The ‘persona’ can be defined as a mask created by the individual that one wears to both conceal their true nature and to reflect themselves to others; a kind of social face, according to psychiatrist Carl Jung (1953). This could be the explanation behind the actions of the characters within Bergman’s Persona, a film which understandably leaves an impression on the viewer, but an impression sometimes not clearly understood.
Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) is appointed as nurse to patient Elisabet Volger (Liv Ullmann) who has been admitted to hospital, despite being apparently mentally and physically well, due to a sudden muteness and mostly catatonic state. She stopped performing in the middle of a play, as if overcome with a realisation of something significant, and since then has resided herself to silence. Likely due to her high-profile as an actress, the hospital psychiatrist allows Alma to take Elisabet to her beachside house in order to carry out treatment there. Despite Elisabet’s silence, she is attentive to Alma’s wordy one-sided conversations that seem to divulge more and more about herself, leading to an almost palpable shift in the balance of power between the two when it’s discovered Elisabet seems to be ‘studying’ Alma.
The essence of the individual is toyed with by Bergman through the drawing of attention to the ambiguous nature of both Alma and Elisabet as sole beings, and their relationship with one another. This ambiguity leaves the viewer with their own conclusion of what the film actually means, which in itself makes multiple viewings of Persona desirable as you never know what you’ll uncover each time. I think Bergman was stating a few different things in this film, but they all fall under the umbrella of what the title means in terms of psychology. The persona, the mask, the barrier of the individual is broken down and played with through both the characters and the camera itself.
The film opens with the lighting up of a lamp in a projector and numbers counting down in a classic film reel, before leading in to a montage of projected images of cartoons and snippets of short films. The film ends with the same lamp going out after a pan to the side reveals Bergman himself filming the scene. He has purposefully drawn attention to the process of filmmaking, and as William Bayer states, this ‘constitutes some sort of speculation about the role of artist and the meaning of art’ (1973). Elisabet herself can be seen as the artist too as she is a stage actress, and her shutting down and essentially not performing anymore i.e. not putting on her mask, interferes with the norm and leads to the breaking down and confusion of Alma and her own mask.
Alma’s mask slipping happens quite rapidly at the house, as a few too many alcoholic drinks lead her to divulging an affair on her husband and an erotic orgy with two underage boys. She breaks down into tears and Elisabet comforts her – it is now understood that their individual positions shall subsequently start to become confused with one another, as Elisabet takes on the comforting ‘nurse’ roll to Alma’s ‘patient’-esque distress.
Alma learns of Elisabet’s ‘examination’ when reading an unsealed letter written to the doctor; unsealed on purpose, perhaps, to tempt Alma to read it? The almost-joking retelling of Alma’s story that she confided in confidence is the beginning of her distrust towards her patient. The night before she had thought Elisabet spoke, but put it down to her drunken exhaustion. That night, either in a dream or in reality, Elisabet’s ghostly figure comes to Alma and they embrace. The ambiguity of their relationship parallels the ambiguity in their personas as they merge. Clearly the nurse has a deep admiration for the patient, something again joked about in Elisabet’s letter that enrages Alma. Later, Alma leaves broken glass in the dirt for Elisabet to step in. She cuts her foot, and as she makes eye contact with Alma and a connection is made that she hurt her intentionally, tears and burns rip across the screen. This instance of filmmaking imagery to relate a human connection proves Bergman wants the audience to realise that he, the director, is in control of this film and can control our reactions to it.
The women themselves look similar, and Bergman often exploits this with the close-ups of their faces against one another or making their clothing indistinguishable from each other when they touch. During one of the final scenes in which Alma and Elisabet sit across from one another, Alma describes and dissects Elisabet’s traumatic past with her deformed son whom she did not want as it would interfere with her theatre work. She gave the boy away, and he yearns for her affection – a photograph of him, put together after being previously torn up by Elisabet, lays in front of her. This monologue is spoken by Alma, the camera solely on Elisabet. Once it’s over, Bergman repeats the monologue, but the camera focused on Alma (once again bringing attention to his manipulation of the filmmaking process). He ends the dual sequence with a dual image; Alma and Elisabet’s faces, halved and superimposed on one another so you cannot distinguish whose sides is whose, really seeing the similarities in their appearances. The shot is quite horrifying really, reminiscent of a Frankenstein’s monster, artificially created with an understanding that they should not be in that state. Bergman uses surreal imagery to show how Alma’s and Elisabet’s personas have truly become merged in that moment. Their appearances are similar, as are their personas, just as the art and the artists are similar and become one in the filmmaking process.
Bergman even allows Alma and Elisabet to interact with us, occasionally addressing the camera when speaking or even photographing us. After the opening montage but before we are introduced to the characters, a young boy lies on a slab in a morgue, surrounded by dead bodies. He wakes, and goes up to the camera. He caresses the lens, and the next shot shows him caresses a blurry projection of either Alma or Elisabet – again, Bergman draws us to the idea of masks, both our own as the spectator and consumer of his art and of the masks of his characters.
The relationship between artist and audience equals the relationship between the individual and their mask; the social face they put on for others (their audience) to see. Film is about personal expression in the form of art, so what is Bergman saying about film as an artistic medium and what it can do for the individual expressing it? Well, it shows a cathartic and almost surgical operation that can release a personal feeling that viewers of their film may not fully understand, but can still process.
Bayer, W. (1973). The Great Movies. London: Grosset & Dunlap, Inc., p.190.
Jung, C. G. (1953). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology.