Persona: Bergman’s film of obsession and control.

Never in my life have I responded so powerfully to a film as I did when I first watched Persona. Even Vivre Sa Vie (currently my favorite film of all those I have seen) didn’t move me in the same way Persona did. I found Persona shocking.  At the same time I was flawed by the complex intelligence behind the film, the respect for the viewer (always very important to me) and the scope of the reach. I’ll review Vivre sa Vie and explain why it is my favorite film. Suffice to say Persona comes a close second.

For me, what Persona did was raise my awareness of a phenomenon I was not conscious of. As a writer, I’m used to questioning motivations and searching for causes in effects. Yet, Persona is about the will of one person to overtake another persons soul by powerfully imposing themselves on the psyche of the weaker person.

I knew about this at the political level, ie – straights manipulating gays, men manipulating women, whites manipulating blacks etc. I knew all about the domination of a certain force of will over another. I have never addressed the idea of someone literally passing off their own psyche because they don’t want to, or know how to deal with it.

Since Persona, I have seen it. I’ve also recognised the desire to appropriate the psyche of someone I admire in my own patterns in relating. Bergman woke me up to something I hadn’t seen before. He hints in Persona (as in The Hour of The Wolf) that this is a special problem for artists. Not the patterns of behaviour, bu in the level of imagination and self-control the artist has. For Bergman, the artist is willing to go deep into the psyche to best represent it. A bit like Socrates unexamined life, they are willing to examine the collective lives of all of us. Along with this ability, comes the desire to flee this ability. And in Persona, the artist flees this ability by imposing it on another.

Persona is arguably Ingmar Bergman’s most challenging and experimental film. Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman) is an accomplished stage actress who, in the middle of performing Elektra, ceases to speak. of course the Electra story is the basis for Freud’s theories around female sexuality called the Elektra complex. Like the Oedipus complex, the girl-child is competing with her mother for the affections of her father. However, Freud argued that girls and boys solve their complexes differently. The girls do it through penis envy while the boys do it through castration anxiety. All babies want to possess their mothers (have them all to themselves).  For a boy, he can use his penis to possess his mother.  The girl can’t. Instead she competes with her mother for the love of the father (the penis that ‘belongs’ to her mother).  However, the mother-love is very strong, so the girl will sublimate her desire to compete with her mother. When the girl does being to have a mature sexual response to her own internal development, she will seek out a male partner (father replacement) and then have a child that for her will replace the missing penis and ultimately resolve her Electra complex, and (of course) begin the cycle again for the new child.

Persona begins with images of camera equipment and projectors lighting up and projecting dozens of brief cinematic glimpses, including a crucifixion, an erect penis, a tarantula spider, clips from a comedic silent-film reel first seen in Bergman’s Prison (depicting a man trapped in a room, being chased by Death and Satan), and the slaughter of a lamb. The last, and longest, glimpse features a boy who wakes up in a hospital next to several corpses, reading Michail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (“Vår Tids Hjälte” in the film), and caressing a blurry image of Elisabet and/or Alma’s faces.

A young nurse, Alma (portrayed by Bibi Andersson), is summoned by the head doctor and charged with the care of stage actress Elisabet Vogler (portrayed by Liv Ullmann), who has, despite the lack of any diagnosed impairment, become mute. The hospital administrator (portrayed by Margaretha Krook) offers her own seaside cottage as a place for Alma to nurse Elisabet back to health. Though Elisabet is nearly catatonic when the film begins, she does react with extreme panic upon seeing Thích Quảng Đức‘s suicide on television, and laughs mockingly at Alma’s radio soap opera. As the two women leave the hospital together, Sister Alma reads aloud a letter Elisabet’s husband has sent her, which includes a photograph of her young son. If Bergman is playing out the Electra complex between the two women, the relationship between Elisabet and her son is crucial to the problems she will face relating to another woman.

Sister Alma, learns that there is nothing physically or even psychologically wrong with Elisabeth – she has simply, consciously decided not to speak. Alma (the name, not accidentally, is the Spanish word for soul) describes her initial impressions of Elisabeth as gentle and childlike, but with strict eyes.

