Film Club - Persona
Posted: 22 Jan 2010, 14:46
Persona 1966 Ingmar Bergman
Bibi Andersson as Alma, The Nurse
Liv Ullmann as Elisabet Vogler, The Actress
A series of images appear briefly – a movie projector, an erect penis, some animation, a silent movie, a spider, a lamb being slaughtered and finally an image representing the crucifixation. We then see a morgue, presumably, and a solitary young boy in a bare room except for a TV. As befitting the most challenging movie Bergman had made up to that point the beginning of Persona is somewhat oblique (I'll come back to it later) but the story itself is relatively simple.
The basic story involves two women. An actress, Elisabet, who after freezing up on stage, unable to say word, refuses to talk and the other a psychiatric nurse called Alma charged with looking after her. It is clear from the start that nothing is wrong with Elisabet physically or mentally and that her behaviour is a conscious decision. What a brilliantly droll doctor describes as "the hopeless dream to be".
At the beginning of the relationship the young, confident Alma appears to be the stronger, more robust of the two. She talks and talks to the silent Elisabet who outwardly appears passive at first but gradually the relationship changes and after the pair move to an isolated cottage near the sea the control switches enigmatically from the nurse to the patient. Gradually Alma begins to open up and confess her innermost desires and secrets to Elisabet including a casual orgy on a beach and an abortion. Almost effortlessly Elisabet begins to strip Alma of her ‘persona’, her social mask that makes up her fragile identity and she realises the essential falseness of her existence in the same way Elisabet has. The relationship between them suddenly becomes hostile after Alma reads a letter by Elisabet where she casually reveals the nurses secrets and remarks coldly that she enjoys ‘studying’ Alma who may also be in love with her. At this point things begin to dissolve as the identities of the women apparently switch places in a series of eerie, erotic, dreamlike sequences culminating with Alma passionately greeting Elisabets husband who turns up at the cottage suddenly. Bergman even shows the film itself breakdown at this point as the projector film burns up nicely comparing the illusion of the cinema with our own lives.
Persona climaxes as the two women face each other off, dressed all in black as Alma proceeds to viciously verbally attack Elisabet at length detailing the rejection of her son, who repulses her, and her marriage as a whole but quickly finds herself doubting her own life as her sense of self crumbles and even her use of language disintegrates as her identity fuses with Elisabets famously depicted in an ghostly merging of their two faces.
It ends with Elisabet apparently back to normal, or at least accepting and calm in the realisation that although her life may be an ‘illusion’, it is a necessary one in order for her to live and she can participate once again. We even see her returning to being an actress however Alma is left to go back to the false construct of her previous life as Sister Alma; the only means of saving herself from psychological collapse. Alma’s swapped places with Elisabet. By the end all she can say is "nothing".
Persona is one of those films that defies categorisation. I like to think of it as a psychological horror (I love the bit where a vampiric Elisabet actually bites and draws blood from Alma) but it’s a lot more than that of course and there are endless interpretations that you can knock yourself out with. Few directors could get so much out of what is, essentially, just two women hanging out together. Endlessly fascinating and rewarding. It makes you wish all movies were made in black and white! Both actresses looked gorgeous, of course.
What do you make of the beginning? Bergmans quick history of the moving image (pornography, animation, silent films)? The nature of film as illusion (the repeated shots of the projector, the burning up of the film?) Is the young boy Elisabets son reaching out to his Mother on a TV screen? Alma’s aborted son?
What’s your interpretation of the scene where Elisabets husband arrives at the cottage?
I love the whole part where Alma talks about the orgy.
The moment when Alma and Elisabet rest their heads on each other. I think Lynch paid homage in Mulholland Drive. The fade at the end is beautiful.
Bibi or Liv?