Sunday Morning! Persona by Ingmar Bergman
Are we going to lose Bergman?
Of the mid-twentieth century arthouse filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman is the one who seems to grow more distant from audiences every year. The French still celebrate Truffaut, and Godard still keeps making movies, while Varda seems to be finally getting discovered outside of France. Tarkovsky and Bresson have their cults, not that far removed from the Christian one; and Kurosawa and Fellini remain perennially popular. Antonioni’s films still seem completely contemporary; and as long as there is LSD, there will be Jodorowsky fans.
Bergman, though, is a little hard to love. His films form a self-contained world that sometimes seems disconnected from the one we live in. He used the same acting troupe and shot many of the films on the same Swedish island, Fårö, often in the summertime, and made so many films that they sort of blur into one another.
And they’re deeply serious movies; he used the medium to wrestle with the biggest crises in his own life- man’s great capacity to hurt one another, his own mental breakdowns and what was, for Bergman, I think the biggest question in life: How do we get through it without God?
We live, though, in a time that is allergic to seriousness. If people don’t communicate in a way that is a little arch, a bit ironic, if they wear their hearts on their sleeves in a way that’s too transparent, we find them uncomfortable to be around. Or we reach for the easy criticism that requires no explanation: we call them “pretentious.” In other words, because they lack our pretentions, we assume they must have their own.
And yet, Persona still buries me.
It’s a film that buried me when I first rented it from a video store in Toronto fifteen years ago, and it has had the same effect every time since. It is perhaps not where one should begin with Bergman, since it is his most difficult film, and off-putting in a great many ways. I have simply learned to remain silent (appropriately enough) when friends say they find it too “arty” or “confusing” or “cold.” I can understand those criticisms, and all I would say is: Watch it again.
When Bergman shot the film, he was in a state of deep depression and anxiety, and had just recovered from a lung infection that nearly turned into pneumonia. He came close to total mental collapse and he later claimed making the movie saved his life.
Persona, too, seems to begin in a state of mental collapse; a film projector lights up and whirs to life, and we are presented with a series of images that seem, at first, disconnected: shots from silent movies, a sheep being slaughtered, nails being driven into a crucified hand, an erection, a forest in the snow, a church, bodies in what seem to be a morgue. And then, in a stunning sequence, one of the bodies, a young boy, sits up and reaches for a blurry image of a woman’s face, or several blurring into each other. He, like us, is reaching for meaning and connection; we can’t help doing so.
Later, we will imagine he is the son of one of the two main characters in the film, but none of this is certain, and we might be forcing meaning onto these disconnected images in the same way a person in an actual state of mental collapse might.
After the credits, we are introduced to Alma (played by Bibi Andersson), a young nurse assigned to care for the successful actress Elizabet Vogler (played by the incomparable Liv Ullman). During a recent stage production of Elektra, Elizabet stopped speaking mid-performance, “looked around as if surprised,” and had the urge to laugh, presumably at the artificiality of it all. She apologized afterwards, but has remained mute ever since.
The younger nurse is not sure she has the life experience to help the middle-aged woman, who seems to be in a state of life crisis. She admires Elizabet as an artist, because she thinks “art is enormously important in life. Especially for those struggling for one reason or another.” But she recognizes right away that the actress is the stronger one. In fact, the film, in many ways, echoes August Strindberg’s one-scene play The Stronger. That play, as well, featured two characters, one of who remained silent.
There is no real explanation for Elizabet’s silence, although we see her in the hospital, watching a Buddhist monk self-immolating on the television news, as she recoils in horror. Later, we will see her staring at a photograph of a Jewish boy in utter terror of the Nazis arresting him. Perhaps her awareness of humankind’s capacity for violence has silenced her. These scenes recall Wittgenstein’s famous maxim:
What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
Her Doctor (Margaretha Krook), meanwhile, believes Elizabet is unable to deal with the gap between being and appearing to others, the way we always lie to some extent, mask who we are, our inability to ever really stop acting. Only silence can stop her from playing a part.
So, the doctor makes a fairly radical suggestion: Alma and Elizabet can move into her summer cottage by the sea in order to recover (thus, we’re back in Fårö once more). We will stay with the two women for the rest of the film. The secondary characters will, ultimately, occupy less than five minutes of screen time, and of these two characters, one of whom will have almost no lines.
At first, it seems as if the two might become friends, Alma opening up about her life and her fears to the silent partner in a way she never has before. Her life seems to be settled; she loves her fiancé, Karl-Henrik, and is happy in her job, and has faith in God. Everything is set for her at age 25, a terrifying prospect for anyone.