Together in the administrator’s cottage, Elisabet begins to relax, though she remains completely silent and non-responsive. Alma speaks constantly to break the silence, at first about books she is reading and trivial matters, then increasingly about her own anxieties and relationship with her fiancé, Karl-Henrik, who scolds her for lacking ambition – “though not with my career, I suppose in some greater way.” Alma constantly compares herself to Elisabet and begins to grow attached to her. As the act closes, Alma confesses to cheating on her fiancé in a menage a quatre with underage boys. She became pregnant, and had Karl-Henrik’s friend abort the baby; “and that was that”. She is not sure how to process the abortion mentally. Elisabet is heard to say “You ought to go to bed, or you’ll fall asleep at the table”, but Alma dismisses it as a dream. Elisabet will later deny speaking.

Alma drives into town, taking Elisabet’s letters for the postbox, but parks by the roadside to read what she wrote. She discovers in Elisabet’s letters that Elisabet has been analyzing her and “studying” her.  For me this is more support for the psychoanalysis perspectives of the film. Alma is the medic, Elisabet the patient.  Alma should be studying Elisabet. However, Elisabet’s analysis of Alma identifies her, not only as healthy (or possibly healthy) but indulging in the worst kind of cynicism. She has withdrawn into a fake illness in order to better ‘judge’ and hold ‘wanting’ those around her. Seen in the light of the Electra complex, despite being the patient, Elisabet is by far the more powerful of the two and Alma appears to have been nothing but a pawn in Elisabet’s schemes to withdraw from the world.

Alma returns distraught, breaks a drinking bottle on the footpath, and leaves the shards there to cut Elisabet. Alma retaliated with physical violence, informing us of the depth of betrayal Alma feels. When Elisabet’s feet start to bleed, her gaze meets Alma’s knowingly, and the film itself breaks apart: the screen flashes white, scratch marks appear up and down the image, the sound rises and screeches, and the film appears to unwind as brief flashes of the prelude reappear for fractions of a second each.

One of the many incredible images portraying the women blending into one.

For me, the break here represents the break in Alma. Alma’s act of violence leads her to confront Elisabet’s complete control of her, and a break with her super-ego. From this point on in the film she will act according to desire or the control of Elisabet (or perceived control) rather than through her own rationalisation.

When the film resumes, it is following Elisabet through the house with a thick blur on the lens. The image clears up with a sharp snap when she looks out the window before walking outside to meet Alma, who is weepy and bitter. At lunch, she tells Elisabet she has been hurt by Elisabet talking about her behind her back, and begs her to speak. When Elisabet does not react, the nurse flies into a rage and tells Elisabet “You are inaccessible. They said you were healthy, but your sickness is of the worst kind: it makes you seem healthy. You act it so well everyone believes it, everyone except me, because I know how rotten you are inside.” Elisabet tries to walk away, but Alma pursues and continues to accost her. Elisabet flees, and Alma chases her begging for forgiveness. Frustrated by Elisabet’s unresponsiveness, Alma tries to attack her and chases her through the cottage, but Elisabet hits her during the ensuing scuffle causing Alma’s nose to start bleeding. In retaliation, Alma grabs a pot of boiling water off the stove and is about to fling it at Elisabet, but stops after hearing Elisabet wail “No!” Alma explains that Elisabet wouldn’t have spoken had she not feared death.

That night, Alma watches Elisabet sleep, analyzing her face and the scars she covers with makeup. She hears a man yelling outside, and finds Elisabet’s husband, Mr. Vogler, in the garden. Mr. Vogler mistakes Alma for his wife, and despite her repeatedly interjecting with “I’m not your wife”, delivers a monologue about his love for her and the son they have together (repeating words he wrote to Elisabet in the opening act – “We must see each other as two anxious children”). Elisabet stands quietly beside the two, holding Alma’s hand, and Alma admits her love for Mr. Vogler and accepts her role as the mother of Elisabet’s child. The two make love with Elisabet sitting quietly next to the bed with a look of panic on her face, and afterward, Alma cries. The image of Elisabet becomes blurry.

