Film Appreciation: Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Persona’
Ingmar Bergman’s film ‘Persona’ is painfully beautiful, disturbing and deep. Whilst some critics look at it as self-absorbing, the movie’s motifs of human psychology and existentialism are present through a seemingly simply narrative which is at times weighty, at times complicated, yet revealing-and that is what gives ‘Persona’ the quality of being a cinematic masterpiece which is of great social value too. Traditionally, art cinema has been more liberal than, say, classic cinema. One’s impression, then, is that Bergman allowed Bibi Andersson (who plays Alma, the nurse) and Liv Ullman (Mrs.
Elizabeth Vogler) a great deal of artistic license, for the bare , natural and real-life portrayal of the two women could not have been played whilst bound in directorial vision. The psychoanalytical concept of personality transference is what dominates the movie. Bergman therefore allows a heap of broken images to come together to delve deep into the psyche of the two women. Alma is a young nurse who has been put in charge of Elizabeth, a young actress who suddenly stopped speaking during a theatre production. For the most part, Elizabeth remains silent since she has (importantly) lost the ability to communicate.
It is through this silence that Alma reveals herself, and her life, as Elizabeth mysteriously listens on. It is this experience of self expression which forces Alma to take on or assume Elizabeth’s personality, and visa versa. Whilst Elizabeth seems to find consolation in the fact that another person is expressing her fears, joys, desires and socially deviant dreams, Alma is also led to the path of self-discovery. The movie lacks color (that is, is filmed in black and white), and yet it is enveloped in many shades of gray. Elizabeth’s eyes are full of wonder, and she searches for meaning in life.
Up till that point, Alma thought she was content with life, but she then discovers her inner madness, and learns-through the painful process-how to live with it. She learns that Elizabeth is her alter ego-the real side of her-and since the two are also physically identical it seems that the calmness and serenity that had always characterized Alma was superficial, and her darker side is revealed as the movie progresses. As Alma’s dark, notorious and dangerously passionate nature comes to the surface, one can look at the two women being one and the same, for it seems as if the two women do not exist separately.
While Alma is the physical being, the presentation of Elizabeth indicates that she is merely Alma’s illusion, a point which further garners strength when we see that Elizabeth’s husband mistakes Alma for her. Alma indulges intimacy with Mr. Vogler, and her childish, guilty recollections of her lustful experiences and other sinful acts also send her into a kind of depression. Elizabeth is the manifestation of what Alma truly wants to be-pure. Elizabeth, if she exists physically, is trying not to make this experience just another role she is playing, like all previous ones she has played as an actress.
This time she chooses to remain silent. The up-close shots taken of her, the expression in her eyes coupled with the eerie silences intercepted with poignant music all come together in a strikingly remarkable way. She is trying to find her real self, trying to discover what love, hatred, deviancy, cruelty and other human feelings are really about. Yet, the superimposition of the two women’s faces gives weight to the argument that the movie is primarily a psychological analysis of Alma’s condition, and Elizabeth is Alma’s illusion.
Elizabeth, then, has absolute control over Alma’s thoughts and feelings, and is constantly influencing her to the point where Alma herself believes that she is, in fact, Elizabeth. ‘Persona’ is a technically innovative movie, and the use of black and white photography creates real-life situations. Water (sea, rain) is a recurring motif, emphasizing vanity, purity, depth and yet vastness and emptiness-the search for meaning in life which characterizes the two women in the movie. Blocking-placing of characters- is crucial, as we see that Bergman allows the ordinariness of mundane routine to creep into the movie.
The design aspects are not overdone. A fragmented vision of a fragmented world with fragmented identities is exactly what is presented when the movie opens with a seemingly Freudian-natured array of unrelated images. Most of these are not just powerful, but also disturbing, such as the nail driven in a man’s palm, a sheep being killed, random cartoons etcetera. It shows how the brain, a web of neurons, functions in unpredictable ways, and how the imagination of the human mind knows no leaps or bounds.
Looking further in mis-en-scene terms, the house in which the two women live is also not overly decorated, and it represents the emptiness which characterizes the two women’s lives. The pre-title sequence paves the way for a mesmerizing performance by the two actresses, with symbolic expressions and icons used by the director. The simplicity of the costumes-especially the use of white- also complements the theme of the movie. Bergman questions the existence of perceptible individuality as he weaves in technical elements to inform the narrative in a better way.
