Persona (1966): Ingmar Bergman’s Masterpiece, Starring Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson

Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s deeply enigmatic, highly complex film, is one of his most enduring masterpieces on world cinema. It is a key art work that blends the conventions of theatricality, psychodrama, and meta-cinema, indicating like no other feature the inherent possibilities of film as a unique and distinctive mediumpersona_poster_bergman.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

In 1965, Bergman became extremely ill after twice contracting pneumonia and antibiotic poisoning. In one of Bergman’s own accounts of the film’s genesis, he claims that the inspiration for Persona came to him while he was in the hospital.

Bergman had suggested that the film was born of his personal desperation at that time, calling it “a creation that saved its creator.” Shooting began in July of 1965, although Bergman was still so sick that he could not stand without becoming dizzy.

Nominally, “Persona” is “about” the relationship between two women: an actress named Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who has suffered a nervous breakdown and lost the power of speech after a performance of “Electra,” and her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), whose own anguish, troubled identity, and insecurity are unleashed by the mysterious woman in her care.

In the ensuing psychodrama, the nurse does all of the talking, pouring her soul out to her patient, who reamins silent and reacts only when she wants, with facial and body gestures.

persona_5_bergmanGradually, we get the notion that Alma is more disturbed than her patient, whose personality she is assuming.

As she speaks for both of them, Alma might be descending into a peculiar and subtle mode of madness, or other mental illness.

The two women, who look very much alike, begin to merge. They may be two facets of one divided personality, or two women with a fluid and shifty personality.

Bergman and his skillful cinematographer emphasize these notions by positioning the two women in front of the looking-glass mirror, as much observing themselves as the mirror (and we viewers) observing them.

persona_4_bergmanTwo major themes of this richly densely text concern the fragile, flexible nature of identity and role-playing as prescribed by society and then defined by individuals. Alma and Elisabeth cross identities after engaging in games of power and battles of control. Who’s stronger and who is more troubled Alma, the woman in charge due to her uniformed position of authority, or the seemingly needy patient under her charge

Bergman once said that Persona asks the question of, “What is true and when does one tell the truth” Ironically, critics have now spent decades arguing over the meaning of Persona, a rare film that cineastes and historians revisit periodically, as if to validate their own subjective interpretation.

Persona has become a notable phenomenon for its many various achievements: the film within a film devices, the eerie, erotic charge of the two women’s agonized relationship, the super-imposition of images that at times suggests the protagonists’ psychic dissolution, and at other times their nearly complete convergence.

One of Bergman’s scholars, Peter Cowie, has suggested that “Everything one says about Persona may and can be contradicted; the opposite will also be true.”

For the critic John Simon, Persona is still “the most difficult film ever made.”

persona_3_bergmanBergman himself has said that he wanted the spectators to provide their own mental and psychic fantasies to fill the (blank) spaces that he created.

Other interpreters have dwelled on the meaning of specific scenes. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael cites the sequence on the island, in which Alma recalls an orgy in which she had participated as a younger woman as “one of the rare truly erotic sequences in movie history.”

P. Adams Sitney calls “the moment near the middle of “Persona,” when the film stock rips (or seems to rip) and burns, “the greatest visual shock in all of Bergman’s often startling oeuvre.”

Persona is one of Bergman’s greatest masterpieces due to the work’s complex and multi-level narrative, and rich, deliberately ambiguous images. Take, for example, the frame of the little boy reaching up to the screen. What does that image represent? Is it the nurse’s aborted baby? Or the actress’ rejected son? Or perhaps an image of Bergman himself as a little boy.

Though a highly personal and auteurist work, Persona owes much of its disturbing effect, intense emotional impact, and lingering visual imagery to the splendid performances of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, superb actresses that are linked intimately to Bergman’s past and future output.  Ullmann, who had a lengthy romantic affair with the director, gave birth to their boy.

persona_2_bergmanEven those critics who don’t get the film–and dismiss it as an intellectual puzzle–would have to acknowledge the beauty and intensity of the faces of the two actresses.  Near the end, the shot in which the two faces merge is one of the most luminous and poetic images in cinema’s history.

 

The film that not only encourages but also requires multiple viewing.  I saw the film in an Andrew Sarris class at Columbia, and my only disagreement with his interpretation is his suggestion that Persona is more incomplete than a puzzle, and that the film (and his creator) were slightly perverse in their denial of spectatorial pleasures.

Narrative Structure

The film’s first segment is particularly rich and complex, a montage of two dozen images or so. Showing how films are actually made, we observe camera equipment and projectors as they light up and projecting brief glimpses of a crucifixion, an erect penis, a tarantula spider, clips from a silent comedy-film, depicting a man trapped in a room and chased by Death and Satan, and the slaughter of a lamb.

Bergman then switches to a young boy, who wakes up in a hospital, surrounded by corpses, and reading Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. He then caresses a blurry image that shifts between Elisabet and Alma’s faces, in what would become the film’s visual and thematic motif (see photo).

A young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) is summoned by the chief doctor, who assigns her to take care of a famous stage actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who has become strangely and mysteriously mute.

