Friday, May 18, 2012

Persona (1966) directed by Ingmar Bergman

It’s intimidating to write about a Bergman film.  Persona is one of the most analysed films of all time.  You begin to wonder what you could possibly say that’s new.  Even the act of watching a Bergman film can be a bit daunting.  You know that you’re going to be looking at something loaded with symbolism, metaphor and philosophy that’s going to take some serious thinking to properly untangle.  Persona is a complicated film with a lot to say, but fortunately, the film is minimalist with a fairly straightforward surface narrative and only two central characters to focus on.  That doesn’t make it any less complex, but it does mean that we have a definite set of boundaries to work within.

Persona is about the relationship between two women, Alma (Bibi Andersson) and Elizabet (Liv Ullmann).  Elizabet is an actress who has suffered some kind of mental break.  She froze one night on stage, and has been catatonic and silent ever since.  Alma is the young nurse assigned to care for her.  The meat of the film takes place in a secluded seaside cottage where Alma ‘looks after’ Elizabet to aid her recovery.  Once in the cottage, Elizabet recovers somewhat from her catatonia, but still does not speak.  Alma fills the silence by telling Elizabet all about her life, ambitions, dreams, worries and secrets.

Ingmar Bergman’s films are never anything less than beautiful.  I’m not sure how he does it – the film mainly consists of long one-sided conversations where Alma speaks at Elizabet, but every shot has its own peculiar beauty.  The positioning of the characters relative to each other in the frame is never anything less than ideal and always accentuates the thematic elements.  The locations themselves are, as is typical of what I’ve seen of Bergman’s films, still and tranquil.  The seaside environment reminds me of Through a Glass, Darkly (1961), with the rocky shore and huge expanses of still water filling the background of scenes.

 Before the central narrative begins, and before even the title card we are presented with a rapidly cut montage of various images.  They go by too quickly to clearly pick out what each is, but seem to be footage from old films coupled with distinctly Bergman-esque imagery.  There’s a shot of a spider, which, from what I’ve gathered from Bergman’s previous films is a symbol of God, we see this coupled with closeups of nails being driven through Christ’s hands.  Bergman’s relationship with Christianity is complex at best, and much of the ‘Silence Trilogy’ (Through a Glass, Darkly, Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963) is about the relationship between humanity and a seemingly absent God.   These symbols, coupled with shots of cinematic technology and old films seem to add up to a director presenting a summary of what he has achieved so far careerwise.  The film is thus positioned as a break from these major themes of the past.  The sequence ends with a boy reaching out to a huge indistinct female face which seems to morph between women – a mother figure perhaps.  This is held for much longer, and in retrospect, above everything else we have seen in this sequence it is these shots that inform the film we are about to see.

The film simply would not work with lesser actresses, but fortunately we have the amazing performances of both Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman.  With such a tight narrative focus on Alma and Elizabet a misguided performance would ruin the whole film.  The audience necessarily identifies more with Alma, as Elizabet is mute.  They are wonderful actresses, Alma moves between giddy drunkenness, quiet cruelty, shame, murderous anger and apologetic pleading, but through all of these differing emotions we can still recognise the same personality. Of the two characters, she is the transparent one.  Her motivations and frustrations are spelled out relatively explicitly. 

 Elizabet, on the other hand, is completely opaque.  She sits sphinxlike, throughout the film, quietly soaking up everything that the chatty Alma tells us.   What we do know about her life comes primarily from letters from her husband, and even then, their relationship is vague and undefined.  As the film progresses we do see flickers of emotion from her.  She smiles and hums, and at rare points in the film softly speaks.  We never find out the reasons why she has retreated into silence, leaving her a mystery to us.  There are vague clues in some of her emotional reactions though.  She recoils in terror from a news report on the self-immolation of monk Thich Quang Duc and gazes fearfully at a picture of Jewish children held at gunpoint during the Holocaust.  Has she become numb to the world as a reaction to its horrors?  We can only guess.

As an aside, it is nice to see a film that features two complex and multi-faceted women as leads. At times in the film, the intimacy and tension between the two women seems to build to such a level that it’s going to inevitably spill over into a full blown lesbian love affair.  Indeed, its contemporary notice in “Films in Review” described the film as simply “a film about lesbians and lesbianism”. While an affair could easily be justified as a logical extension of the plot, it seems somehow the easy way out to allow the audience to view Alma and Elizabet’s feelings and actions as the product of lust and desire.  Nonetheless, Bergman leaves seeds in there that amply support an interpretation of the film as coded lesbianism. 

It is strange that I watch this film straight after Seconds (1966), I feel both cover similar ground, albeit from different perspectives and with varying conclusions.  I believe Persona is also concerned with the malleable identity, specifically the boundary between ‘self’ and ‘other’. 

The concept of the self seems like it should be fairly straightforward.  It’s your personal image, how you define your personality, what you want to present to others.  As an internal construction it feels inherently original and unique, but everyone’s self must logically be built from what you have absorbed from your environment.  A primary way in which the self emerges and defines itself is through interactions with others.: “I want to be/don’t want to be like him/her”.  The boundary between ‘self’ and ‘other’ is generally pretty clearly defined mentally.  I think the events of Persona are what happens when this boundary begins to break down.  The personality and ‘selfhood’ of Alma begins to become mingled with Elizabet, and the film shows the psychological distress of the destruction of the self.