Soren Kierkegaard’s theories on existentialism [Kierkegaard, 1849] and the nature of the self says that one part of human nature longs for the definite and the necessary, whereas the other is subject to the everyday world full of relative concepts, temporariness and what is finite. While Alma tries to refute this apparent contradiction, Elizabeth tries to escape the falsehood of life by shunning herself from communication or expression reducing herself, as the doctor reads into her, to a state of ‘not seeming… but being’.
Alma’s missing half, both physically and spiritually is put in place when her soul and body find juncture with Elizabeth’s. The reverse shots used, and the revealing and hiding of the face through the veil (curtains are also symbolic of appearance versus reality) are appreciable elements used by Bergman. As the identities of the two women merge, Alma discovers in a letter written by Elizabeth and addressed to the doctor that she is in fact being actively studied by Elizabeth herself. This hurts her, as she had trusted in Elizabeth.
Alma’s mental condition makes the viewer wonder who is nurse and who is patient in this story! The paradox seems unsolvable at this point, but Bergman is not looking to give or ask of any absolute answers. The scene where she returns home after having read the letter is remarkable. There is a prolonged shot of her sitting on the rocky beach, pondering deeply, and then she returns and amidst the quietness of the day she sweeps some glass on the grass so that Elizabeth steps on it. Alma is thinking of sweet revenge and jealousy and resentment enter into the movie’s main players’ hearts.
Everything is a deep spiritual experience for the women- from intimacy to jealousy to revenge. The off-screen voices included further make the movie interesting. When Elizabeth finally gets hurt, a veil is shown through which we look out at Elizabeth and when Alma reappears, her face cracks and the film cracks and burns and, shocked, the viewer is left with a white, bare screen in front of him. Horrendous images similar to the pre-title sequence returns- they are amazingly sordid, meaningless, mundane…scenes from a comic act…a skeleton…a monster-like image and a close-up of an eye ball.
The movie, then, looks at the little details and intricacies which surround us and which boggle the human mind. Appearance versus reality is another theme this movie explores. Deception and disguise play in as well, and the long shot of Elizabeth then comes in as she walks in the sun. Alma’s reality has been shattered like glass, and she has lot control over her life, not knowing what to believe. In this spiritual quest the women are undergoing, the viewer is a bit lost because too many questions are being raised.
Elizabeth finally speaks when she squeals out in pain, and we see the previously invisible veil coming off, which symbolizes the picture which now gets a lot clearer, and also the act that the two women get a lot closer this way. Elizabeth is finally more human and not acting but being real, reality being whatever it is-for the good or for the bad-but real and true. When the film burns, the viewer is brought to reality. This is an amazing accomplishment for Bergman, because it is at this point hat the two women are also brought back to reality-Elizabeth cannot escape being human.
Contingent as the human species is, she can not carry on being quiet when she is exposed to pain-she is not like the burning Buddhist monks she sees on TV in the Vietnam War portrayal who are apparently immune to pain. The broken images of death are reminders of the vulnerability of life and the inevitability of death. The cinematic technique used seems to show the movie as a memory of images flashing on to the characters’ and the viewers’ minds. It is the story and its message(s) that are important and not flaunty costumes or scenic images.
The world is an illusion. People are hollow and unaware, yet imaginative and fearful and daring; all at the same time. Some critics see Elizabeth’s final representation with her face superimposed towards the sun to be indicating that Bergman views her as a representation of God, or a higher, supernatural authority. This movie is haunting, and questions and reinforces, simultaneously, fundamental notions about the human psyche and the complex creation the human being itself. It is a remarkable artistic accomplishment for Bergman, and a work of great creative genius.
Using modernist, and not hackneyed and traditional techniques, and with two actresses giving the performance of a lifetime- ‘Persona’ is surely one of the best movies ever to have been made, that is, cinema at its greatest. References: Bergman, I. (Producer & Director). (1966). Persona [Motion picture]. Sweden:AB Svensk Filmindustri (Sweden) & United Artists (USA). Gill, R. (2006). Mastering English Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006): Soren Kierkegaard Retrieved 26th January 2009 from: http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/kierkegaard/Sample Essay of PaperDon.com