The hospital administrator (Margaretha Krook) offers her own seaside cottage as a place for the recovery of Elisabet. Though Elisabet is catatonic, she reacts with panic upon seeing on TV the image of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk burning himself to death, while Alma listens to her soap opera on the radio.

Upon leaving the hospital together, Alma reads aloud a letter Elisabet’s husband had sent to her, which includes a photo of her young son, which may (or may not explian the image of the boy in the film’s beginning).

At the cottage, Elisabet begins to relax, though she remains completely silent and non-responsive. To pass the time and break the silence, Alma speaks constantly, at first about trivial matters, then about her own anxieties. She relates how her fiancé, Karl-Henrik, scolds her for her lack of ambition, not so much with her career, as ”in some greater way.” It’s clear that Alma is involved in a troubled bond with a man she may (or may not) love.

Growing insecure, Alma develops a peculiar, unhealthy (to say the least) emotional bond with Elisabet, based on comparison, attachment, criticism, and outright rejection. It’s a relationship that goes way beyond what’s expected of a nurse-patient

In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences—this was 1966, after all–Alma confesses in a long monologue how she cheated on her fiancé in a ménage à quatre with three underage boys on the beach. In a long flashback, Bergman shows in graphic detail the sexual act, carried out with Alma’s consent, perhaps even her encouragement, though there is not much visible pleasure on her face.

She became pregnant, and had Karl-Henrik’s friend abort the baby, but she is still struggling mentally with her action. Elisabet is heard saying, “You ought to go to bed, or you’ll fall asleep at the table. But Alma dismisses it as a dream and Elisabet denies speaking.

Alma drives into town, taking Elisabet’s letters for the postbox, but parks by the roadside to read what she wrote. To her dismay, she finds out that Elisabet has been studying and analyzing her.  Distraught, she accidentally breaks a glass and leaves the shards on the floor.

When Elisabet’s feet bleed from the cuts, she stares at Alma intensely. The film stock itself breaks apart, and the screen turns white with scratches on the images, accompanied by screeching sounds. The film unwinds as brief snippets of the prelude reappear.

When the film resumes, Elisabet walks through the house, then looks out the window before walking outside to meet Alma, who is angry and bitter. Alma is hurt by Elisabet’s talking behind her back, and she begs her to speak. Elisabet does not, and Alma chases her through the cottage. Elisabet hits her 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 scream “No!”

Alma goes to the bathroom, trying to pull herself together.  Frustrated by her unresponsiveness, she blows up: “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 continues to accost her. Elisabet flees, and Alma begs for forgiveness. That evening, Elisabet opens her book to find a Stroop Report photo of Jews arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto. Elisabet stares intensely at a boy with his arms raised.

Alma watches Elisabet sleep, analyzing her face and the scars she covers with makeup.  Outside, Elisabet’s husband, Mr. Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand) mistakes Alma for his wife. Despite her repeated claim, “I’m not your wife,” he declares his love for her and their son (repeating words he wrote to Elisabet–“We must see each other as two anxious children”).

Alma admits her love for Mr. Vogler and accepts her role as the mother of Elisabet’s child. The two make love while Elisabet sits quietly with a look of panic.

The next morning; Alma sees Elisabet 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, a man tells her “Elisabet, you have it virtually all in your armory as woman and artist. But you lack motherliness.” She laughs, because it sounds silly, but the idea touches a nerve.

As the pregnancy progresses, she grows increasingly worried about her swelling body, responsibility to her child, the pain of birth, and the idea of abandoning her career. Everyone tells Elisabet that she has never been so beautiful, but Elisabet tries to abort the fetus. After the child is born, she is repulsed by it, and prays for her son’s death. The child grows up tormented and desperate for affection.

The camera turns to show Alma’s face, and she repeats the same monologue again. At its conclusion, one half of the face of Alma and the other of Elisabet’s are shown in split screen–hey 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!”

In a dreamlike sequence, Alma, dressed in nurse’s uniform, goes to Elisabet and tells her to say “nothing.” Elisabet then repeats the word.

When Alma returns, Elisabet is completely catatonic, motivating Alma to beat her. Alma then packs and leaves the cottage alone, and Bergman turns away from the women to show the crew shooting the scene.

In the film’s last image, the tale goes circular and we see the boy from the prologue touching the split-screen image of Elisabet and Alma.

Cultural Status

Pauline Kael and her negative review must have been in minority for in 1967 Persona won the awards of the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC, then in its second year) for Best Film, Best Director (Bergman) and Best Actress (Bibi Andersson).  As a voting member of this group (since 1991), I know that it’s rare for a single film to sweep three major awards.

In 2010, the film was ranked as #71 in Empire magazine’s survey of  “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema.”

The film was submitted as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but was not accepted as one of the five nominees.

About Bergman

Bergman was born in 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden. His pastor father ingrained in him the basic concepts that would later resurface in his films: sin, confession, punishment, forgiveness and grace. Bergman became a student of art history and literature at the University of Stockholm, then an errand boy at the Royal Opera House, and finally a filmmaker. His films include Wild Strawberries (1957), The Seventh Seal (1957), Cries and Whispers (1972), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Autumn Sonata (1978) and Fanny and Alexander (1983). He also wrote the text of Best Intentions (1992), which Bille August directed.

Credits:

Running Time: 81 minutes