Revisiting Bergman's Persona
Sweden / 1966
Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, filmed on Fårö (Sheep Island) where the Swedish octogenarian’s summer home is located, is enigmatic and pulsating. Even after multiple viewings it is persistently compelling, primarily because of its contemplative thematic structure, partially devoid of language that allows the spectator to inscribe meaning. Bergman, in a recent interview and screening of Persona on Swedish Television, said he was weary of all the interpretations. He also revealed that in the beginning shooting the film was extremely problematic.
Persona, the third joint venture between Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, is renowned for its poignant use of close-ups. In the making of Fanny and Alexander, Bergman admits they had ongoing differences on how to move the camera. A tightly constructed mise-en-scene allowed minute control of rhythm and acting in his later films, in which Nykvist kept the camera still. This style was well suited to the director whose strongest suit is the theater.
Persona begins with a montage — what Bergman calls “dream imagery”: The notable rattle of a film projector and illuminated filmstrip moving through its machinery alerts the spectator to the art instrument of filmmaking. (Bergman as a child lived close to a movie theater called ‘Slottsbiograf’ [‘Castle Cinema’], located below the castle where Queen Christina planned her abdication in the 16th century.) There his love of film was cultivated and some of his favorite images are to be found in this montage. A caricature of an erect penis for one eighth of a second, an image typically found in books on ancient Greece, was cut by Swedish censors. (Bergman’s excitement for its reintroduction on the recent Swedish Television broadcast made the old master look pathetically immature.) Other sequences include actors brandishing devils and skeleton suits frightening a sleeping man in pajamas from a silent film. An old cartoon is projected upside down, momentarily caught in the sprocket holes. A spider stretching its deadly appendages, gutted sheep, and a nail hammered into a hand are other, more disturbing images.
A shot of a Swedish forest introduces clips of aging faces and feet, appended with the sound of water from a tap. The telephone rings and a boy lying on a bed covered by a white sheet sits up, puts on his glasses and reads Lermontov's Vår Tids Hjälte (Hero of our Time). He stretches his hand towards the projection of a woman’s face (Bibi Andersson). As the credits roll, a sequence of a self-immolating monk is shown, followed by the faces of Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann and Jörgen Lindström, the young boy. It is no accident that the images from the montage sequence precede the film and are later revealed visually or metaphorically; Persona is a meditation on martyrdom, heroics, fear, and sacrifice in personal relationship.
Persona is the story of a meeting between an artist (Liv Ullmann) and a nurse (Bibi Andersson). Elisabet Vogler is an actress who, during a theatrical performance of Electra, is suddenly unable to deliver her lines. She excuses herself for being “full of laughter.” This episode sends her into “an hysterical reaction” where she refuses to speak. Elisabet is admitted into the psychiatric ward of a Swedish hospital following three months of self-imposed silence (laced with laughter along with some humming). The psychiatrist brilliantly played by the late Margaretha Crook suggests that nurse Alma travel with Elisabet to her country house and dialogue with the actress for her rehabilitation. She believes that the actress is trying to seal herself hermetically from the world by refusing to speak and requires personal assistance in a natural setting. The stark austerity of the hospital room (a studio of the summer house at Fårö) with only a hospital bed on wheels, a night table, and TV might make anyone come unglued. The invitation is certainly a privileged one that not all Swedes can expect for convalescence. Bergman recalled that Persona was written following convalescence from an inflammatory illness that among other symptoms left him partially paralyzed in one arm.
Before the journey, Elisabet witnesses on her television news footage of the self-immolation of a monk protesting the Vietnam War. Bergman admits this was his first overt usage of politics in his films. Curiously, the footage in English with an American commentator and no subtitles goes against the practice of Swedish Television that must provide Swedish translation to all previously recorded broadcasts.
Bergman, in voice-over, announces how Elisabet and Alma go off to the doctor’s summerhouse. The convalescence on Fårö takes several twists demonstrating how the symbiosis in caretaking is precarious where the roles can suddenly reverse. Alma uses the silence to relate her experiences, flattered by a serious actress taking her to heart. She even envisions Elisabet coming to her bed at night in a homoerotic dream that is timelessly potent. 1
Eventually, Elisabet sends off Alma with an unsealed envelope to town. Considering it her medical duty to read it, Alma is distressed to find that she is under the microscope of Elisabet and is outraged. Her tale of an orgy with teenagers that led to her pregnancy is first received with empathy and later is patronized by the worldly actress who confides in the letter to her husband that Alma may be infatuated with her. The roles reverse and Alma zeroes in on Elisabet with the acumen of a medical professional. Bergman is didactic with the revelation that neither Alma’s aborted child nor Elisabet’s abandoned boy was wanted. The manner in which Alma confronts her and describes how she probably perceives her boy could be in part a description of her own aborted fetus.
Alma is also visited at night by Elisabet’s husband, less memorable than the dream of the elegant actress flowing into her room with a long white nightgown. She denies being Elisabet to Mr. Vogler but later assumes her identity, perfunctorily exclaiming she is satisfied with their life together. However, by day, Elisabet is no more eager to return to her life with her husband and boy than the day she lost her ability to speak. This seems to send her further into “hysteria.” The discovered letter sets off a chain of events where Alma confronts Elisabet and brings up her neglected little boy that needs attention. During one scene Elisabet examines a photo of a boy being held at gunpoint by Nazi soldiers and looks away with horror.
For Elisabet and Alma alike, the introspection is overwhelmingly painful where shame and tumult are shared and mirrored. In one scene, Alma questions Elisabet, her face shown in close-up, and later the same dialogue is used with Alma in close-up. There are no easy answers to why the two are precariously balanced in complicity, their faces forming an incongruous whole after this scene. There is perhaps something for each of us to project into this unbalance, but Bergman, as in so many other films, believes that failed motherhood contributes to hysteria and that woman is ultimately and inextricably linked to her biology. In the end, we see Alma in her nurse’s uniform coming into the room to help Elisabet. Are they back again in the hospital or did they ever leave?
1 – The scene where Elisabet stokes the hair of Alma is reminiscent of a classic scene from Maya Deren’s At Land where a woman strokes the hair of two women, a sequence which was determined "lesbianish" and as such described homophobically by The New Republic film critic Manny Farber.