual who has propagated nothing but subterfuge in the name of art. At least that’s how she looks at her own profession. At least a part of her does. Disillusioned with a life of make-believe, she is too graceful to commit biological suicide so she chooses philosophical suicide. Words can no longer bind the crumbling fabric of her destabilised universe.
Elisabet and Alma have such a compelling on-screen chemistry because Alma is the polar opposite, rambling on about her intimate experiences including sexual escapades and painful abortions. She has nothing to hide but Elisabet has nothing to say. Persona’s ideological or artistic position can be found in an excerpt that Alma reads to Elisabet: “All the anxiety we carry within us, all our thwarted dreams, the inexplicable cruelty, our fear of extinction, the painful insight into our earthly condition have slowly crystalised our hope for an other-wordly salvation. The tremendous cry of our faith and doubt against the darkness and the silence is the most terrifying proof of our abandonment of our terrified and unuttered knowledge.”
When she tells Elisabet about her former lover, she comments, “In some strange way, it was never quite real.” Bergman indulges in such meta-commentary throughout the film, alluding to the final reveal. As the days pass, a homoerotic attraction develops between the two women (which is quite onanistic, considering everything). “I think I could turn into you if I really tried,” Alma tells Elisabet. This idyllic and nurturing relationship turns hostile when Alma reads a letter that Elisabet wrote to her doctor. She reveals that she has been treating Alma as a character study, analysing everything she can for yet another role. Angry and hurt, Alma steps out of the car and looks at her own reflection in the middle of nowhere. It is this kind of self-reflexivity that makes Persona such a nuanced film. In another scene, Elisabet points a camera at the camera and then at Alma. She had been looking at herself all along.
Persona would be a completely solipsistic dream if it wasn’t for the occasional injection of history into the narrative. In the beginning, Elisabet cowers in one corner of her hospital room while looking at footage of Vietnamese monks burning themselves in protest of the war. Later, she scans the photograph of a Jewish child with his hands up in the air during WW-II. Surrounded by Nazi soldiers, the child very likely had no future. Bergman insists that it is not just individual trauma that has ravaged Elisabet’s mind but also a reaction to the collective horror of a world torn apart by violence. So how does one survive in such a world? in Elisabet’s case, she has split her consciousness into two separate identities: one is nurturing and the other is silent. One wants to marry and settle down while the other is afraid of being a mother. One is ideal, the other is real. To make sense of this perpetual alienation, Elisabet has conjured up a persona in order to find a way to talk to her loneliness.
Apart from the complex main narrative of Elisabet’s story, Bergman uses a subversive visual narrative to highlight how fragmented all these grand narratives have become in the modern world (including cinema). The medium in which this story of fragmentation is told is edited and arranged, contrary to the unfiltered diarrhoea of reality but reality always finds a way in. When threatened with a symbol of mortality, Elisabet comes out of this state of self-preservation and screams, “No, don’t.” The hopeless dream of being is finally real when confronted with the inevitable truth of death. In one of the most memorable ending scenes in the history of cinema, Alma confronts Elisabet about her anxieties. Twice. From each perspective, we see and hear how all-encompassing anxiety of giving birth in this world made Elisabet want to kill her baby. Although Persona does not approach this particular problem as forcefully as the film it influenced (David Lynch’s 1977 masterpiece Eraserhead), this is the central subject of the film’s explorations.
As an actress, Elisabet can no longer tell the difference between what is supposed to performative and what isn’t. For her, even being a mother has been reduced to the status of a role, be it a fictional one or a societal one. Bergman ends with the haunting image of half of Alma’s face attached to half of Elisabet’s face. It is impossible to figure out any objective truth in this moral void, an endless void that is decorated with the meaningless fragments of all our anxieties.