Persona (1966 film)  

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Persona is not the first film to be self-referential. In fact, self-referential gestures such as these are found throughout film history—the very first film ever made includes self-referential moments— and many such films even pre-date Brecht. A few notable examples of films that are deeply self-referential include Kinugasa's A Page of Madness (1926), Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Federico Fellini's (1963), Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Bergman's own Dreams (1955) and The Magician (1958). There are hundreds of others.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Persona is a movie by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, released in 1966, and featuring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. Bergman holds this film to be one of his most important; in his book Images, he writes: "Today I feel that in Persona--and later in Cries and Whispers--I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover."

The film explores an encounter between two women: Elisabet a successful actress who has become mute during a performance of Electra, and Alma (soul in Spanish and Portuguese), the nurse charged with caring for her. It is loosely drawn from August Strindberg's play, The Stronger.

Persona is considered a major artistic work by film critics and filmmakers. The essayist Susan Sontag (Styles of Radical Will) is one of many critics who have written extensively about it. Film scholar P. Adams Sitney offers a completely different reading. While the film has been widely and variously interpreted, many critics agree that it explores the intricacies of the doctor-patient relationship, in particular the phenomenon of transference.



Two scenes are frequently cut from versions of the film; a subliminal brief shot at the beginning depicting an erect penis, and a piece of Alma's monologue where she says her lover "made her come with his hand" and implies they were children or teenagers. These changes were removed for American distribution, but retained on most American video releases.

When MGM archivist John Kirk restored Persona as part of a larger restoration project, he worked with the original, uncensored version with the brief shot of an erect penis. He also created new subtitles by commissioning several language experts to provide new, accurate translations for the dialogue; this is particularly noticeable during Alma's graphic recollection of an orgy, which some were reluctant to translate without toning down some of the details.

The original, uncensored version wasn't widely available in the U.S. until 2004, when MGM's home video department reissued Persona on DVD, utilizing Kirk's work.


Persona begins with images of camera equipment and projectors lighting up and projecting dozens of brief cinematic glimpses, including a crucifixion, an erect penis, a tarantula spider, clips from a comedic silent-film reel first seen in Bergman's Prison (depicting a man trapped in a room, being chased by Death and Satan), and the slaughter of a lamb. The last, and longest, glimpse features a boy who wakes up in a hospital next to several corpses, reading Michail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time ("Vår Tids Hjälte" in the film), and caressing a blurry, transient image that shifts between Elisabet and/or Alma's faces.

A young nurse, Alma (portrayed by Bibi Andersson), is summoned by the head doctor and charged with the care of stage actress Elisabet Vogler (portrayed by Liv Ullmann), who has, despite the lack of any diagnosed impairment, become mute. The hospital administrator (portrayed by Margaretha Krook) offers her own seaside cottage as a place for Alma to nurse Elisabet back to health. Though Elisabet is nearly catatonic when the film begins, she does react with extreme panic upon seeing a Vietnamese Buddhist monk's self-immolation on television, and laughs mockingly at Alma's radio soap opera. As the two women leave the hospital together, Alma reads aloud a letter Elisabet's husband has sent her, which includes a photograph of her young son.

Together in the administrator's cottage, Elisabet begins to relax, though she remains completely silent and non-responsive. Alma speaks constantly to break the silence, at first about books she is reading and trivial matters, then increasingly about her own anxieties and relationship with her fiancé, Karl-Henrik, who scolds her for lacking ambition – "though not with my career, I suppose in some greater way." Alma constantly compares herself to Elisabet and begins to grow attached to her. As the act closes, Alma confesses to cheating on her fiancé in a ménage à quatre with underage boys. She became pregnant, and had Karl-Henrik's friend abort the baby; "and that was that". She is not sure how to process the abortion mentally. Elisabet is heard to say "You ought to go to bed, or you'll fall asleep at the table", but Alma dismisses it as a dream. Elisabet later denies speaking.

