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Persona
Directed by Ingmar Bergman with Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson, black and white, 83 minutes, 1966

"I'm not you!"


Persona

Bibi Andersson, left, and Liv Ullman, right

"...these absences of sense or lacunae of speech which become, in Persona, more potent than words while the person who places faith in words is brought down from relative composure and confidence to hysterical anguish"
- Susan Sontag, 1967 essay on Persona in Sight & Sound


By Carter B. Horsley

Persona is an intensely sober and rather bleak black-and-white, mid-career film by Ingmar Bergman, one of the world's most intellectural movie directors.

It revolves around the mysteries and challenges of love, doubt, agony, reality, knowledge, violence, insistent silence and memory.

It seemingly provides no answers, easy or otherwise.  It is difficult.

[It brings to mind, for this author, Principia Mathematica, the three-volume philosophical work by Albert North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell published in 1910, 1912 and 1913, that I never read but heard an impressive professor intone, which is to say, a work of immensity and unquestioned complexity. (One of two Publisher's Awards I won at The New York Times was for putting together a list of Bertrand Russell's 20 favorite words for a "side" story with his obituary for the second edition.)]

Persona is a formidable, fearless and fearsome work that Bergman wrote in 14 days in 1965.

Its small cast is headed by Bibi Andersson, who had worked in numerous Bergman films including The Seventh Seal, and Liv Ullman, whose work here was the first of nine in which she starred. Both actresses had affairs, separately, with Bergman.

The following commentary is provided at
https://www.ingmarbergman.se/en/production/persona

"In January 1963 Ingmar Bergman was appointed head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre. It was to prove a very demanding job indeed: with the entire company in need of reorganisation, he found himself in an 'insoluble and incomprehensibly chaotic situation.' Against his better judgement, he did not cut back on his film work and ended up paying the price: double pneumonia and acute penicillin poisoning. In the spring of 1965 he was admitted to Sophiahemmet, the royal hospital, where he began to write the screenplay for Persona, 'mainly to keep my hand in the creative process.'

"In poor shape, both physical and psychological, he started to question the role of art in general, and his own work in particular.

"Bergman writing in Images: My Life in Film:

"'It was not a case of developing an aversion to my professional life. Although I am a neurotic person, my relation to my profession has always been astonishingly non-neurotic. I have always had the ability to attach my demons to my chariot. And they have been forced to make themselves useful. At the same time they have still managed to keep on tormenting and embarrassing my private life. The owner of the flea circus, as you might be aware, has a habit of letting his artists suck his blood.'

"During the same period Bergman was awarded the Erasmus Prize (which he shared with Charlie Chaplin). Prevented by illness from attending the ceremony, he wrote an essay that was read out in Amsterdam by the head of SF, Kenne Fant. Entitled The Snakeskin, the essay summarised Bergman's broodings during his stay in hospital and his feelings about art. In many ways, Persona became an illustration of this essay (or vice-versa, perhaps), to the extent that The Snakeskin was published as the preface to the American version of the screenplay.

"The first notes for what was to become Persona were written on 12 April 1965:

"Dejection and sorrow and tears – which change to powerful outburts of joy. Sensitivity in the hands. The broad forehead, severity, eyes survey the [unreadable] childishness.

"What is it that I want from this, yes, to start from the beginning. Not to contrive not to incite not to cause a fuss but to start from the beginning with my new – if I have one.

"So she has been an actress – –is that acceptable, perhaps And then she fell silent. Nothing unusual about that.

"These early notes constitute a unique summary of the film. Persona has often been regarded as a watershed in Bergman's career, a new start, just as he had prescribed for himself. The subsequent writing appears to have been swift. A few pages further on in his workbook we find words that are highly relevant to the film: 'Talk to each other', 'Eroticism', 'Testimony', 'Facial studies', etc. One of the key scenes is already in place: 'What's the point of being an artist. Nurse Alma makes a passionate defence of this, but is forced to eat her words.'

"At this point, there are already also some self-mocking notes in the margin of the screenplay: 'One up, one down, that's basically it.'

"The two women in Persona have sometimes been regarded as one and the same person (rather like the sisters in The Silence and Cries and Whispers). This analysis does have some validity, as Bergman himself implies: 'Could one make this into an inner happening? I mean, suggest, that it is a composition for different voices in the same soul's concerto grosso?'

"Bergman has often made use of musical metaphors when describing Persona. At a later date he would referred to it as a sonata for the instruments Andersson and Ullmann. Asked whether the sonata should be in a major or minor key, he replied that it should be neither, 'the way it is in modern music.'

"Keeping his hand in the creative process' started to pay off, and it became clear that a film might be forthcoming, after all. Having thought about casting, Bergman decided that the principal roles should go to Bibi Andersson and the highly-praised young Norwegian actress, Liv Ullmann. He had never actually seen her act, but he had been at the home of Gunnel Lindblom looking at slides taken during the shooting of Pan, in which Andersson and Ullmann both took part. Struck by how similar they were, this initial impulse eventually led Bergman to Persona.

"Later he would be asked how he could be so sure that Liv Ullmann would cope with such a demanding role when he had only met her once, and then on the street: 'I wasn't. I just thought so.' He received a visit in hospital from Kenne Fant, and together they left Sophiahemmet on a visit to the Thielska Gallery on Stockholm's Djurgården. 'Now listen, Kenne, do you think you could put some people aside for me until the end of July. And we could sign up Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, and you could put up the money and maybe debet what it costs to my next film, if there is one?'

"Reasonably enough, Kenne Fant wondered what the film would be about, to which Bergman replied: 'Well, it's about one person who talks and one who doesn't, and they compare hands and get all mingled up in one another.' 'Oh, really,' said Kenne. I said: 'It'll be a very small film, so it needn't cost much.' Kenne put up the money wholeheartedly. And that's something I'll never forget.'

"Fant's willingness to finance such a risky project should, however, be seen in the context of The Silence, which two years earlier had been SF's greatest ever box office success. This may go some way towards explaining his ready generosity. 

"The finished screenplay is not dissimilar to the random jottings in Bergman's workbook, yet although it may appear somewhat improvised, it was 'painstakingly planned.' Nonetheless, it is prefaced by the reservation that much of the film will be determined once shooting is underway.

"Of the much fêted opening scenes in the film, Bergman has said that he wanted to make a poem in images. Writing in Images:

"'I reflected on what was important, and began with the projector and my desire to set it in motion. But when the projector was running, nothing came out of it but old ideas, the spider, God's lamb, all that dull stuff. My life then consisted of dead people, brick walls, and a few dismal trees out in the park.'

"The first of these images came to him early on in the creative process. In his workbook he wrote that he imagined a white, washed-out strip of film: 'It runs through the projector and gradually there are words on the sound tape (which perhaps runs beside the film strip itself). Gradually the precise word I'm looking for comes into focus. Then a face you can barely make out dissolves in all that whiteness. That's Alma's face. Mrs. Vogler's face.'

"The words in this early draft are basically the same as those of the finished screenplay: 'I imagine the transparent ribbon of film rushing through the projector. Washed clean of signs and pictures, it produces a flickering reflected light from the screen.'

"Bergman has often, especially during the 1960s and 70s, been accused of being unworldly. In Sweden in particular, his unwillingness to get involved in the debate surrounding the Vietnam War was widely regarded as a kind of implicit support for the USA. Persona, however, gives the first glimpse of a political reality outside Bergman's own universe. The film contains two images which invoke a strong reaction in Elisabet Vogler: a Second World War photograph of a young boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, and television pictures of one of the Vietnamese monks who set fire to themselves in protest against the war. In his workbook Bergman wrote:

"'My art cannot melt, transform, or forget: the boy in the photo with his hands in the air or the man who set himself on fire to bear witness to his faith. I am unable to grasp the large catastrophes. They leave my heart untouched. At most I can read about such atrocitites with a kind of greed – a pornography of horror. But I shall never rid myself of those images. Images that turn my art into a bag of tricks, into something indifferent, meaningless.'

"Many have seen August Strindberg's one-act play The Stronger, in which one character speaks and another remains silent, as an important source of inspiration. Yet once again, as with Wild Strawberries almost a decade previously, the influence of same writer's A Dream Play can clearly be discerned. (Bergman produced the play for television in 1963 and later for the stage in 1970, 1977 and 1986). The free structure of Strindberg's play, in which 'time and space do not exist', has often been cited as a precursor of the dream-like form of Persona.

"A few days before shooting began a press conference was held with all the pomp and circumstance which was 'only normally reserved for royalty or heads of state', according to one reporter.

