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When Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 Persona begins it would not be uncommon to think that you’ve turned on an entirely different film than what you expected, an Un Chien Andalou-esque surreal horror film or perhaps even the cursed video from 2002’s The Ring. Snippets of violence, performance and perversion blitz the screen in black and white, harking to a sense of fragmented identity referenced, but left open to interpretation, later in the film.
These identities in question are that of actress Elisabet Volger (Liv Ullmann) and nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) whose personas become warped and seemingly combined when Alma, working in a psychiatric ward, takes on the job of caring for Elisabet when she suddenly decides to stop speaking during a theatre performance. The doctor finds nothing to be wrong with her physically, so assigns Alma to take a break to a countryside cottage with Elisabet, in hopes that her companionship will coerce her back into talking.
During their time at the cottage the silence serves as a spring board for Alma’s personal awakening. She spouts monologues at Elisabet divulging her deepest secrets and desires, each one all the more revealing and manically delivered. Alma’s confrontation of her own self and her denial is a shockingly modern dissection of what it meant to be a woman of the sixties. During one moment she exclaims, “Can one live at all without living freely?” With Elisabet, she is her most authentic self, sharing memories and worries that range from daring sexual experiences, abortion, motherhood and the put-up-and-shut-up reality that can come with being a housewife as she talks from both her own experience and begins to speak on Elisabet’s behalf.
As Alma herself becomes more unstable as her understanding of herself is skewed, it seems that she is absorbing Elisabet’s own personality in a psychological take on body horror. To showcase this rapidly changing portrayal of the individuals, Bergman frequently frames his two leads in a manipulated manner, staggering their position, swapping sides and shooting from a variety of angles that could be read as a mirror image, almost as if Alma is talking to herself, or dissecting thoughts in her own consciousness, that the pair are not two separate beings at all. This culminates in a shot pairing half of each of the duo’s faces together, the resemblance uncanny, but unbalanced to the point of disturbing.
Such horror images frequently splice through the narrative stoppered by film burns, we see repeated snippets of a crucifixion and a boy in a hospital that break up the character story, pointing to both the idea of Alma/Elisabet’s mental visualisations and that Bergman himself is creating and controlling the narrative; a cinematic performance not unlike one that Elisabet might appear in. These contemporary editing styles and ambiguous storytelling paint Bergman as working with the confidence and modernity of a 21st century director using the black and white medium as a stylistic choice, however this was standard procedure at the time of filming. This story was born to be told in black and white, the use of light and shadow from cinematographer Sven Nykvist lends more to the story than colour film would, highlighting every crease and furrow in Ullmann’s face, serving as her only communicator throughout the film.
At times Elisabet’s face, largely kept shrouded in black by Nykvist, appears not unlike that of Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; the bringer of truths and consequence. Much how Death forces Antonius Block to confront is own questions on existence in the 1957 classic, Elisabet is a catalyst of revelation for Alma, who bursts herself wide open with her own truths and existential questions. An opening monologue from the Doctor to Elisabet actually could reference each lead character and merge their realities: “Life trickles in from the outside, and you’re forced to react. No one asks if it is true or false, if you’re genuine or just a sham.”
Questioning the nature of existence is a staple of Bergman’s work, and the themes and style depicted in Persona have influenced many other films after that, most notably David Lynch’s work in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.
Persona is regularly listed as one of the most influential and daring pieces of cinema of all time, it is a hefty beast to tackle, despite its 80 minute run time. The ambiguous nature of this work discussing identity, modernity and duality, alongside its technical feats in cinematography allow it to be an expansive platform for discussion and analysis, one that I don’t think I could possibly contain in one review.
You can view Persona on Criterion here.
By Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here