The climax of the film comes the next morning: Alma catches Elisabet in the kitchen with a pained expression on her face, holding a picture of a small boy. Alma then narrates Elisabet’s life story back to her, while the camera focuses tightly on Elisabet’s anguished face: at a party one night, a man tells her “Elisabet, you have it virtually all in your armory as woman and artist. But you lack motherliness.” We know, of course, this is an essential component of the Electra complex. Not necessarily to have a child, but to relate to the ability to give birth. (penis replacement) Elisabet lacks this – and according to Freud this will make her extremely competitive with men (penis envy) or a woman can dramatically the other way, and have terribly low self-esteem. Elisabet has completely withdrawn from the world (including her son) but still seeks to dominate – indeed possess through complete knowing – Alma.

She laughs, because it sounds silly, but the idea sticks in her mind, and she lets her husband impregnate her. As the pregnancy progresses, she grows increasingly worried about her stretching and swelling body, her responsibility to her child, the pain of birth, and the idea of abandoning her career. Everyone Elisabet knows constantly says “Isn’t she beautiful? She has never been so beautiful”, but Elisabet makes repeated attempts to abort the fetus. After the child is born, she is repulsed by it, and prays for the death of her son. The child grows up tormented and desperate for affection.

In an extraordinary piece of cinema, ( I will never forget the first time I saw this – I was stunned at the cleverness and the depth of message this technique portrayed) the camera turns to show Alma’s face, and she repeats the same monologue again. She repeats the entire story, this time with the focus on her own face, her own responses to the failure of Elisabet’s Electra complex. At its conclusion, one half of the face of Alma and the other of Elisabet’s visage are shown in split screen, such that they appear to have become one face. Alma panics and cries “I’m not like you. I don’t feel like you. I’m not Elisabet Vogler: you are Elisabet Vogler. I’m just here to help you!” Alma leaves, and later returns, to find that Elisabet has become completely catatonic. Alma falls into a strange mood and gashes her arm, forcing Elisabet’s lips to the wound and subsequently beating her. Alma packs her things and leaves the cottage alone, as the camera turns away from the women to show the crew and director filming the scene.

Elisabeth’s struggle for absolute transference – the proverbial battle for the soul – is a means of further divorcing herself from the pain of her own existence. Persona is a provocative, highly cerebral, and artistically complex depiction of human frailty, cruelty, and identity.

Seen in light of the film I reviewed last night, The Hour of The Wolf, this is a far more complicated film. One interpretation of it is that it is a ‘simple’ horror story. If it is placed next to its partner film (where the male artist descends into madness and his wife is worried about ‘catching’ his mental illness) it can appear to be a horror film. For me, there is so much more here, and its a pity The Hour of The Wolf didn’t have the same depth for us to get our teeth into.

Just as with The Hour of The Wolf, we have the presence of the filmmaker to deal with. In The Hour of the Wolf Bergman opens the film. In Persona he closes it.  His presence is also ‘felt’ if not seen when the film literally breaks part way through.  We must remember the themes here of the tormented artist. Whatever complex Elisabet might be feeling, it is her deep connection with others that Bergman wants us to question, just as he lays out for us in The Hour of the Wolf. It is Bergman who told us the two films go together.

To conclude, here is a wonderful quote that includes the Susan Sontag perspective on duality from the Strictly Film School web site:

Bergman uses minimal composition and extremely tight close-ups to illustrate the theme of psychological deconstruction. Note the prevalent use of single camera shots throughout the duration of a scene. The lack of camera movement forces us to study the characters’ faces. Persona, after all, as the title suggests, is not about who the person actually is, but the different identities, or facades, that the person projects. Figuratively, Elisabeth Vogler, having played the role of celebrity, wife, and mother, has decided to abandon her persona and walk off the stage. A variation on the idea of duality provides an essential ingredient to the plot development. The themes of experience, children, and romantic relationships take on very different meanings for the two women. Alma seems to covet what Elisabeth has, but she has deliberately chosen other paths. Note the monologue that is shown twice: one showing a close-up of Alma, and the other of Elisabeth. It is a scene about regret, frustration, and denial.

The effect illustrates how different, and yet similar, these two women are… and how cruel and destructive the human will can be.

The brilliant moment when the film breaks apart.