"Having assured himself that everyone could hear properly, Bergman went up to a blackboard and wrote: PERSONA. 'Does anyone know what this is?' No answer was forthcoming from the press. 'You see',  Bergman went on, 'the film might not have a name at all. First of all I suggested to Kenne Fant (at SF) the title Cinematography?' but that made Kenne sad. 'Terrible name', thought Kenne. So I came up with this title, 'Persona'. 'Any name's better than cinematography', said Kenne, and approved my proposal. Bergman then went on to explain that 'Persona' is the Latin name for the face masks worn by actors in antiquity. 'It's an amusing title, a good name, an apt name. The film will be about people's masks and attitudes.' Bergman also mentioned that the film would be shot in standard format in black and white, 'which I think is the most beautiful.'

"Most of the shooting took place on Fårö but began with some work in the studio, Filmstaden, starting on 19 July 1965. 'The first days were nightmarish. All I felt was: 'I can't manage this!' and one day after another went by, and all the time we got only bad results, bloody awful results. And Bibi was angry and Liv was nervous, and I was paralyzed with fatigue.' When they arrived at Fårö, the atmosphere was much improved and work proceeded more smoothly.

"Sven Nykvist was faced with new challenges. The close-up in the opening sequences of an old film projector with carbon rods that meet together was not an easy shot to achieve. While Nykvist was shooting Mai Zetterling's Loving Couples he worked on this sequence in his spare time: 'the studio manager was annoyed because I was using up so much raw film outside the regular budget even before shooting had begun.'

"Working together on The Virgin Spring Nykvist and Bergman had arrived at the conclusion that medium shots were 'boring and unnecessary', but few films are so pictorially radical as Persona: a few wide-angle long shots, hardly any medium shots and most of all long, intensive close-ups. It was probably Persona that firmly established the 'Nykvist style', summed up rather facetiously as 'two faces and a teacup'.

"Bibi Andersson had acted in most of Bergman's films since Smiles of a Summer Night, with the notable exception of the 'trilogy' (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence). The roles she had played were important yet relatively minor. Persona was to be her tour de force. On one occasion Bergman said of Andersson that she needed to believe in something before she could act it. This might sound like a limitation, yet in Bergman's eyes it was a sign of integrity. One example of this in Persona is Alma's famous monologue about a sexual adventure she once had on a beach with another woman and two young boys. During the shooting Bergman wanted to scrap the scene, perhaps because he thought it was too explicit. But Andersson insisted that they keep it in. Remenicing in an interview in American Film:

"'I said, 'Let me shoot it, but let me just alter certain words no woman would ay. It's written by a man, and I can feel it's a man. Let me change certain things.' He said, 'You do what you want with it. We'll shoot it, and then we'll go and see it together.'

"Shooting the scene was embarrassing, yet Bergman was pleased with the result. There was just one thing, though: 'something's wrong with the sound', he claimed. He asked Andersson to speak the monologue again alone in the mixing studio. The sound would be synchronised afterwards. The sound problem was probably just a ruse: originally she had spoken in a high, girlish voice and been satisfied with that, but when she subsequently dubbed the scene alone she used a much lower tone, something she only dared to do when nobody was watching or listening. Later she expressed the view that the intimate quality of the scene was largely down to this re-take.

"For Liv Ullmann, a few years younger than Andersson, this was her first Bergman film. Many more were to follow: she played leading roles in nine films up to and including Autumn Sonata. The largely silent role of Elisabet also marked the start of a highly successful international career.

The two faces merged

The two faces merged

"The most famous image from the film is that of an extraordinary face, half Ullmann's and half Andersson's. According to Bergman, 'In most people one side of the face is more attractive than the other, their so-called good side.' The two images that Nykvist spliced together 'showed their respective bad sides.' When the film came back from the laboratory he asked both the actresses to come to the editing room. 'Bibi exclaims in surprise: 'But Liv, you look so strange!' And Liv says: 'No, it's you Bibi, you look very strange!'

"The film's unit manager, and the photographer of a number of remarkable stills from the shoot, was Bo Arne Vibenius. Some years later he directed a film that was banned in Sweden: Thriller: a Cruel Picture, recently revealed as an important source of inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill.

"The original score was by the composer Lars Johan Werle, best known for his operas including Dreaming About Thérèse (Drömmen om Thérèse, 1964) and The Journey (Resan, 1970). His previous film scores included the music for Alf Sjöberg's The Island. He had also composed the music for Sjöberg's Royal Dramatic Theatre production of Euripides' Hippolytus, where he first met Bergman, then head of the theatre. Bergman's brief was precise: he knew exactly what he wanted. These limitations on his artistic freedom did not trouble Werle, who was extremely positive about working with Bergman and did not feel unduly restricted by his demands.

"Shooting came to an end on 15 September 1965. The next day, Bergman wrote in his diary that now the filming was over, Bibi was off to America, Sven to Zurich and Liv to Oslo, he was left alone, depressed and self-pitying. 'On Monday the endless saga at the Royal Dramatic Theatre begins again. How will I put up with it?' A few months later he resigned his post as head of the theatre.

"Persona was premièred at the Spegeln cinema on 18 October 1966. The editor Ulla Ryghe has described how the famous scene where the film burns up, often interpreted as if the actual celluloid cannot stand the friction between the two main characters, caused a number of problems at the initial screenings. After a number of projectionists had stopped the film, the film cans themselves had to be marked with red labels assuring them that the actual film does not catch fire, even though it appears that way.

"The Stockholm press was largely respectful and appreciative, yet almost unanimously perplexed by a film, the content of which, symbolic or otherwise, was shrouded in mystery. Dagens Nyheter's Mauritz Edström wrote a long review (most of the reviews were unusually long) under the heading 'Bergman's victory over silence' (most probably a reference to the earlier film The Silence, at the same time as conveying a view that many critics have subsequently repeated):

"'Ingmar Bergman's new film 'Persona', as I see it, is a reminder of our proximity to the ultimate borderline, where language breaks down, images are rent asunder and reality dissolves. It touches me as a personal confession, a howl of despair or a cry against darkness and silence [...] A defiant cry, an attempt to ward off the threat that lies in this despair.'

"Edström's words bear an uncanny similarity to those of the director himself. He could hardly have known that on 24 July – just before he started to write Persona – Bergman had written in his workbook almost exactly the same thing: 'Even if prayer is just a cry into an empty space, we should not desist from that cry.'

"The editor of Dagens Nyheter, Olof Lagercrantz, who both panned Bergman (his review of Smiles of a Summer Night is legendary), and praised him in equal measure, wrote a cutting yet amusing reflection in response to the film under the heading "Person(a)cult": 'The halo has been pressed down to the level of the sweat band of the world famous director's beret. The head of SF, Kenne Fant, can once again proclaim with a tremor of idealism in his voice that it it is a great honour to lose money on a film like 'Persona'. He said the same thing about the box-office hit 'The Silence'.'

"France was the country where Bergman reaped his first major successes at the end of the 1950s. Yet during the 60s his star had been on the wane. Persona helped to restore his reputation: Les cahiers du cinéma called Persona his most beautiful film, and one daily newspaper declared that sixty years after its birth, the cinema had now found its most promising form. Reactions in America were mixed: Susan Sontag's famous essay in the magazine (albeit British) Sight & Sound is an example of praise, whereas the short notice in Films in Review is the opposite: 'a film about lesbians and lesbianism'.

"Bergman insisted that all marketing material for the film, including stills, should feature the perforated edge of the film strip in order to emphasise the markedly filmic quality of the work.

"If Wild Strawberries is Bergman's most plagiarised film, and The Seventh Seal his most parodied, then Persona is certainly the most written about. No other individual Bergman film has generated such extensive critical and academic attention. One of the latest works on the subject is an anthology in the Cambridge Film Handbooks series edited by Lloyd Michaels, entitled simply Ingmar Bergman's Persona. Widely regarded as his most important film, this view of Persona is shared by Bergman himself. Writing in Images:

"At some time or other, I said that Persona saved my life – that is no exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make the film, I would probably have been all washed up. One significant point: for the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success. The gospel according to which one must be comprehensible at all costs, one that had been dinned to me ever since I worked as the lowliest manuscripts slave at Svensk Filmindustri, could finally go to hell (which is where it belongs!)

"Today, I feel that in Persona – and later in Cries and Whispers – I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instance, when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover."

In his January 7, 2001 review, Roger Ebert wrote that  "Persona (1966) is a film we return to over the years, for the beauty of its images and because we hope to understand its mysteries. It is apparently not a difficult film: Everything that happens is perfectly clear, and even the dream sequences are clear--as dreams. But it suggests buried truths, and we despair of finding them. Persona was one of the first movies I reviewed, in 1967. I did not think I understood it. A third of a century later I know most of what I am ever likely to know about films, and I think I understand that the best approach to Persona is a literal one....

