"I think I could change myself into you if I tried...."
Ingmar Bergman may be the only director in history who could make a film completely personal while dabbling in the unapologetically surreal. The great Swedish director has said in interviews that Persona was the movie that not only saved his personal career, but also saved his life. It was the exact movie that he wanted to write and direct. “For the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success.” he said of his masterpiece.
My last encounter with Bergman was the forgettable but also personally charged surreal/horror, Hour of the Wolf. During his nine week stay in the hospital following a nervous breakdown and pneumonia Bergman wrote a movie that was later split into two different films. One of them, Hour of the Wolf, I was not particularly fond of. The other, Persona, dove deep into the idea of the human condition and prevailed as one of my favorite works in world cinema. The story is complex and scarring, but the presentation is done with such a simple aesthetic that testifies to the skill of cinematographer Sven Nykyist.
The idea was to show an audience that images can be created through words. And Persona is a very talkative movie. In fact, little more than talking ever happens. The scenery is kept simple and the actresses, though both breathtakingly beautiful, wear very little make up along with their mostly black clothing. Liv Ullmann plays Elisabeth Vogler – an actress who suddenly went mute during an on-stage performance of "Electra". Though the doctor assures the audience that Volger is both mentally and physically healthy, the actress refuses to speak or move without considerable encouragement. She is paired with a young, naïve nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) and together they move to the doctor’s summer home to try and take advantage of the isolation.
Bergman is a notorious repeat-caster when it comes to his leading ladies. Ullmann worked diligently throughout her career with Ingmar, including the aforementioned Hour of the Wolf, and Andersson was practically discovered for her work in the great director’s films. This is an important thing to remember because this specific film meant more to Bergman than arguably any of his other works. He trusted these two accomplished actresses to play their parts with an oxymoronic intense subtlety that captures the audience and never lets them break free. Andersson is responsible for the majority of the dialogue (Ullmann says maybe 15 words in the entire thing) but eventually, as the story gets deeper, it is obvious that Alma is being used as a vessel for Vogler’s thoughts and emotions.
An obvious exercise in minimalism, Persona features very few props. A letter, some books, a broken piece of glass and a humble setting are the only things I can actually recall seeing during the action. Instead of following the conventional “golden rule” of moviemaking, Bergman chose to use nothing but words to describe, explain, question and expose the complexities behind the philosophy of the human condition. It is worth pointing out that film scholars and critics all seem to have their own interpretation of the plot, but the most striking thing I have read about the film was written by (surprise) Roger Ebert in his “Great Movies” collection. “I understand that the best approach to Persona is a literal one.” he wrote. Everything in the film is somehow explained. Maybe you just have to figure it out….
I mentioned that Elisabeth Vogler was an actress who now refuses to verbally respond to any person. Why? Though it may not ever be conventionally explained, it seems that she is protecting herself from the things that challenge her. Rather than lying, she remains silent. Instead of accepting the evils in the world, she passes them by without conversation. She does not want to deal with death, fear, despair or any negative emotion. And, Lord knows, it doesn’t seem like she can handle love.
Her nurse, Alma, is initially very chatty. I mean, Vogler is silent by choice. Who better to have listen to your stories than a mute? After spending a night drinking and babbling Alma confesses to an infidelity. She graphically describes an orgy that she had on the beach with three perfect strangers – one female and two (very) young males. She details the intense orgasm and tells Vogler that it was her first feeling of true happiness. In a bit of a TMI moment, the feeling of having a stranger’s sperm rush into her body is presented with the beginning of streaming tears. This orgy, and subsequent abortion, has led her to doubting everything that she thought she was. Her actions do not match her mental self-image. How can she not control who she is with what she wants to be? Most of what we think as being “self-genuine” is actually just what we perceive to be our personal morals (whether or not we act on them), is it not?
Even as a seemingly traumatized mute, Vogler is a stronger person than Alma. Her constant refusal to speak eventually causes Alma to have a nervous breakdown and threaten violence toward Vogler. Is the actress silently judging the past sins in Alma’s life? Yes. Though she is more emotionally stable than Alma, she is not any better of a person. When threatened with boiling water she finally breaks down and speaks – “No! Don’t do it!” Is there anything more to these words? Does she only want to remain unburned, or is she sending a deeper message? No! Don’t attack my choices! Leave me lie in my own silence! I don’t want to be challenged! Perhaps that is the point Alma is missing?
My favorite moment in Persona is the famous double monologue near the end of the film. In a moment of intolerable cruelty, Alma berates Vogler with the story behind why the actress cannot handle having a son. She accuses her of running away from her responsibilities and hating her deformed child. This is the first mention of her son being deformed, and because this speech is done as a close-up on the accused, it is an unforgettably tense experience. Then Bergman flips the camera and has Alma give the exact same, word-for-word speech but this time with the camera focused on the speaker. I think he chose to do it this way because he wanted to stress that the power behind Vogler’s soul and persistence was beginning to consume Alma. While giving the speech a second time, a dark shadow can be seen over one side of her face. This is symbolism 101; she is conflicted. The shadow is then replaced with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it juxtaposition of the two faces, Alma’s and Vogler’s, again followed by a complete molding of the two faces to create one.
What is this meant to symbolize? I have read a few things that seem reasonable, but I want to take a shot at it myself. I think Alma was initially enthralled by the silent Vogler. She even admitted that she may not have the mental capacity to handle the actress. After days of self-reflection she discovers that she cannot forgive herself for her past sins. Alma begins to see the world in the same standoffish way that Vogler sees things. In a moment of panic she screams "I'm not like you. I don't feel like you. I'm not Elisabeth Vogler!” She is becoming the patient. She doubts her persona – bingo, title!
Like in Fellini’s 8 ½, Bergman gives the audience a moment of obvious self-reflection. There is a brief show of the director and cinematographer lowering the camera and boom microphone and literally filming the action. I think Bergman wanted to remind the audience that this is his personal achievement. There is something undoubtedly autobiographical about Persona. Ingmar Bergman may be the only person who can tell you exactly what it is. Too bad – he’s dead. Leaving this work behind is a puzzle to cinephiles that insists on a deeper meaning but may only be a surface level experiment. Persona is nothing if it is not enthralling. I loved it.