Alma drives into town, taking Elisabet's letters for the postbox, but parks by the roadside to read what she wrote. She discovers in Elisabet's letters that Elisabet has been analyzing her and "studying" her. Alma returns distraught, accidentally breaks a drinking glass on the footpath, and leaves the shards there to cut Elisabet. When Elisabet's feet start to bleed, her gaze meets Alma's knowingly, and the film itself breaks apart: the screen flashes white, scratch marks appear up and down the image, the sound rises and screeches, and the film appears to unwind as brief flashes of the prelude reappear for fractions of a second each.

When the film resumes, it is following Elisabet through the house with a thick blur on the lens. The image clears up with a sharp snap when she looks out the window before walking outside to meet Alma, who is weepy and bitter. At lunch, she tells Elisabet she has been hurt by Elisabet talking about her behind her back, and begs her to speak. When Elisabet does not react, the nurse flies into a rage. Alma tries to attack her and chases her through the cottage, but Elisabet hits her during the ensuing scuffle causing Alma's nose to start bleeding. In retaliation, Alma grabs a pot of boiling water off the stove and is about to fling it at Elisabet, but stops after hearing Elisabet wail "No!" Alma explains that Elisabet wouldn't have spoken had she not feared death. Alma goes to the bathroom, washes her face, and tries to pull herself together. She then goes to Elisabet and frustrated by her unresponsiveness tells her, "You are inaccessible. They said you were healthy, but your sickness is of the worst kind: it makes you seem healthy. You act it so well everyone believes it, everyone except me, because I know how rotten you are inside." Elisabet tries to walk away, but Alma pursues and continues to accost her. Elisabet flees, and Alma chases her begging for forgiveness. That evening, Elisabet opens a book she is reading and finds a famous Stroop Report photograph of Jews being arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto. Elisabet stares at details in the photograph, but mostly at the boy with his hands raised.

That night, Alma watches Elisabet sleep, analyzing her face and the scars she covers with makeup. She hears a man yelling outside, and finds Elisabet's husband, Mr. Vogler, in the garden. Mr. Vogler (portrayed by Gunnar Björnstrand) mistakes Alma for his wife, and despite her repeatedly interjecting with "I'm not your wife", delivers a monologue about his love for her and the son they have together (repeating words he wrote to Elisabet in the opening act – "We must see each other as two anxious children"). Elisabet stands quietly beside the two, holding Alma's hand, and Alma admits her love for Mr. Vogler and accepts her role as the mother of Elisabet's child. The two make love with Elisabet sitting quietly next to the bed with a look of panic on her face, and afterward, Alma cries. The image of Elisabet becomes blurry.

The climax of the film comes the next morning; Alma catches Elisabet in the kitchen with a pained expression on her face, holding a picture of a small boy. Alma then narrates Elisabet's life story back to her, while the camera focuses tightly on Elisabet's anguished face: at a party one night, a man tells her "Elisabet, you have it virtually all in your armory as woman and artist. But you lack motherliness." She laughs, because it sounds silly, but the idea sticks in her mind, and she lets her husband impregnate her. As the pregnancy progresses, she grows increasingly worried about her stretching and swelling body, her responsibility to her child, the pain of birth, and the idea of abandoning her career. Everyone Elisabet knows constantly says "Isn't she beautiful? She has never been so beautiful", but Elisabet makes repeated attempts to abort the fetus. After the child is born, she is repulsed by it, and prays for the death of her son. The child grows up tormented and desperate for affection. The camera turns to show Alma's face, and she repeats the same monologue again. At its conclusion, one half of the face of Alma and the other of Elisabet's visage are shown in split screen, such that they appear to have become one face. Alma panics and cries "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!" In a dreamlike sequence, Alma - dressed in her nurse's uniform - comes to the bed of Elisabet and tells her to say "nothing". Elisabet manages to repeat the word. Back at the cottage, Alma leaves, and later returns, to find that Elisabet has become completely catatonic. Alma falls into a strange mood and gashes her arm, forcing Elisabet's lips to the wound and subsequently beating her. Alma packs her things and leaves the cottage alone, as the camera turns away from the women to show the crew and director filming the scene. The film ends with the boy from the prologue touching the split-screen image of Elisabet and Alma.