"Elizabeth (Liv Ullmann) stops speaking in the middle of Electra, and will not speak again. A psychiatrist thinks it might help if Elizabeth and Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) spend the summer at her isolated house. Held in the same box of space and time, the two women somehow merge. Elizabeth says nothing, and Alma talks and talks, confessing her plans and her fears, and eventually, in a great and daring monologue, confessing an erotic episode during which she was, for a time, completely happy. 

"The two actresses look somewhat similar. Bergman emphasizes this similarity in a disturbing shot where he combines half of one face with half of the other. Later he superimposes the two faces, like a morph. Andersson told me she and Ullmann had no idea Bergman was going to do this, and when she first saw the film she found it disturbing and frightening. Bergman told me, 'The human face is the great subject of the cinema. Everything is there.'

"Their visual merging suggests a deeper psychic attraction. Elizabeth, the patient, mute and apparently ill, is stronger than Alma, and eventually the nurse feels her soul being overcome by the other woman's strength. There is a moment when her resentment flares and she lashes back. In the sunny courtyard of the cottage, she picks up the pieces of a broken glass, and then deliberately leaves a shard where Elizabeth might walk. Elizabeth cuts her foot, but this is essentially a victory for the actress, who has forced the nurse to abandon the discipline of her profession and reveal weakness.

"Elizabeth looks at Alma, seeming to know 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 mirrors the way the film has opened. In both cases, a projector lamp flares to life, and there is a montage from the earliest days of the cinema: jerky silent skeletons, images of coffins, a hand with a nail being driven into it. The middle 'break' ends with the camera moving in toward an eye, and even into the veins in the eyeball, as if to penetrate the mind.

"The opening sequence suggests that Persona is starting at the beginning, with the birth of cinema. The break in the middle shows it turning back and beginning again. At the end, the film runs out of the camera and the light dies from the lamp and the film is over. Bergman is showing us that he has returned to first principles. 'In the beginning, there was light.' Toward the end there is a shot of the camera crew itself, with the camera mounted on a crane and Nykvist and Bergman tending it; this shot implicates the makers in the work. They are there, it is theirs, they cannot separate themselves from it.


Vietnam immolation

Vietnam immolation

"Early in the film, Elizabeth watches images from Vietnam on the TV news, including a Buddhist monk burning himself. Later, there are photographs from the Warsaw ghetto, of Jews being rounded up; the film lingers on the face of a small boy. Have the horrors of the world caused Elizabeth to stop speaking? The film does not say, but obviously they are implicated. For Alma, horrors are closer to home: She doubts the validity of her relationship with the man she plans to marry, she doubts her abilities as a nurse, she doubts she has the strength to stand up to Elizabeth.

"But Elizabeth has private torments, too, and Bergman expresses them in a sequence so simple and yet so bold we are astonished by its audacity. First there is a dream sequence (if it is a dream; opinions differ), in which Elizabeth enters the room of Alma in the middle of the night. In a Swedish summer, night is a finger drawn by twilight between one day and the next, and soft pale light floods 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. A man's voice calls, 'Elizabeth.' It is her husband, Mr. Vogler (Gunnar Bjornstrand). They are outside. He caresses Alma's face and calls her 'Elizabeth.' No, she says, she is not Elizabeth. Elizabeth takes Alma's hand and uses it to caress her husband's face.

"Inside, later, Alma delivers a long monologue about Elizabeth's child. The child is born deformed, and Elizabeth left it with relatives so she can return to the theater. 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. I believe this is not simply Bergman trying it both ways, as has been suggested, but literally both women telling the same story--through Alma when it is Elizabeth's turn, since Elizabeth does not speak. It shows their beings are in union.

"The other monologue in the movie is more famous; Alma's story of sex on the beach involving herself, her girlfriend and two boys. The imagery of this monologue is so powerful that I have heard people describe the scene as if they actually saw it in the film. In all three monologues, Bergman is showing how ideas create images and reality.

"The most real objective experiences in the film are the cut foot and the threat of boiling water, which by 'breaking' the film show how everything else is made of thought (or art). The most real experience Alma has ever had is her orgasm on the beach. Elizabeth's pain and Alma's ecstasy were able to break through the reveries of their lives. Most of what we think of as 'ourselves' is not direct experience of the world, but a mental broadcast made of 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 is the key. 'Persona.' Singular.

Posted 5th April 2015, David Blakeslee wrote in his April 5, 2015 commentary at http://criterionreflections.blogspot.com:

"Ever since his international breakthrough The Seventh Seal, but especially in the wake of his 'Absence of God' trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence), viewers had come to expect a stimulating blend of philosophical musings, candid sexuality, artfully luminous imagery and a stagecraft at once complex, forthright and starkly minimalist in the way he positioned his actors before the lens of the camera. His ability to recruit performers, particularly women, who were strikingly photogenic and possessed of sharp intellects only added to the appeal of his films to the global intelligentsia, who sought them out as soon as they became available....

Ingmar Bergman was wrestling through another bout of prolonged depression, marital failure and crippling doubts about his artistic purpose going forward. Despite his impressive track record and international success, he had already stumbled badly in his most recent film, a moribund comedic effort from 1964 titled All These Women. It was his first movie shot in color, and was deliberately designed to showcase a lighter side of Bergman's outlook on life, perhaps something along the lines of Smiles of a Summer Night, which indeed proved to be a very successful template for witty sex comedies that would be filmed by later directors following in his steps....

Since 1963, a lot had happened in the world cinema scene, and Bergman was at risk of being regarded as old, passe, retrograde. More crucially, he understood his need to work out his psychic dilemmas in the only way that had proven to be reliably effective in his adult life: through his art. Stirred into a creative whirlwind, he pulled together the basic elements of the project in a mere fourteen days, penning a script that was initially titled "Kinematografi," until his producers at Svensk FilmIndustri objected and insisted that he come up with something more commercially plausible. 

"...the new film that Bergman presented to the world in 1966 was a tour de force loaded with masterful technique, profound feeling, weighty subject matter and marvelously playful surprises, all evidence of a top notch creative team rallying with brilliant craftsmanship behind a compelling headliner. Ever since its premiere, Persona has maintained a formidable reputation as one of cinema's most beguiling yet satisfying enigmas - eminently watchable and intriguing, even if it doesn't yield an easy explanation or convenient resolution as to what it is exactly that Bergman is trying to say. It's a film that stirs deep emotional responses from those viewers who can track with the director and his twin female muses as they take us on a journey that mesmerizes, confuses, allures and challenges at various turns....But what is Persona actually about? What do I make of this perplexing narrative that initially seems to be about a pair of women, one of whom is suffering from a strange psychological breakdown that's rendered her mute, and another who's been assigned to be her attending caretaker but lapses into some problematic boundary violations as their relationship drifts from professional duty to intimate codependency - and from there, shifts to a different plane altogether where we gradually realize that things are not what they seem, even if we can't quite specify what they actually are?...

"As the film's original working title indicates, this is an exercise in cinematography, a very deliberate capturing of the auteur's message in a particular format - celluloid running through a projector. That fundamental process is put on the screen at the very start and we're reminded of that several times throughout the film, and at the end as well. Obscure snippets from cinema's past (and Bergman's youth), along with harrowing images freighted with portentous spiritual significance (a nail-pierced hand, a sheep being slaughtered, a monk's self-immolation) and a playfully subversive, nearly subliminal shot of an erect penis, flash past us without explanation. Sex, death, religion, fear, laughter, absurdity - all the fundamental elements of life thrown together in a cinematic primordial ooze from which Persona emerges. We then see a new series of images, corpses laid out on gurneys in stark monochromatic close up, remnants of lives recently expired. Among them is a boy, somewhere in his early teens, who suddenly moves even though he initially appears just as inert and dead as the others. He's presumably naked under his sheet, but as it turns out, he's just resting and turns his back to the camera as soon as he realizes that he's being observed. He finds a favorite book and starts to read. One of the corpses abruptly peeps its eyes at us and we're off.

"The boy, portrayed by an actor whom Bergman employed three years earlier when he made The Silence, recapitulates one of that film's important moments, as he holds his hand up to a railway car window. observing a line of tanks that have moved in to occupy and pacify a troubled city. Now his hand reaches up to a glass screen, on to which are projected the faces, in tight close up, of two women who look similar but not identical to each other. Who is this boy, and who are these women?

"My interpretation is that the boy is an idealized version, cast by the mature Ingmar Bergman, of his adolescent self. The boy, just emerging from puberty, is staring into his future and projecting his identity into these two women - the outreached hand being a sign of connection and bonding with them both. The women's faces are beautiful, gracious, wise and compassionate in a way that the gangly, awkward boy intuitively understands he will never be. Even though nobody would ever make the case that Ingmar Bergman was ugly or physically repulsive, he nevertheless was never physically capable of the subtlety of expression that faces like those of Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson and his other (typically gorgeous) female leads could convey to an audience. And since Bergman was a deeply perceptive, sensitive soul, he utilized the poetic license and artistic freedom granted to him to use women as expressions of the deeply conflicted dualism that he had been wrestling with throughout his adult life, and perhaps even longer.

"The women can be seen as representatives of those dueling aspects of his nature that continually plunge him into relational crisis and fits of existential despair at his inability to sustain both domestic tranquility and creative vitality. The actor, Elizabet Vogler, is a successful performer whose achievements have earned her a level of recognition and flattering acclaim that in some ways she feels is undeserved. The general public that admires her performances has no idea what a manipulative scoundrel she is in her personal life. The nurse, Sister Alma, is a more mundane, less ambitious person, seemingly content to do her work, spend time with her boyfriend and envision a future that is utterly unremarkable in its ordinariness. When given the task of attending to Elizabet's odd collapse into muteness, Alma is initially hesitant, wondering if she possesses the mental rigor necessary to withstand such a challenge, since her patient (soon to become her adversary) has made a deliberate choice indicative of a deep determination to withdraw from mainstream society.

"Despite that initial hesitancy, Alma accepts the assignment and quickly finds herself both intrigued and overwhelmed by the new responsibility. Even though she never utters a word in reply, only directs her gaze toward her new found companion, Elizabet turns out to be a compelling magnet that draws and sustains Alma's confidence. That trust encourages Alma to begin sharing intimate details of her personal life, admissions that she's never shared with anyone else, presumably because she fears the backlash of their judgment and criticism. Elizabet is supremely detached, unaffected by even the most tawdry disclosures of sexual indulgence or romantic ambivalence with her current boyfriend and assumed fiance. Alma has found a level of expressive comfort with this empathic listener that life seldom affords. Her guard is totally down, to the point that she seems to forget that her primary role in Elizabet's life is to help rehabilitate her back into some semblance of social normalcy.

"Soon enough, Alma learns that Elizabet is not as trustworthy as she'd been led to believe, when she discovers that the actor has written a letter to her husband revealing a condescending attitude toward her nurse. Elizabet's careful listening is not quite as supportive in nature as Alma had assumed; it's more functional. She's gathering material from the lives of everyday, unpretentious people that can be repurposed later for dramatic effect, adding Alma's ordinary stories of moral controversy and emotional turbulence to her inventory of gestures and expressions that are the actor's stock in trade. Suddenly, Alma feels exploited, ashamed and bitter. She lashes out at her patient, at first with passive aggression - setting up a shard of broken glass where she knows Elizabet likes to walk barefoot. When Elizabet does indeed cut her foot on the glass, the two women's eyes lock as they each immediately recognize the severe rupture that has occurred between them. Suddenly, the film snaps, a few images from the prologue invade our field of vision, and we're pulled out of the drama, back into our seats, reminded that we are observing staged events reeking of artifice, no matter how compellingly they are portrayed.

"When the narrative resumes, the veiled hostilities hinted at in Alma's evil gaze just as the film breaks are opened up and amplified more blatantly, with verbal and physical threats that culminate in a bloody-nosed Alma frantically clawing at Elizabet's face. The escalating anger provokes only a response of disdainful laughter from the actor, further infuriating the nurse as she grasps the inability of even her most ardent outrage to move the artist to a level of personal disclosure that matches her own sincerity. Suddenly seized by a sense of superiority over her convalescent patient, Alma lets it rip with a scathing criticism that tells Elizabet in clear terms just how sick and twisted she has become, regardless of whatever aesthetic or philosophical justifications the performer might use to excuse her choices. That diatribe, of course, offends Elizabet quite a bit, and she charges out of the house to take a long walk along the rocky beach.

"A thoroughly magnificent and heroic tracking shot captures Alma's desperate, hysterical pursuit of Elizabet as she realizes the mistake she's made. But it's hard for us to know how Alma's interpreting her own actions. Is she sorry for having behaved so unprofessionally, so out of character according to the medical training she's undergone to prepare her for this work? Or is she simply dismayed at the fact that she's made Elizabet mad at her and put their friendship in jeopardy? Alma's emotions run the gamut in this scene, from desperate pleading to haughty indignation to abject misery, all in the space of a minute or two, and they're met with Elizabet's determination to escape the clutches of this pathetic woman who's grown too attached and familiar now, an implacable indifference to every verbal thrust and parry that Alma directs her way....

"Alma represents Bergman's ordinary self - the husband, father, lover who has to relate more intimately with those closest to him, who feels that sense of connection and responsibility to do what's right, to sacrifice his own comforts and well-being to some extent for the sake of others. This aspect of himself, burdened by conscience  and sentimental attachments, is more vulnerable, easily irritable and emotionally reactive to life's ups and downs. It's also more susceptible to guilt, inhibition and the manipulation of others who would thwart his freedom to pursue artistic or sensual interests as they develop within him. 

"So in a nutshell, the conflict between Alma and Elizabet is an outgrowth of Bergman's own divided personae - the two masks he wears as he oscillates between the public and private expressions of his thoughts and feelings. In a scene that occurs shortly after the big blowup on the beach, we see Elizabet's husband show up unexpectedly, where he somehow mistakes Alma for his wife, despite Alma's attempts to correct his error and clarify her own identity. His misperception persists even to the point that he and Alma make love (off camera) even while Elizabet impassively watches their passionate encounter. The husband leaves soon after, allowing the two women some privacy to finally do their best to reach some kind of reintegrating solution.

"In the last major scene of the film, Bergman locks his camera on the faces of Elizabet and Alma as the nurse offers her conclusive analysis of what led to her patient's disturbed condition: the actor's profound ambivalence regarding a pregnancy that she allowed due to some critical feedback about lacking maternal characteristics. Her unsettled emotions and growing contempt for the developing child exploded into an unresolvable paradox, as Elizabet recognizes how wrong she is to despise an innocent baby, but is too committed to her ideals of artistic and emotional integrity to deny the intensity of her feelings. In spelling out this indictment, Alma assumes a stance of judgement over her patient, insistently denying that 'I'm not like Elizabet Vogler,' but as she does so, her sensitivity and compassion are stirred as she recognizes her own hypocrisy, having had an abortion herself earlier in life. Who is she, after all, to render a negative opinion on how Elizabet has responded to life's pressure? Alma has more in common with this 'sick' woman than she dares to admit even to herself - a lot more, even to the point where they become, at first momentarily, and by the end of the film, permanently fused, two incompatible but codependent halves now destined to merge into a whole, who will somehow find her way onto the bus that will return her back to the ordinary future that awaits her in the soft open air prison of civilized human society.

In his review in The New York Sun, November 20, 2007, Steve Dollar provided the following commentary:

"Ingmar Bergman's 1966 film Persona may be a touchstone of mid-1960s cinema culture, but it was inspired by the simplest notion. The Swedish director, who died this July at 89, was laid up in a hospital with exhaustion and vertigo, thinking up a new movie he wasn't sure he would have the strength to shoot.

"Bergman had become fascinated with a Norwegian actress named Liv Ullmann, who was a close friend of Bibi Andersson. The latter had been a regular in Bergman's films since 1955's Smiles of a Summer Night, as well as his onetime lover....

"'He wanted to do a film with the two of us, because he felt that we were alike,' Ms. Andersson said. 'And then he came up with the idea of two women, isolated on an island. One of them talks and the other one listens, and that was the start of it.'

"Ms. Andersson, now 72, had the speaking part in Persona....

"The film was notorious as a classic psych-out. Ms. Andersson's Nurse Alma bonds so thoroughly with Ms. Ullmann's strangely mute stage actress Elisabeth Vogler that the two women begin to slip into each other's identities — and not without a subtle sexual tension. In a sequence that was shocking at the time, Bergman combined a half of each woman's face into a composite. As he related in a 1969 interview, the actresses failed to recognize themselves, each suggesting that the image was a really unflattering photograph of the other one.

"'It's a film that has been talked about a lot,' Ms. Andersson said. 'I didn't know that would be the case — it was just another of his films. I liked it because it was very Jungian. We didn't know that much about Jung but we read the books we could come by. Bergman claimed it had nothing to do with Jung, that he hadn't read him, but I doubt that was totally true.'

"The opening sequence, which begins with the frames of a film spooling through a projector, is a montage of seemingly disconnected images (corpses in a hospital, a nail being hammered into a palm, actors in skeleton outfits romping in a silent movie) set to an abstract modernist score of woozy timpani drums, terse vibraphone, and anxious strings. It was basically Bergman — who may or may not have been represented by the bedridden boy trapped in a white room as the images pulse — dumping items out his satchel of used symbolism. Poetic then, it has proven inspirational to the point of cliché....

"Ms. Ullman and Bergman became lovers during the making of Persona, which was shot in the summer of 1965 on the island of Faro, which also provided the landscape for subsequent films...."

