Like his previous films Winter Light and The Silence, Ingmar Bergman‘s haunting—if sometimes pretentiously abstruse—film Persona superficially appears to reject the idea that God has a hand in human affairs. At this point in his career, the great Swedish director seems to be inclining instead toward an atheistic worldview in which his characters attempt to make sense of the harshness of reality, including death, mental illness, and the presence of evil. But Persona, a story of identity crisis from the perspectives of two women whose paths in life are temporarily intertwined, is much more than an exercise in such nihilistic futility. As intriguingly shadowy as this film’s core meaning is, it would be difficult not to see in it Bergman’s ongoing obsession with the spiritual, a theme that he would return to even more explicitly in Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata.
The women in question are Mrs. Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress whose career has come to a standstill after she suffers a nervous breakdown on stage, and her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), who are staying together at the summer house of the head doctor at the clinic where Alma works. Vogler, who has ironically lost her ability to speak, becomes an exclusive listener for Alma, who prattles on about the blandness of her comfortable life with her husband and recounts her sexual encounter with two strange men on a beach, an experience she remembers with a mixture of titillation and disgust.
Though Vogler doesn’t speak for the film’s duration, her voice is heard through Alma’s interpretations. “You have everything as a woman and actress, but you lack motherliness,” she tells her friend, an observation that is both caustic and ironic. As it turns out, Vogler and her husband had had a son who was unwanted; she had wished to have an abortion but couldn’t go through with it. Alma, on the other hand, had terminated her unwanted pregnancy that resulted from her sexual indiscretion. Through this dichotomy, Bergman is expressing the pain of accepting the self, the “I always wanted to be someone else with different problems” syndrome that makes us human. Tired of her drab existence, Alma longs to escape into the thespian mindset of Vogler but discovers that the latter’s problems, while associated with different choices and outcomes, stem from the same source: an intense feeling of isolation and dissatisfaction with the choices she has made in life.
Of course, any such analysis, however compelling it might be, cannot help but fall short of conveying the meaning that visuals can. The introductory sequence—featuring a camera projector capturing a series of images ranging from a devil from one of the director’s earlier films to the cutting of an eyeball like that from Buñuel’s Chien Andalou—announces that this is a film that will use the power of images and film editing to reflect reality askance. Such a cobbling-together of disparate motifs seems decidedly surrealist, calling to mind the paintings of Salvador Dali, and serves to throw the viewer’s center of gravity off-kilter from the beginning. It’s an effect that doubtless will not appeal to everyone. Indeed, it leaves my blood rather cold, an impression that isn’t helped by the cacophonous drumbeats and clicks that accompany it. Yet I must admit it is an arrestingly experimental sequence, one that, considered in the context of the film proper, seems to suggest the chimerical nature of dreams and to question the reality of perception, themes he will further exploit through the relationship of the two women.
The fascinatingly oneiric composite shots of Ullmann’s and Andersson’s faces display Bergman’s masterful manipulation of chiaroscuro. He depicts their silhouettes overlapping to express, one might argue, their shadowy sense of their identities. In another shot, they stare toward the screen as if it’s a mirror, showing off their identical boyish hairdos before entwining their necks in an embrace. And rarely has such filmic beauty been seen as when Vogler’s gossamer, angelic form drifts to Alma’s bedside to caress her cheeks, then floats out of the pallid light and into the darkness of the adjoining room beyond. This scene exhibits just how artfully Bergman can handle the clichéd movie trope of awaking from a startling dream. The greatest beauty of this scene, of course, is that we’re never sure whether it’s a dream at all.
To fixate on the film’s apparently homoerotic overtones would probably be a mistake, though there seems little doubt that Alma’s obsession for Vogler goes beyond mere celebrity worship. Isolated at a beach house with no man in sight, the two women discover the understanding and compassion that characterize true love—Alma has found someone who will listen to her without interrupting or acting bored and, to Vogler, Alma represents a charming distraction from the emotional rift that lies between her, her son, and her husband, an isolation that haunts her dreams and has robbed her of her voice. With his characteristic sensitivity toward the condition of the fairer sex, Bergman at least must be describing an all-encompassing platonic love that transcends the usual boundaries of love between women. Alma’s madness that ensues upon her overreactions to Vogler’s teasing letters and facial expressions can hardly have been inspired by mere friendship.
That Bergman’s densely philosophical script comes across as well as it does is a testament to the virtuosic performances of Ullman and Andersson, who reportedly became fast friends off screen as well. The two have an undeniable chemistry together, even if they aren’t lesbians (both had affairs with Bergman). Not to mention that they both have such contemplative faces, which Bergman captures in numerous close-ups in varying degrees of light and shadow. Although he had worked with Andersson before, Bergman interestingly selected the younger Ullman because of the similarity of her features to Andersson’s. At first glance, I thought Bergman must have been indulging in some wishful thinking, but with the womens’ cropped hair and similar facial shapes, eye glints, and nasal cavities, I indeed thought I saw doppelgangers emerge through the dim light.
A similar observation can be made about the film as a whole. This is a film open to many interpretations, one that may make you think you’re seeing double, depending on your mood. Despite Persona‘s vaulted reputation these days (it regularly receives the highest critical accolades of any film in Bergman’s canon), it’s certainly not my favorite of his films, perhaps because it sometimes seems so awash in modern self-consciousness that its penetrating insight into the nature of female identity threatens its status as a work of art. Repeated viewings, however, reveal a densely layered structure in which image, in tandem with Bergman’s considerable perception regarding the human condition, are employed side by side to create a masterpiece of transcendent intelligence and beauty.
Joe’s Grade: A