From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
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.
Persona takes place mostly at a seaside summer residence in Sweden, where the mute actress Elisabet Vogler (played by Liv Ullmann) has been sent by her psychiatrist to recuperate after her breakdown. A nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), accompanies and cares for her. The two women spend long summer days enjoying the outdoors. Elisabet says nothing while Alma passes the time telling stories. While Elisabet is ostensibly the patient, her silence suggests a reversal: in psychoanalysis the doctor is silent and the patient speaks. Thus Alma might be seen as the patient and Elisabet, the silent analyst. This is one of several twists that Bergman uses in structuring the film.
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.
The fact is that 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 8½ (1963), Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Bergman's own Dreams (1955) and The Magician (1958). There are hundreds of others.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Other readings of Persona use a psychoanalytic frame of reference. One reading of this sort can be found here Daniel Shaw's interpretation.
Two scenes are frequently cut from versions of the film; a 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.
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.
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.