In his December 29, 2017 review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote that "Here, for the centenary of Ingmar Bergman’s birth, is a rerelease of one of his fiercest, strangest, most sensually brilliant and unclassifiable pictures: Persona, from 1966....

"It is stark, spare, endlessly questioning and self-questioning, a movie whose enigmas and challenges multiply, like the heads of Hydra.

"It begins with a disturbing montage of unreadable and occasionally sexually explicit images, which are reprised briefly at the moment of psychological crisis later in the film – and which only partly explain them. A delicate boy on a mortuary slab may be a certain male baby boy that a guilt-stricken mother wishes dead. Images of silent-movie histrionics and pantomime absurdity may or may not gesture at the shallowness and falsity of acting, the theatre, the cinema and all representational art. Or they may indicate that these cartoony, melodramatic images can give a lightning-flash of clarity, of fundamental truthfulness and interpretation, that life itself, in all its evasive complexity, may never yield to us.

"Liv Ullmann plays Elisabet Vogler, a renowned stage actress who has suffered a psychological breakdown. She relapsed into silence during a production of Electra (she was probably playing the lead, but possibly Clytemnestra in a more stylised production, it is not entirely clear) and is now in a psychiatric facility. Bibi Andersson plays Alma, the nurse assigned to her. The doctor supervising her (Margaretha Krook) has a bold and generous idea – one which she perhaps might not have offered for a less celebrated patient. She will lend Elisabet her handsome summer beach house for the duration of her recovery, and Alma will go and live with her.

"It is to be an extraordinary inversion of the 'talking cure.' Far from being coaxed out of her silence, Elisabet remains utterly mute, and it is Alma who begins to speak. At first in an artless attempt to get Elisabet to open up, but then she finds it is her own necessary personal catharsis. Alma tells Elisabet about the problems and crises in her life, while Elisabet remains enigmatically – though eloquently – wordless.

"Actually, she is not quite wordless. Alma begins to confess that, though now engaged to be married, she has already had her heart broken in an affair with a married man, and also had an unforgettably erotic encounter on a beach while sunbathing naked with a friend. Alma is upset to read a letter from Elisabet to the doctor, which she had carried into town for the purposes of posting, which is rather dismissive and amused about these personal revelations. Alma’s growing love for Elisabet curdles into resentment and rage, and she might also suspect what Bergman surely wants the audience to suspect – Elisabet had left the letter unsealed precisely so that Alma would read it.

"Alma is angry, hurt, frustrated, and perhaps even more irreversibly and painfully in love with Elisabet than ever – and more than ever desperate for Elisabet to speak, to communicate, to indicate that she respects and understands what Alma is going through. Or perhaps simply to acknowledge her existence. Their intimacy becomes a kind of duel, yet also a kind of fusion. Are they dreaming each other’s existence? Alma says at first that she respects Elisabet’s silence as an ethical or moral position that has developed from her approach to life as an artist: if she cannot uncover the hidden existence of others, then she will at least withdraw into silence and conceal her own inner existence. Or at any rate, not go through the meaningless charade of appearing to reveal herself through the misleading parade of conversation.


Reading palms

Reading palms

"At another point, Alma muses in a besotted, almost girlish, way about what it must be like to be Elisabet. She can see how a humble person like her could fantasise about inhabiting the great actress’s body, while acknowledging that it is the artist’s prerogative to impersonate an ordinary person like her. And all the time, they grow mysteriously closer. The psychological pressure becomes ever more intolerable, and Elisabet is further challenged by harrowing images from the outside world. She chances upon the famous [image] in 1943 of a Jewish boy with hands raised, and recoils in horror from TV news footage of the Vietnamese Buddhist priest , who set himself on fire in a Saigon street....


Elisabet and Alma

Elisabet, left, and Alma, right


"Bergman contrives a colossal eerie closeup with meshes half of Alma’s face with half of Elisabet’s. These two very beautiful women do indeed look similar, and it is that fact which makes the resulting half-and-half face so horrifying, like something from a nightmare. Elsewhere, Bergman repeatedly gives us the signature composition of the two faces: one in profile, one face on to the camera, sometimes overlapping. It is almost a pictorial demonstration of the film’s approach to identity and disclosure. Sometimes the characters are facing us, addressing us, wishing to reveal themselves. At other times, they are in profile: we can see them, but they are looking away, at that moment indifferent or unaware.

"Persona is a film to make you shiver with fascination, or incomprehension, or desire."

In his long essay on "The Persistence of Persona" contained in the booklet accompanying the Blu-ray edition of the film, Thomas Elsaesser provides the following commentary March 17, 2016:

"When Ingmar Bergman died in July 2007—on the same day as Michelangelo Antonioni—an unexpected controversy arose. Among the obligatory eulogizing obituaries, celebrating his towering achievements and itemizing the admiration for his work by directors ranging from Woody Allen to David Lynch and Robert Altman to Lars von Trier, there were also dissenting voices (most prominently, Jonathan Rosenbaum in a op-ed) claiming he was overrated, lacked stylistic originality, and merely inflicted personal psychodramas on awestruck audiences. One might imagine this gainsaying simply reflected the longevity of Bergman’s career and a certain iconoclastic impatience with some of the more predictable hyperbole and praise heaped on the departed. But in fact it was a repeat performance: controversy over Bergman goes back a long way, and in New York was sparked by no less a film than Persona, his 1966 masterpiece. While Susan Sontag wrote an enthusiastic and, as it turned out, seminal article on Persona, another critical heavyweight, Andrew Sarris, wrote a dismissive review, taking time out to attack Bergman as a filmmaker generally, arguing that he had no talent for the medium ('His technique never equaled his sensibility') and that he should have remained a theater director. Sontag anticipated much of the criticism of not only Persona when she wrote: 'Some of the paltriness of the critics’ reaction may be more a response to the signature that Persona carries than to the film itself.' Evidently, by this point in his career, Bergman’s name had acquired a fixed set of, often contradictory, associations: 'lavishly inventive' as well as 'facile,' 'sensual' along with 'melodramatic.' But as Sontag hinted, Persona was something else altogether, taking the filmmaker’s stylistic and thematic repertoire to an entirely new level. Here, for the first time, was an unapologetically avant-garde work by Bergman that also dared to veer between vampire horror flick and hospital soap opera, all the while posing ontological questions about the reality status of cinema itself. Since that debate, writing about Persona has been for film critics and scholars what climbing Everest is for mountaineers: the ultimate professional challenge. Besides Citizen Kane, it is probably the most written-about film in the canon....

"Persona is instantly recognizable thanks to two shots that have become its emblems: a boy touching a woman’s face on a giant screen and two women looking at each other (and us) across an imaginary mirror. Defining images for the film, they also stand for an idea of the cinema—in fact, for two distinct but complementary metaphors of what cinema is: a portal, a window, a passage you can enter or (almost) touch, and a mirror, a reflection, a prism that gives you back only what you project onto it. Persona is also cinema about cinema—a point that Bergman makes clear with his six-minute prologue montage sequence—which is one of the reasons it is such an irresistible challenge for writers.

"The first of these shots is from the prologue. A young boy with thick glasses, lying on what looks like a hospital bed, closes the book he is reading, sits up, and reaches out toward the camera, before a reverse shot reveals this to be a translucent surface, on which appears the face of a woman. The close-up of the woman’s face projected onto the surface and tentatively touched by the boy visualizes the cinema as a window that both fuses and separates, that invites touch but keeps us (like the boy) isolated in uncertain anticipation. As it becomes larger and larger, this face is both too close to be recognized and too blurry to be grasped. Representing the archetypal maternal imago, it is at once immediately tactile and irredeemably virtual: the boy’s longing for his mother, for direct contact and physical fusion, must remain unfulfilled, for what could bridge the gap between the two planes of psychic reality? The cinema itself is here the father figure that demands renunciation of the primary love object, to enable the boy’s eventual selfhood and identity, just as the cinema demands the separation of the body from the image for there to be spectatorship. This parallel is underlined by the boy’s initial gesture toward the invisible fourth wall, thereby obliging the spectator to feel directly implicated in his longing and to experience the separation right from the start: we will always remain 'virtual' to him, meaning that he, like indeed every character in the film, exists only to the degree that we are prepared to grant him 'reality,' through the act of activating our empathy, our human touch, the intelligence of our bodies.

"If the cinema is a tactile window in the first iconic image, in the second, another look into the camera/screen, it is imaged as a mirror: Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) and her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), face each other in the middle of the night in front of what may be the bathroom cabinet, where the two of them discover—or merely imagine?—an uncanny resemblance. As the scene unfolds and the lightly clad actresses move as if to kiss, their faces overlap, seem almost to be superimposed—anticipating a later shot where a split-screen image of the two women combines their faces, and making us wonder not only who but what is this face looking so intently at us....

"...we can never be quite certain if what we see has actually happened, and if so, why and to what (narrative) purpose. Sontag, for instance, suggests that Elisabet and Alma may in fact be one person: 'It’s correct to speak of Persona in terms of the fortunes of two characters named Elizabeth and Alma who are engaged in a desperate duel of identities. But it is equally pertinent to treat Persona as relating the duel between two mythical parts of a single self: the corrupted person who acts (Elizabeth) and the ingenuous soul (Alma) who founders in contact with corruption.'...

"Bergman brings out fundamental tensions between emotion, intellect, and perception—our separate ways of apprehending the world—if we allow ourselves to follow the characters’ actions and are willing to open ourselves to the conflicting emotional signals emitted by their often unexpectedly violent interactions. In this respect, Elisabet and Alma are stand-ins for those of us spectators who first have to sort out our complicated feelings after an intense film experience before we know what to make of it....

A look at Bergman’s filmography shows that several titles reflect the importance for him of the mirror and the face: The Face (1958, released in the U.S. as The Magician), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Face to Face (1976), Karin’s Face (1984). But what are the effects of looking into the eyes of a face that is larger-than-life, or of being in the presence of two women’s faces, often in close-up, for some eighty minutes?

"Watching Persona is a draining and harrowing experience, which may explain why writers have sought explanatory assistance from phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and even the neurosciences, often with intriguing results.

"I recall a paper at a Bergman conference that cited the latest research on mirror neurons—those that fire in mimetic, or empathetic, response when humans and animals observe an action performed by another member of the species—in a reading of Persona. This brought into focus for me a feature of the film that had always struck me as especially notable, as well as disturbing, namely the link Bergman makes between hands and the face, that is, the touch and the mirror (to a person’s soul). Once more, the emblematic shot of the boy touching the screen/face seems to say it all. Yet these connections are everywhere in Persona: hands reaching out to caress or slap faces, or covering their own faces; even the photo of the Warsaw ghetto boy with his hands raised is scrutinized by the camera for hands and faces. More generally, these movements are a surprisingly frequent motif in Bergman. One thinks of a scene in The Virgin Spring (1960) where an elderly woman caresses the face of the suffering girl, or a similar one in The Seventh Seal (1957). We find a woman touching another woman in Cries and Whispers (1972), in Autumn Sonata (1978), and in Fanny and Alexander (1982), where a hand approaching a face is brusquely rejected. A man and a woman touch each other’s faces tenderly in Summer with Monica (1953), and violently in The Passion of Anna (1969), and, of course, in The Touch (1971), we have to keep the title in mind all the time....

Nosebleed

The nosebleed

"Even if he would have probably dismissed such scientific findings as irrelevant to his films, there is little doubt that, for Bergman, extraordinary powers are stored and enclosed in the face. Yet such powers also underline its vulnerability and precarious status: between the openly visible and the smoothly impenetrable, between the lighting up of a spiritual essence and the merely material “surface” for deceit and disguise. In Persona, the face goes through all these permutations. Already in the prologue, the lightly contoured visage on the screen is contrasted with the darkly silhouetted face of an old woman lying on a table in a morgue. During the second half of the film, when Alma is desperate to differentiate herself as much as possible from Elisabet, she washes her face under a running tap as if to wash away with the nosebleed also the now dreaded likeness itself. After another nocturnal encounter, this time with Elisabet’s husband—perhaps a figment of her imagination—Alma decides to leave, shouting: 'I’m not like you. I don’t feel the same way you do . . . I’m not Elisabet Vogler: you are Elisabet Vogler.' Following the scene of Alma’s passionate embrace of Elisabet’s husband—revealing just how far she will go to identify with Elisabet—this desperate outburst not only protests too much but amounts to a self-contradiction, made manifest in the composite image of the two women’s merged faces we see.

"Early on in the film, Bergman plays another variation on the theme of the face in the way he juxtaposes the two women when they go to bed. Elisabet’s face, motionless and turned toward the camera, grows slowly darker and darker—an apt expression of her essentially reflective nature—while Alma, restless, switching the light on and off, comes across as temperamental and impulsive, qualities underlined by a soliloquy where just as important as what she says are her actions: rubbing on night cream, once more defining her across face and touch but where her insecurities and doubts are made to contradict, but also complement, her more resolute and self-assured daytime manner.

"Something like a craving of the face for the charge and discharge of the touch is thus in Persona associated with Alma’s personality and her inner demons. It is contrasted with the mask (as makeup) that Elisabet wears when she is onstage and suddenly falls silent, but also with her often supercilious, ironic expression toward Alma, which she puts on like a mask. The very title Persona, of course, refers to this mask, so that one might think the film would proceed to a mutual unmasking, where fragile, unworthy, inauthentic selves are peeled away. And in a sense, this is the case, as both women are in turn stripped emotionally bare and have moments where they lose their composure, i.e., lose 'face.' Opposite the mute and thus 'closed' Elisabet, the seemingly carefree Alma several times 'opens up' in the course of the film, sometimes verbally, at others more physically. But her fresh and open face never has the rigidity of the mask, which is what Elisabet’s enforced or self-imposed silence amounts to. Yet despite this drama of open and closed expressions, of tearing at each other’s protective surface, Persona is less about what is 'behind' the mask and perhaps more concerned with what can and must pass through the mask, since besides questioning the ethics of stripping the soul naked of all pretence, Bergman also shows us both women’s wily and ingenious self-fashioning during their encounters with each other.

"In addition to this maintenance of the mask, there is the film’s modernist self-reflexivity, which insists on our constantly remembering that we are watching a performance. Persona opens with scenes that bring the projector into the picture, and it ends with the camera and the crew appearing in the shot. In the prologue, an old-style carbon arc light movie projector is being lit, as if the images we are about to see are being shown from the impersonal perspective of a machine. Toward the end, the big Mitchell camera is cantilevered into the frame as it films Elisabet lying on her back; and as Alma is leaving, suitcase and all, the boy returns, once more touching the blurred screen image, as if to cue the celluloid strip to jump out of the sprockets of the projector, whose arc lights gradually dim, leaving us literally in the dark.

"Yet these scenes are not merely self-reflexive, or nods to Godard’s and Fellini’s films about filmmaking mentioned earlier. Bergman here establishes a series of intriguing equivalences between mask and screen, skin and film strip. This has already been suggested in a scene where Alma’s face cracks like glass and then burns up, a combustible film strip getting torn in the projector gate, consumed by flames like the monk protesting in Vietnam on Elisabet’s television early on. A mere trick, one might think, but also a strong hint that the violence in the film and on the screen may be only a visible metaphor for the invisible violence of the screen, indicative of the aggression inherent in the voyeuristic interest we project onto the action as spectators, to which the director responds with a certain sadism of his own, by suddenly reminding us of the nonhuman materiality of his film.

"If it were told from a Hollywood perspective, Persona would be the story of Elisabet, nursed back to health by Alma while each of the women gradually 'absorbs' part of the other’s personality. But there is no equivalence, no lasting exchange, and their only common ground seems to be that they are both women. Set against their gender are, for instance, their very distinct backgrounds: Elisabet and Alma differ in marital and social status, in class and celebrity, as well as in temperament and moral outlook. Brought together by chance, the two are locked in a fierce power struggle. At first, it appears that 'life' is all on the side of Alma, the 'healthy' young woman whose optimism seems infectious. But as the film progresses, the balance of power between them shifts several times.

"This is the psychological situation, and it seems that, in the end, they battle each other to a draw, with Alma perhaps coming out a bit on top, because she still has a life to live, whereas we sense that, however much she may recover, Elisabet has little to look forward to, either from her husband (whose brief visit to the island—if this, too, is not a hallucination on Alma’s part—shows him so metaphorically, or even literally, blind that he cannot tell his wife from her nurse) or with her son, whom she emotionally abandoned early on (and who reappears, metaphorically, in the photo of the Jewish boy from the Warsaw ghetto). If we are to believe the sentiments Alma infers from Elisabet’s tacit agreement, in the scene where Alma fills in (for us) the background to Elisabet’s professional and marital life, Elisabet did not want to have the boy but was too cowardly to abort. This in contrast to Alma, who did have the strength to take such a decision when she knew she was not ready to have a child. Motherhood and the maternal are often the key characteristics of women in Bergman’s world, starting with his early Brink of Life (1958), which features a live birth. There is thus something quite archaic or primal also at work in the women’s confrontation in Persona: the power of being able to give birth or refusing to do so, the labor of parturition and the pain of having an abortion being put in the balance and weighed accordingly.