 The circumstances in which this happens are carefully constructed.  Both characters are placed far away from civilisation, so the only person to interact with is the other.  The fact the Elizabet is mute means that Alma feels a compulsion to fill the silence.  She talks and talks and in the process begins to outline her deepest secrets and anxieties.  Alma happily says that she feels that this is the first time anyone has ever properly listened to her.  In terms of the narrative, Alma has been sent to nurse Elizabet back to health, but the therapist/patient dynamic is reversed here. Alma seems to be inadvertently undergoing a somewhat one-sided psychotherapy. 

At Alma’s most open moment, she confesses what seems to be her deepest secret.  While sunbathing naked with a friend, they seduced and had an impromptu orgy with two boys.  This resulted in Alma having an abortion, which it is plain that she feels intensely conflicted about. She freely admits that this was the best sex she’s ever had in her life, and describes it seemingly proudly graphically. This wanton behaviour does not fit into her perception of who she is, and she cannot square what she has done with what she professes to want out of life (marriage and children/security).   As she debates with herself she lies in bed next to the silent Elizabet, who is gently stroking her hair and caressing her.

As time goes on the boundary between the two women becomes blurred.  In a dreamlike sequence Elizabet places her long hair over Alma’s head.  The high-contrast black and white photography makes Alma’s outline indistinct.  It’s hard to tell where she ends and the sunlight begins.  The characters are often positioned overlapping in the frame.

 It would be a mistake to think that this process is working both ways.  Alma becomes vastly more dependant on Elizabet than vice versa.  Even though she is the one being cared for, she takes on a kind of maternal air in the relationship as Alma bares her soul.

The closeness can only last so long.  Seemingly unable to resist temptation, Alma reads a letter to the doctor that Elizabet gave to her to post.  It’s hard to fault her for this really.  After giving so much of her internal life up to Elizabet it’s totally understandable to want a window into her head in return.  What she finds horrifies her.  Elizabet is analysing her, and finds her quite amusing.  She even describes Alma’s secret beach tryst.  The letter is not written in a bitchy way, and from the tone of it Elizabet clearly has affection for Alma, but it is a betrayal of confidence, and rightfully hurtful.

Alma turns against Elizabet, donning a large pair of sunglasses as if to put up a barrier between the two.  She accidentally knocks over a glass outside, breaking it.  After clearing up she notices a shard left lying in the path.  Elizabet is walking around barefoot.  We can sense the internal struggle inside Alma.  In the end she decides that Elizabet ‘deserves’ the cut foot, and watches as she steps on it and hurts herself.  It’s a coldly sadistic moment, and a worrying sign of Alma’s downward spiral.

(Also she looks cool as all hell)
The negative feelings culminate in a row where Alma confronts Elizabet about the letter, angrily saying that she’s breached their trust.  As Almamanically tells off Elizabet the row turns physical, ending when Alma reaches for a pan of boiling water.  In panic, Elizabet says “be still”!  It is one of the few times in the film that she speaks, and jolts Alma from her mania.

Eventually, the two characters seem to become intertwined.  In a surreal sequence, Elizabet’s husband visits in the middle of the night, and mistakes Alma for Elizabet.  Elizabet guides Alma’s hand to his face.  Why does he think Alma is his wife?  As Elizabet watches, looking stricken, the two make love. 

 By the morning all distinctions between them appear to have dissolved.  In an astonishing sequence we watch Elizabet’s face as Alma delivers a blistering monologue about how Elizabet loathes herself, considering herself disgusting during her pregnancy, wishing the baby would be still-born and finally hating her son and find him “disgusting”.  Elizabet listens.  The camera switches angle, and now we see Alma delivering the monologue, we close in on her face.  How can she know all this?  Is she delivering an accusation or a confession?  At the end of the sequence we are shown a terrifying fusion of the two women, neither one nor the other.  All personal boundaries have broken down. 

Alma panics, shouting,

I'm not like you. I don't feel like you. I'm not Elisabet Vogler: you are Elisabet Vogler! I'm just here to help you!"

We cut, returning the next morning.  Elizabet is now completely catatonic, and Alma has changed into her nurse’s uniform.  The divide between them could not be clearer.  Alma then gashes her arm and guides Elizabet’s lips to the wound, making her suckle on it.  The last boundary between self and other has been breached.  Alma then beats Elizabet violently before cradling her and making her repeat one word: “nothing”.  She then leaves the cottage alone, the camera turns away and shows the crew and director filming the scene, thus breaking down the final cinematic boundary, between the film and audience.

What does all this talk destruction of boundaries mean?  What is Bergman trying to tell us with the film?  Is it a warning against giving too much of yourself up to be analysed?  In his Silence Trilogy he laid bare his troubled relationship with Christianity.  Is Persona a parable about the dangers of exposing too much of your inner being? 

Elizabet’s silence creates a dead space that Alma feels compelled to fill, and she pours herself into it, feeding Elizabet in a kind of involuntary vampirism.  It is notable that ‘alma’ in latin means ‘soul’, and Elizabet’s job is that of an actress; someone who dons ‘personas’.  Are these two sides of Bergman?  Does he possess the confused and conflicted desires of Alma, coupled with the desire to exploit those emotional experiences that Elizabeth, the actress must have.  Is Bergman someone compelled to create art by cannibalising himself, filling dead space with his own inner fears and troubles while we look passively on in silence?

Like I said, complicated stuff.

This is apparently one of the most debated movies of all time, and apparently “one of [the 20th Century’s] greatest works of art”.  I’ve tried to stay away from reading other people’s interpretations of it until I wrote this.  So, if  you think I’ve ballsed up this analysis, or got everything completely backwards please let me know!

Tags: , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “Persona (1966) directed by Ingmar Bergman”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights