‘Persona’ (1966) is a Swedish film, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman and featuring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in the leading roles. It is a psychological story, which revolves around a young nurse named Alma and her patient, a well-known stage actress named Elizabeth Vogler. Bergman wrote the film with Ullmann and Andersson in mind for the lead roles and shot the film in Stockholm and Faro. The film deals with themes of duality and personal identity.
The film starts with a series of asymmetrical images, which include a crucifixion, a giant tarantula, the killing of a lamb, a boy wakes up in a hospital or a morgue and pulls up to a large screen, which shows a blurred image of one or two women. One of them is possibly Alma, a young nurse who is assigned to look after a patient, Elizabeth Vogler. Elizabeth is a renowned stage actress who has suddenly stopped speaking in the middle of a show. Despite the best efforts of the doctors, she never spoke again. The doctors concluded that there is nothing physically or even psychologically wrong with Elizabeth, she has deliberately decided not to speak. While at the hospital, Alma reads Elizabeth a letter from her husband, which comes with a photo of their son that Elizabeth tears off. She also becomes distressed while watching TV footage of the self-immolation of a monk in the Vietnam War. The attending physician thinks, it might be helpful for Elizabeth to recuperate if she and Alma spend the summer at her isolated house by the sea.
Held in the same box of space and time, the two women somehow merge. At first, the two seem ideally suited. They take long walks, bask in the sun, and read together. It is obvious that their isolation has cultivated a sense of intimacy between the two. But it is a curious attachment. At first, Alma attempts to fill the void of Elizabeth’s silence. Elizabeth says nothing, and Alma talks and talks, confessing her plans and her fears, and eventually, in a great and daring monologue, describes an erotic episode during which she was taking a sunbath in the nude with a woman she had just met, named Katarina, when two young boys came along. Katarina initiated an orgy during which she was completely happy. However, she became pregnant, and she had an abortion, and ultimately feeling guilty about the matter.
Alma drives to town to deliver their letters and notices that one of the letters of Elizabeth is unsealed. She reads it, and finds that she is studying Alma and that Alma has told about her orgy and abortion. Furious, Alma accuses Elizabeth of using her, though she does not know for what purpose. In a resulting brawl, Alma attempts to scald Elizabeth with boiling water, but stops when Elizabeth cries out to stop, the first time Alma knows she has spoken since they met. Alma tells her she knows she is a terrible person and when Elizabeth runs off, Alma chases after her and begs for her forgiveness
The two actresses look somewhat similar. In a disturbing shot Bergman combines half of one face with half of the other. He superimposes the two faces, like transformation. Later, Andersson divulged that, she and Ullmann had no idea about Bergman’s intention, and when she first saw the film she found it disturbing and frightening. Their visual merging suggests a deeper psychic attraction. It becomes evident that the mute and apparently ill Elizabeth is stronger than Alma, and eventually Alma feels her soul being overcome by the other woman’s strength. There is a moment when her indignation flares and she lashes back. In the courtyard of the cottage, dazzled by the sun, she picks up the pieces of a broken glass and deliberately leaves a shard where Elizabeth might walk. Elizabeth cuts her foot, but it is actually a victory for her, who has compelled the nurse to dump the ethics of her profession and reveal her weakness. Elizabeth looks at Alma, as if to suggest that she knows, the glass shard was not an accident, and at that moment Bergman allows his film to seem to tear and burn. The screen goes blank. Then the film reconstitutes itself. This sequence repeats the way the film has opened. In both cases, a projector lamp suddenly flares up and there is a montage of jerky silent skeletons, images of coffins, a hand with a nail being driven into it. The middle intermission ends with the camera moving in toward an eye, and even into the veins in the eyeball, as if to penetrate the mind.
Bergman reveals the personal torments of Elizabeth in a simple and bold sequence. There is a dream or dreamlike sequence, in which Elizabeth enters the room of Alma in the middle of a Swedish summer night, with a soft pale light flooding the room. The two women look at one another like images in a mirror. They turn and face us, one brushing back the other’s hair. On one other night, Alma hears a man outside calling for Elizabeth, and finds it is her husband, who addresses Alma as Elizabeth. Despite she points out the truth, he caresses Alma’s face and calls her “Elizabeth.” and Elizabeth takes Alma’s one hand and uses it to caress her husband’s face.
Later, Alma meets with Elizabeth again, as she feels a need to talk about why Elizabeth tore the photo of her son. Alma delivers a long monologue about Elizabeth’s child. Elizabeth wanted the only thing she did not have, to be a mother, and became pregnant. Later, she came to regret the decision, and attempted to abort, but gave birth to a deformed boy she hates. The boy wants her love, but she left him with the relatives so that she can return to the theatre. The story is unbearably painful. It is told with the camera on Elizabeth. Then it is told again, word for word, with the camera on Alma. Literally, both women telling the same story. It is a scene about regret, frustration, and denial. The effect illustrated how different, and yet similar, these two women are and how cruel and destructive the human will can be. It shows their beings are in union.
‘Persona’ is a unique blend of surrealism and realism that forever keeps the audience at bay, but also captures their attention to be engrossed in it. It is a mind blowing, highly cerebral, and artistically complex depiction of human frailty, cruelty, and identity. ‘Persona’ is not about who the person actually is, but the different identities, or facades, that the particular person projects. In the film Bergman shows us everyday actions and the words of ordinary conversation and Sven Nykvist’s cinematography shows them in haunting images. The actress seeks to escape life, the nurse strives to give it meaning. The actress wants only to be silent, the nurse wants only someone to listen to her. At this point, the two characters seem totally and utterly opposite. Alma admires Elizabeth, wants to be like her and she begins to transform. But as she spends more time alone with her, she knowingly tries to stop her transformation, due to the revelation of the unknown side of Elizabeth. What we think of ourselves is generally not through direct experience of the world, but a mental broadcast made of different ideas, memories, media input, other people, jobs, roles, duties, lusts, hopes, fears. Elizabeth chooses to be who she is. Alma is not strong enough to choose not to be Elizabeth. The title of the film is in the singular, not the plural. Elizabeth is the person and Alma is the persona. Alma ends the story in distress, asserting her identity as Alma and denying being Elizabeth, and finally, she leaves the cottage.
Acting is the crowning glory of ‘Persona’. Both Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann are tremendous in their perspective roles and probably at their best. Liv Ullmann has been justly praised for the power of her silence and expression of various emotions through her face and eyes. Anderson is the one who has to carry the entire dialogue, her voice is one of the film’s priceless treasures. Her distressed emotional outbreaks resound like the waves upon the seaside rocks of the desolate retreat. Bergman and his equally talented cinematographer Sven Nykvist created magic, as they fill the length and breadth of the screen with a dreamlike quality that is incessantly interrupted by unanticipated images ranging from glimpses of silent films to a moment at which the celluloid appears to burn to images that mingle Ullman and Anderson’s faces into one.
‘Persona’ is considered by many as one of the greatest films ever made. However, it is to be watched over and again to find a new meaning. It has been the subject of a vast amount of analysis, interpretation, and debate. Apparently, it is not a difficult film. Everything that happens in the course of the film is perfectly clear. Yet, it is not completely satisfying because you can never hope to fully understand it. It is like an enchanting poem, an enigma, the beauty of which can be felt but cannot be explained. ‘Persona’ is definitely a powerful episode in the history of the movies.
In its release, ‘Persona’ was subject to cuts, but received positive reviews. It won the award for the Best Film at the 4th Guldbagge Awards and was Sweden’s entry for consideration for the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Later, Persona has influenced many later directors, such as Robert Altman and David Lynch.