"Along with the women’s psychology and gender, a literary side, too, enters the constellation, because Persona brings together two romantic archetypes: the double and the vampire. These two mythological figures are recurring motifs in Bergman’s imaginative universe (1963’s The Silence, 1968’s The Hour of the Wolf and Shame), and surprisingly often, they are female, in contrast to their literary (and cinematic) equivalents. Given the initial near-death situation of Elisabet, it seems clear who here is the vampire, sucking out Alma’s young blood and life force.

"But as with the vampire in romantic literature, a political reading suggests itself as well. What used to be a metaphor for the (postrevolutionary) aristocracy retaining its deadly grip on a rising bourgeoisie now traces, in the confrontation between Elisabet and Alma, the outlines of another class struggle: this time between the well-to-do middle class and the menial working class. In this scenario, no longer the aphasia of a sick person, Elisabet’s silence becomes a weapon, the haughty refusal to trade in the currency of common and shared humanity. It makes the babble of Alma stand for the voice of the people, needing to speak regardless, so as not to choke and suffocate in the face of injustice, prejudice, and discrimination. But such is the (Hegelian) dialectic of 'master' and 'slave' also in this case that dependency can shift and find itself upended, which in Persona is demonstrated by the cinematic dynamics of speech and space.

"In the scene onstage precipitating Elisabet’s nervous breakdown, when she suddenly stops midgesture, one expects a cause to be revealed, possibly by a point-of-view shot or a reaction shot. Instead, her action remains unmotivated and unexplained, a diva’s caprice. Yet the way Bergman formally organizes the scene gives us the necessary clues to its function and meaning. The disposition of figure and space, of character movement and camera movement, conveys the urgency of her choice and the claustrophobia in her mind more immediately and convincingly than any of the verbal explanations given by the doctor. We first see Elektra/Elisabet with her back to the camera, addressing an audience in a theater. Gradually, she turns around, approaches the camera, until her face is in close-up and she is looking almost straight at us. Meaning lies not in the verbal commentary (which merely fills in context) but in her physical movement. The shot begins with Elisabet facing the theater audience and ends with her facing us, the cinema audience. Both audiences are 'virtual' (as in the iconic shot with the boy), since the theater auditorium appears to be empty. Signaled in her turn from one audience to the other is that she has literally come to a turning point in her life. The transition from an outer void (the world of appearances and make-believe) to facing up to an inner void happens entirely in the fluid motion that joins these two virtual spaces.

"This movement from an outer to an inner world is reinforced, and given a concrete spatial embodiment, by the position of the camera. Elisabet is onstage (as a diva, she is also public property), and as she turns toward backstage (where the camera is), she enters a more intimate and immediate, but also a more turbulent and ungrounded, reality (Bergman makes similar use of the backstage metaphor in 1953’s Sawdust and Tinsel and 1955’s Smiles of a Summer Night). Yet what is most striking in this scene is the near complete absence of perspective and depth, which becomes a guiding principle also in the subsequent action.

"For most of the film, in fact, the women are almost uncomfortably close to the camera; the background is often indistinct or blurred, with their faces seen as if from behind glass. Composed of flat visual planes with clear outlines, yet without a feeling of roundness and wholeness, Persona conveys an overwhelming sense of at once claustrophobia and trans­parency, of suffocation and an almost hallucinatory clarity. Such deliberate one-dimensionality in the image, coupled with strong bodily responses, transmits the women’s predicament of being trapped directly to the spectator, making sensation a form of perception. Achieved by Bergman’s refusal to let the illusion of ordinary space develop, it substitutes instead a properly 'cinematic' space—without, however, destroying that sense of psychological realism, so necessary to any involvement in the interpersonal drama unfolding.

"The presence of this flat cinematic space extends to the outdoor scenes, where the low horizon of the island setting, the pebbly beach and rocky outcrops are shot in a noticeably multiperspectival, cubist manner. This essentially abstract way of rendering physical space contrasts with the few scenes where there are suddenly edge, frame, and perspective. For example, when Alma tells of her sexual adventure with the boys on the beach, Bergman gives the room an extraordinary depth, with the two women as focal points, clearly distinguished and surrounded by pools of light that both illuminate (Alma) and isolate (Elisabet). Against the impersonal, flat, and evenly lit space of the other scenes, this one has an immediate, but deceptive, quality of warmth and intimacy. The function is twofold: Firstly, it clearly separates the two women, removing Elisabet from Alma’s experience while giving to Alma an emotional freedom outside of their ambivalent relationship. Secondly, the deep focus, providing, as it does, plenitude to the image and extending the visual space, perfectly corresponds to the sentiment that Alma tries to express. At the same time, it associates a thematic value, making evident the immensely erotic charge and liberating power Bergman wants to convey through Alma’s tale, the sensual reality of a warm, expansive day on the beach, the sexual abandon, the physical intimacy, the strangely innocent fulfillment of this impersonal commingling of bodies stirred by passion and lust. It is from all and any of this that Elisabet exiles herself with her silence and self-control, inadvertently restoring to Alma the full power and presence that come from speech and language in the cinema. The scene is evidence of Bergman’s extraordinary prowess as a writer, a craftsman of words that here are temporarily (and, one imagines, vicariously) lent to the body and voice of a great actress....

"Another charge made against Persona when it was released was that it examines the relation of the two women in a social vacuum. I’ve taken some pains to refute this, too, by showing the complex thematic echoes of class and status that are embedded in the themes of silence and space. But even more telling, it seems to me, are the many ways in which Persona actually infuses urgency and energy into the somewhat clichéd metaphor of the social vacuum. On the one hand, Elisabet’s silence creates a void that Alma is compelled to fill with her words, at the risk of being annihilated by that formidable silence. On the other hand, Elisabet finds in her self-­inflicted silence a release from the extroverted existence imposed upon her by her profession. Away from the role that smothered her own self under layers of makeup, she tries to discover an inner dimension, a new intimacy as the hoped-for fruit of solitude. To this, Alma brings the necessary—­devastating—correction that there may not be a self beneath the mask.

"By yet another dialectical turn, which makes the void less of a black hole and more of a white surface, Alma finds in Elisabet’s silence the screen upon which she can project all the roles she has always wanted to play. She becomes an extrovert to a degree that seems to surprise even herself, though only to discover in the process that, by playing these roles, she has stripped herself of all her outward assurance and certainty. By dramatizing her own existence in front of her silent spectator, Alma becomes an actress, performing before an audience. Here, too, a metacinematic reference becomes evident, if only by the fact that Alma is of course played by a professional actress, Bibi Andersson....

"But a further, more philosophical point also emerges: silence and volubility are merely the two extremes of the same (modernist) theme, so often broached in Bergman’s films (Through a Glass Darkly, 1962’s Winter Light): the Silence of God, eliciting a complementary-compensatory, even hysterical, need for contact and communication. Persona bears out the convergence, but also the clash, of these extremes: of silence countered by words and words met by silence. Perhaps the women, each recognizing her contradictory, if not false, position in the mirror of its opposite, actually gain the insight that, in a world without transcendence, human beings have only each other. This very drama of self-knowledge through the other should give the film an inherent dynamic toward a more conciliatory resolution. It would be the Hollywood ending, but Bergman’s sense of honesty obliges him to withhold it.

"Bergman, self-confessed charlatan and conjurer, lover of the magic lantern and lifelong devotee to masters of Swedish silent cinema, is remarkably honest with his characters, but also with his audience. If the prologue of Persona recapitulates, as it were, the pleasures and terrors of cinema experienced by Bergman as a child, the metacinema reference to camera and celluloid toward the end freely admits to the artifice, but also to the self-deception and self-indulgence, that moviemaking entails. In this respect, he was perhaps ahead of both his admirers and his critics, as if the controversies and challenges that Persona continues to provoke were preprogrammed into its very conception: not only the iconic images that are worth a thousand words but also the silences that launched a thousand commentaries."

In an 1967 essay at Sight & Sound, Susan Sontag provided the following commentary:

"Persona is bound to trouble, perplex and frustrate most filmgoers – at least as much as Marienbad did in its day. Or so one would suppose. But, heaping imperturbability upon relative neglect, critical reaction has shied away from associating anything very baffling with the film....

"...the space and furnishings of Persona are anti­romantic, cool, clinical, and bourgeois modern. But there’s no less of a mystery lodged in this setting. Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling, not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’...

"What first needs to be made clear about Persona is what can’t be done with it. The most skilful attempt to arrange a single, plausible anecdote out of the film must leave out or contradict some of its key sections, images and procedures. It’s the failure to perceive this critical rule that has led to the flat, impoverished and partly inaccurate account of the film promulgated almost unanimously by reviewers.

"According to this account, Persona tells the story of two women. One is a successful actress, evidently in her mid-thirties, named Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann), now suffering from an enigmatic mental collapse whose chief symptoms are muteness and a near-catatonic lassitude.