But Alma quickly opens up as well about the times of suffering, the affair with a married man that broke her heart, and her doubts about the impending marriage. And then she drinks too much and tells about a sexual encounter she had with two boys on the beach, while sunbathing naked with a friend- a monologue that is remarkably explicit for 1966. The encounter led to an unwanted pregnancy and Karl-Henrik, not knowing she had been unfaithful, secured her an abortion. She breaks down crying about what this means for her future with him:
“Is it possible to be one and the same person at the very same time- I mean two people?”
How do we maintain our independence and identity while we always want to give ourselves to another in order to escape our loneliness?
All the while, Elizabet smokes and listens.
It soon becomes clear that the boundaries between the two women are porous and permeable. Alma seems to be slightly in love with Elizabet, but as the other does not speak, her ideas of the woman are nearly all projection. And we saw this same thing in Proust: the disconcerting knowledge that the person whom we love is, at least partly, a composite of our imaginings and projections onto them. Elizabet is, even more so, a blank mask; a “persona” is literally a mask in Latin.
An actress, of course, takes on the persona of others. Is Elizabet becoming Alma? Or is Alma right when she tells her:
“I think I could turn into you if I really tried.”
However it happens, the two women begin to merge. That night, Alma dreams of Elizabet coming to her room like a specter or, possibly, a vampire. It’s not clear if it is a dream. It starts to seem that, if she doesn’t protect her own identity, the actress will absorb her, leaving nothing behind.
The psychic warfare underlying their relationship comes into the open after Alma discovers Elizabet has made fun of her confessions in a letter- one she clearly intended the younger woman to discover. As Alma believed she was studying the patient, the patient was studying her.
And, then, things go off the rails. Alma breaks a glass and watches passively as the barefoot Elizabet steps on a shard of broken glass. The film immediately after breaks apart and “melts” in the projector, and then just as quickly reassembles. Alma begs the actress to talk to her, her silence now an act of aggression; naturally, the woman refuses. Their 0ne-sided fights become intense and lacerating. They come to blows. Alma threatens to throw boiling water on Elizabet, who finally speaks: “No, don’t!” And, then, she laughs at the nurse, who breaks down in tears. Eventually, Elizabet’s blind husband arrives and seemingly mistakes Alma for his wife; she then makes love to the man while his real wife hovers.
In the climax, Alma confronts Elizabet about her son; in a monologue shown twice (from each character’s perspective) she talks about the actress’s “lack of motherliness,” how she gave birth to a child she didn’t want and secretly hated for tying her down and making constant demands on her time and affection. It was a role she could not play. But how does Alma know all of this? She cries:
“I am not Elizabet Vogler. You are Elizabet Vogler.”
But it’s no longer clear. In a famous and haunting image, their faces merge into one:
Finally, Alma breaks down into semi-coherent speech, and claws her wrist open; Elizabet eagerly sucks her blood. Alma fights her off and makes her repeat a single word: “Ingenting”/ “Nothing.”
And then? She wakes up the next day and leaves the cottage, passing a statue we’ve never seen before. The film again reveals itself to be a film with a shot of Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist shooting on a crane. Alma gets on the bus, the young boy from the beginning reaches for the face, which blurs out completely, and the film itself jumps off the projector, as if thrown off its tracks by the psychic forces unleashed within.
But what does it all mean?
Persona is a famously enigmatic and haunting film, and people have tried to puzzle through its many mysteries since 1966. It is perhaps the most written-about film in the canon. And I cannot hope to explain away its many secrets, nor would I want to, since I hope to avoid my own mental breakdown!
One key to understanding Bergman, at least for me, is to realize that he’s not pretentious at all. In fact, he’s one of the most unpretentious of storytellers. His characters tell us their innermost feelings in a way that is sloppy and awkward. His films have a rough and unfinished feel to them. His stories are lacerating and emotionally bloody. And they’re deeply personal in a way that eschews all sort of pretense.
Persona is a mystery film dealing with questions that have no answers: the fear that we may have no coherent and enduring core of selfhood and are just performing roles that others place on us; the gap between being and seeming; the void of meaning in our lives; the sense that, no matter how planned out our roles are, ultimately, we struggle to assign meaning where none is forthcoming.
And Alma’s silence is also the silence of God. This silence haunted the director, the son of a Lutheran minister, after he lost his faith. And maybe one reason I connect with Bergman’s films is, like the director, I feel my own inability to believe as a great and tragic loss, rather than as something liberating.
I suppose what I find most thrilling about Persona, meanwhile, is how personal it is; how individual a work of art. There is an old story about the director with artistic aspirations making “one for me, and one for them,” but movies are almost never free of commercial concerns. Except for Persona, which seems totally devoid of any commercial aspirations, or concerns about how it will be perceived by the audience. In a way you almost never see, Ingmar Bergman made this film for himself, because he had to make it, and in doing so, he freed himself. And, maybe just incidentally, he freed the art of filmmaking a little.
So, what are YOU watching, reading, playing, pondering, creating, or merging into this weekend?