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Persona – review

A nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), is caring for a famous actress, Elizabeth (Liv Ullman), who became dumb during a performance of Electra and has not spoken since. The doctor tells Elizabeth she is using her silence as a form of protest. The two women, Alma and Elizabeth, are loaned the use of the doctor’s seaside cottage for the summer.

“It’s about one person who talks and one who doesn’t, and they compare hands and get all mingled up in one another. It will be a very small film, so it needn’t cost much”. Ingmar Bergman

transformationAlma gradually reveals more and more of herself in the face of Elizabeth’s silence. She relates intimate experiences, obviously beginning to feel safe in the company of the silent actress. Then she reads a letter the actress has written implying that Alma is an interesting case-study. The two women seem to exchange identities, or to fuse or slide into a single identity. Elizabeth’s husband comes to visit and regards Alma as his wife.

There is a story about the sliding together of the two faces; Bergman tells us:

“When I received the double-copied film from the laboratory, i asked Liv and Bibi to come to the editing room; Bibi exclaimed in surprise: “But Liv, you look so strange!”. And Liv said: “No, it’s you, Bibi, you look very strange!”. Spontaneously they denied their own less-than-good facial half”.

The film ends with Alma, back in her nurse’s uniform, closing up the cottage and boarding a bus to return home. But is it Alma, or is it the fusion of the two of them?

Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film, Persona, therefore leaves us with many questions.

The opening and closing imagery is very difficult. We are shown pictures of hands, of aged, probably dead bodies, an erect penis, a lamb having its throat cut. We watch nails being driven into the palm of the Christ, there are some cartoon characters, and a young boy explores, with his fingers, the hazy face of a woman on a cinema screen.

Throughout the action of the film the two women come close together and break apart, they seem to share and to love and also to argue, to harbour resentments and plot revenge. As a viewer we feel that the film is working but cannot see why it is working, what technique Bergman is using to infuse his film with magic. The feeling is that the film is saying something about the ‘double’ and about the ‘mask’; that Elizabeth’s silence is an echo of the silence of the creator.

For Elizabeth, the actress, to choose silence is to voluntarily give up her part as a role player. She chooses only to play herself. Alma, her double, her nurturing half is revealed to her and eventually the two halves reunite into a single identity.

The film is a visual and intellectual treat. The two women playing the main parts carry much of the responsibility for the film’s success. The photographer, Sven Nykvist, takes us away from reality into a world undreamed of. Just let it swallow you whole.

PS. There is an interesting parallel between this film and Arthur Miller’s 1994 play, Broken Glass. In both cases the female leads are crippled in some way when attending to apparently unconnected business out in the world. Both the play and the film use the imagery of broken glass to help convey their message, and both are concerned with the subjects of identity and denial.

2 Responses to “Persona – review”

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    I was sorry to hear about Bergman’s death recently. It doesn’t matter that he was old and retired. He was the subject of my very first blog in fact. Just before it the BBC showed a last interview with him and a decent documentary and (a first showing I think of) the early film Sawdust and Tinsel which was great but I’ve been waiting patiently on a retrospective (now they have BBC4, the perfect place) but nadir, just a repeat of Scenes from a Marriage which I must get round to watching again. It’s been years since I’ve seen Broken Glass though.

    jb says: My local cinema showed a few of the Bergman films, lately. They really are much more impressive on a large screen than the television. The cinematography is physically stunning. More than once I’ve found myself in the cinema with my mouth open . . .

  2. Jack says:

    Very interesting movie indeed. It is intellectual, heart breaking and together a little bit shocking film. It makes your brain thinking and asking yourself a lot of philosophical questions: Why? What for? Overall I want to say that I really miss such movies nowadays. Thanks for the great review!

    jb says: Thanks, Jack. Yes, it’s nice to come across a movie you can get your teeth into.