"The other is the pretty young nurse of twenty-five named Alma (Bibi Andersson) charged with caring for Elizabeth – first at the mental hospital, then at the beach cottage loaned to them by the woman psychiatrist who is Elizabeth’s doctor and Alma’s supervisor. What happens in the course of the film, according to the critics’ consensus, is that, through some mysterious process, each of the two women becomes the other. The officially stronger one, Alma, gradually assumes the problems and confusions of her patient, while the sick woman, felled by despair and/or psychosis, regains her power of speech and returns to her former life. (The viewer doesn’t see this exchange consummated: what he sees at the end of Persona looks like an agonised stalemate. But it was widely reported that the film, until shortly before it was released, contained a brief closing scene which showed Elizabeth on the stage again, apparently completely recovered. From this, presumably, the viewer was to infer that the nurse is now mute and has taken on the burden of her despair.)

"Proceeding from this constructed version, half ‘story’ and half ‘meaning’, critics have read off a number of further meanings. Some regard the transaction between Elizabeth and Alma as illustrating some impersonal law which operates intermittently in human affairs, no ultimate responsibility pertains to either of them. Others posit a conscious cannibalism of the innocent Alma by the actress – and thus read the film as a parable of the predatory energies of the artist, forever scavenging life for ‘material’. Other critics move quickly to an even more general plane, and extract from Persona a diagnosis of the contemporary dissociation of personality, a demonstration of the inevitable failure of good will and trust and predictably correct views on such matters as the alienated affluent society, the nature of madness, psychiatry and its limitations, the American war in Vietnam, the Western legacy of sexual guilt, and the Six Million....

"My own view is that, even when turned into a ‘story’, this prevailing account of Persona grossly oversimplifies and misrepresents. True, Alma does seem to grow progressively more vulnerable; in the course of the film she is reduced to fits of hysteria, cruelty, childish dependence and (probably) delusion. It’s also true that Elizabeth gradually becomes stronger, that is, more active, more responsive; though her change is far subtler and, until virtually the end, she still refuses to speak....

"In a sense, Persona takes a position beyond psychology. As it does, in an analogous sense, beyond eroticism. The materials of an erotic subject are certainly present, such as the ‘visit’ of Elizabeth’s husband. There is, above all, the connection between the two women themselves which, in its feverish proximity, its caresses, its sheer passionateness (avowed by Alma in word, gesture and fantasy) could hardly fail, it would seem, to suggest a powerful, if largely inhibited, sexual involvement. But in fact, what might be sexual in feeling is largely transposed into something beyond sexuality, beyond eroticism even. The only purely sexual episode is the scene in – which Alma, sitting across the room from Elizabeth, tells the story of the beach orgy. Alma speaks, transfixed, reliving the memory and at the same time consciously delivering up this shameful secret to Elizabeth as her greatest gift of love....

"The most explicit vehicle for this meditation is the opening and closing sequence, in which Bergman tries to create that film as an object: a finite object, a made object, a fragile perishable object, and therefore existing in space as well as time....

"Any account which leaves out or dismisses as incidental the way Persona begins and ends hasn’t been talking about the film that Bergman made. Far from being extraneous (or pretentious), as many reviewers found it, this so-called ‘frame’ of Persona is, it seems to me, only the most explicit statement of a motif of aesthetic self-reflexiveness that runs through the entire film. This element of self-reflexiveness in the construction of Persona is anything but an arbitrary concern, one superadded to the ‘dramatic’ action. For one thing, it states on the formal level the theme of doubling or duplication-that is present on a psychological level in the transactions between Alma and Elizabeth. The formal ‘doublings’ are the largest extension of the theme which furnishes the material of the film.

"Perhaps the most striking episode, in which the formal and psychological resonances of the double theme are played out most starkly, is the monologue in which Alma describes Elizabeth’s relation to her son. This is repeated twice in its entirety, the first time showing Elizabeth’s face as she listens, the second time Alma’s face as she speaks. The sequence closes spectacularly, terrifyingly with the appearance of a double or composite face, half Elizabeth’s and half Alma’s.

"Here, in the very strongest terms, Bergman is playing with the paradoxical nature of film – namely, that it always gives us the illusion of having a voyeuristic access to an untempered reality, a neutral view of things as they are. But what contemporary film-makers more and more often propose to show is the process of seeing itself – giving the viewer grounds or evidence for several different ways of seeing the same thing which he may entertain concurrently or successively.

"Bergman’s use of this idea here seems to me strikingly original, but the larger intention is certainly a familiar one. In the ways that Bergman made his film self-reflexive, self- regarding, ultimately self-engorging, we should recognise not a private whim but an example of a well- established tendency. For it is precisely the energy for this sort of ‘formalist’ concern with the nature and paradoxes of the medium itself which was unleashed when the 19th century formal structures of ‘plot’ and ‘characters’ were demoted. What is commonly patronised as the over­exquisite self-consciousness in contemporary art, leading to a species of auto-cannibalism, can be seen – less pejoratively – as the liberation of new energies of thought and sensibility.

"This, for me, is the promise behind the familiar thesis that locates the difference between traditional and so-called new cinema in the altered status of the camera – 'the felt presence of the camera,' as Pasolini has said. But Bergman goes out beyond Pasolini’s criterion, inserting into the viewer’s consciousness the felt presence of the film as an object. He does this not only at the beginning and end but in the middle of Persona, when the image – it is a shot of Alma’s horrified face – cracks like a mirror, then burns. When the next scene up immediately begins (again, as if nothing had happened) ...a viewer has not only an almost indelible after-image of Alma’s anguish but an added sense of shock, a formal-magical apprehension of the film – as if it had collapsed under the weight of registering such drastic suffering and then had been, as it were, magically reconstituted.

"Bergman’s procedure, with the beginning and end of Persona and with this terrifying caesura in the middle, is more complex than the Brechtian strategy of alienating the audience by supplying continual reminders that what they are watching is theatre (i.e., artifice rather than reality).

"Rather, It is a statement about the complexity of what can be seen and the way in which, in the end, the deep, unflinching knowledge of anything is destructive. To know (perceive) something intensely is eventually to consume what is known, to use it up, to be forced to move on to other things....

"Bergman’s film is profoundly upsetting, at moments terrifying. It relates the horror of the dissolution of personality (Alma crying out to Elizabeth at one point, 'I’m not you!'). And it depicts the complementary horror of the theft (whether voluntary or involuntary is left unclear) of personality, what is rendered mythically as vampirism: at one point, Alma sucks Elizabeth’s blood. But it is worth noting that this theme need not necessarily be treated as a horror story....

"Persona takes the form of a virtual monologue. Besides Alma, there are only two other speaking characters, the psychiatrist and Elizabeth’s husband: they appear very briefly. For most of the film we are with the two women, in isolation at the beach – and only one of them, Alma, is talking, talking shyly but incessantly. Though the verbalisation of the world in which she is engaged always has something uncanny about it, it is at the beginning a wholly generous act, conceived for the benefit of her patient who has withdrawn from speech as some sort of contaminating activity. But the situation begins to change rapidly. The actress’s silence becomes a provocation, a temptation, a trap....

"What Persona demonstrates is the lack of an appropriate language, a language that’s genuinely full. All that is left is a language of lacunae, befitting a narrative strung along a set of lacunae or gaps in the ‘explanation’. It is these absences of sense or lacunae of speech which become, in Persona, more potent than words while the person who places faith in words is brought down from relative composure and confidence to hysterical anguish.

"Here, indeed, is the most powerful instance of the motif of exchange. The actress creates a void by her silence. The nurse, by speaking, falls into it – depleting herself. Sickened almost by the vertigo opened up by the absence of language, Alma at one point begs Elizabeth just to repeat nonsense phrases that she hurls at her. But during all the time at the beach, despite every kind of tact, cajolery and anguished pleading, Elizabeth refuses (obstinately? maliciously? helplessly?) to speak. She has only one lapse. This happens when Alma, in a fury, threatens her with a pot of scalding water. The terrified Elizabeth backs against the wall screaming 'No, don’t hurt me!' and for the moment Alma is triumphant. But Elizabeth instantly resumes her silence. The only other time the actress speaks is late in the film – here the time is ambiguous – when in the bare hospital room (again?), Alma is shown bending over her bed, begging her to say just one word. Impassively, Elizabeth complies. The word is ‘Nothing’."

The film's photography by Sven Nykvist is starkly memorable.

According to the film's entry at Wikipedia, "The Independent critic Geoffrey Macnab noted that a number of other critics considered it among the greatest films of all time," adding that "Empire's David Parkinson gave the film five stars in 2000, noting its variety of interpretations and attributing them to Bergman's distortion of the border between real life and fantasy and calling it a "devastating treatise on mortal and intellectual impotence".


This film ranks 89th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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