Brechtian alienation technique

Many critics believe that Persona is one of the first films to make use of the Brechtian alienation technique (Verfremdungseffekt), used to call attention to and/or interrupt the fictional world of the movie, and to remind the viewer of the necessarily artificial nature of the medium. Some notable uses of the technique in Persona are at the beginning and end, where you see a reel of film being loaded; in the middle, when Elisabet steps on glass and the film appears to burn; and later on, when the camera turns around to display the crew filming a scene with Elisabet.

Opening sequence

Persona's startling opening sequence has invited many creative interpretations. In Persona, there are several sequences which consist of a series of seemingly random shots in quick succession, in the way a current MTV video clip would. A film projector starting up, a vampiric spider, a boy being woken up, a child's hand on a blurry mother's face, a bloodied lamb, a nail being driven into a hand (in some versions of this sequence there is an image of an erect penis as well) — and although Bergman himself invites viewers to interpret the sequences like a poem, the most plausible reading would be to understand these images as examples of "screen memories" (cf. Sigmund Freud)—those childhood images that are either true or not, but often, when understood in the structure of psychoanalysis represent some sort of "trauma" (dream). It is noteworthy that many of the images chosen by Bergman have "classical" interpretations in psychoanalytic text. The crucifixion scene for example is commonly understood in psychoanalysis as representing the "trauma" of the primal scene: ie. the child's experience of seeing his parents having sex.

Possible interpretations

The film has been interpreted in many different ways and has been the subject of long-standing debates among film fans as well as critics. Because Bergman's film is so surrealistic, perverse, and ambiguous, Persona criticism is often colorful and filled with gymnastic rationalizations and explanations of the narrative. Following are some of the most popular interpretations of the film.

First reading

Elisabet and the nurse are one and the same person. They are "split" when the actress does not want to act any more, and retires to her own self. The term "does not want to act" depicts two things: firstly, she does not want to act as a job, and secondly, in a more distant, but more appropriate interpretation, she does not want to act to the outside world (e.g. in the movie the nurse part of the personality says this: "But you played the part. The part of a pregnant, happy mother.") The nurse is nothing more than the outside appearance of the same person—this is why Mr. Vogler recognises her (and not Elisabet) as Mrs. Vogler. Elisabet is the inner self of the same person: she is a quiet, strong personality. This interpretation is suggested when the two half-faces of the nurse and Elisabet are put together into one picture, one face (note also that the nurse says during the beginning that she thought that Elisabet is very similar to her).

Second reading

Alma is the nurse who is supposed to be treating Elisabet, but this is gradually reversed. Simply by talking to Elisabet, Alma develops a feeling of closeness to her and comes to divulge intimate secrets, even though Elisabet has not reciprocated. This transference effect is shattered when Alma reads Elisabet's letter to her doctor, mentioning that Alma has childishly fallen in love with Elisabet and that it is interesting to study Alma. Suddenly, Alma realizes that she has been only an object for Elisabet, and lashes out against her. Yet the film progresses to a complex confusion of Elisabet's and Alma's characters, felt perhaps most strikingly when Elisabet's blind husband visits and mistakes Alma for Elisabet; Alma hesitates at first, but then embraces the role, beginning by saying the things to him that Elisabet cannot or will not say, and then "breaking down" (deconstruction) much as we can imagine Elisabet did.

Third Reading

Other readings of Persona use a psychoanalytic frame of reference. One reading of this sort can be found here Daniel Shaw's interpretation.

Other films

David Lynch's films Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006) share similarities with Bergman's Persona.

Bergman features prominently in Woody Allen's work. Another Woman is a variation on Persona, and Love and Death references Persona in its final minutes; two characters are lined up, one facing the camera, the other at a 90-degree angle, with their mouths in the same space, just as in Persona.

Robert Altman's expressionist film 3 Women is also influenced by Persona as Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek begin to shift roles.

Liv Ullmann's costume in the film (black headband, black turtleneck and black pants) is echoed by Pepper Binkley's costume as "Michelle" in Let Them Chirp Awhile, a 2007 independent film by director Jonathan Blitstein. Blitstein intended to draw similarities between the two characters' isolation.

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