“When I came home I saw myself in the mirror and thought: we’re alike. Don’t misunderstand me, you’re much prettier, but we are alike in a way. I think I could turn myself into you, if I made a real effort.“
Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) isn’t like anything I’ve seen of his other works – perhaps the first time I’ll replace the word ‘meticulous’ with ‘avant-garde’ when describing his films. The film follows two women – Elisabet Vogler (the luminous Liv Ullman), an actress who has deliberately pushed herself into a shell of silence and Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), her young nurse – on an isolated island where each others’ desires, fears, agonies and memories unfold. Although fraught with elements apt for traditional character analyses, including the famous character switch trick that scriptwriters love, Persona manages to avoid the trap that the Bergman has partly set for himself through his previous films. Suitably imbibing elements of the modernist mode of cinema championed by the New Wave, Bergman creates a confounding work that is as rich in its implications and as cinematic in its execution as his previous films.
Bergman frequently crosscuts between images of natural landscapes and those of the characters’ faces. Bergman presents a simple analogy between the faces of landscape and landscapes of the human face. These landscapes keep changing the film as the film progresses, much like the very many faces the characters assume. Bergman seems to underscore that we are all actors in a way, taking up one face or the other throughout our lives. Although by profession it is only Elisabet who is an actor, Alma, too, turns out to be one in the film. Alma and Elisabet are like two mirrors placed in front of each other. Elisabet is an actor who has assumed another role – that of a silent spectator of the world. She watches Alma as if she were a movie character and psychoanalyzes her once she gets to know her past. She may even be feeding on Alma for her next role. Alma, on the other hand, feels closer to Elisabet, yet acts like a film character herself. She too tries to pull down Elisabet’s new-found mask, in an attempt to expose the fakery of her being. But all such textual inferences sum up to nothing, for, as the first few frames of the film suggests, Persona is more self-referential than referential (In a fascinating shot, the camera photographs Elisabet photographing the camera!).
This perplexing shift of Bergman into the modernist trend (along with his notorious comments on Godard) presents a whole new dimension to the film. Alma and Elisabet may very well represent the whole of traditional cinema and the modernist wave respectively. Bergman drops enough clues to this. Early on, Alma tells the doctor that she may not be able to “cope up” with the tough nut Elisabet. She laments aloud when she is alone. On the other hand, Elisabet is sober and detached (Later, the doctor tells her: “Your hideout isn’t watertight. Life seeps in everything. You’re forced to react.”). When Alma turns on the radio to listen to an exaggerated melodrama, she laughs. Elisabet is visibly affected by the violence of the outer world whereas Alma is disturbed by her inner world, much like the two cinemas they stand for. Bergman presents them as the two definitive – and necessary – halves of cinema with a “can’t life with, can’t live without” relationship with each other.
Furthermore, they act as the audiences of the respective cinemas as well. Elisabet watches Alma dispassionately, never reacting even to the most dramatic gestures and words of the latter. She seems completely devoid of external emotions. She alienates both herself from Alma and Alma from her. Alma, however, complements Elisabet with her excessive sentimentality and expressiveness. Contrary to Elisabet, she tries to involve herself with Elisabet and even expects her to react to her misery. Alma’s need for an emotional response is indeed adversarial to Elisabet’s intellectual reply. This complementarity is more than just literary. Bergman often cuts from one character to the other in a pattern that establishes them as mirror images, obeying eye-line matches. The characters wear opposite coloured clothes. Bergman frames his shots in such a way that one of the characters superimposes over the other as if obtaining a hybrid. In a notable scene, Alma threatens Elisabet with a bowl of boiling water, upon which the latter reacts with the only words she ever speaks in the film. Alma, like many who disapprove of the modernists’ self-indulgence, even tries to expose Elisabet’s “pretentiousness” (“You’re acting healthy. You do it so well everyone believes you. Everyone except me, because I know how rotten you are.” she says).
Not everyone thinks that Bergman’s self-reflexive endeavor is a success. Robert Kolker presents a dissenting view of Persona in his book, The Altering Eye:
“In any given sequence, once Bergman begins to concentrate on the interaction of the two women, the devices used to create distance disappear, and we are invited to partake of immediate emotion and psychological mysteries. The characters’ fears and agonies and Bergman’s fascination with them overtake any desire he might have to examine the way they are created. His desire to communicate the perverse pleasures of emotional confrontation outweighs his need to confront the intellect by denying narrative desire and its fulfillment.”
But, this narrative instability, I think, is precisely the intention of Persona. Bergman extends the interplay of his characters on to the audience as he places them in the shoes of Elisabet and Alma, in tandem. He first engages us emotionally and tempts us to do the conventional character analysis in every sequence and suddenly, by exposing the material nature of film or having an extremely perplexing sequence, pushes us into the modernist mode, thus distancing us. Ironically, the screen burns midway in the movie (as if someone has poured boiling water on it) to chop off any emotional connection that it may have built. Neither does Bergman embrace the modernist style completely, nor does he indulge himself in literary analyses or excessive sentimentality, perhaps because he believes both of them to be vital, as he stresses in the film.
But, such a reading (or any particular reading for that matter) of the film may be downright speculative, however concrete the evidences are. But that is because the film itself is both elusive and tantalizing at the same time. Persona presents us an easily digestible narrative but one that is also extremely difficult to penetrate. Bergman puts us in a limbo wherein we are neither allowed a clear view of the characters’ psyche nor are we made capable of realizing that what we see is just a two-dimensional entity. Persona may be a grand confusion of filmmaking styles, but it is also a film that attempts to absorb the best of both worlds, illustrate the drawbacks of traditional and modern cinema, examine the role of the artist (Elisabet apparently stops speaking during a performance of Elektra – a tale of revenge – and continues to do so even when the world burns) and, most importantly, study the relationship between cinema and its audience through the ages.