by Afra Nariman
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Liv Ullman, Bibi Anderson
In the film’s first act a doctor introduces us to the existential predicament of the protagonist:
“That hopeless dream of being. Not of seeming to be but being. Conscious and awake at every moment. At the same time, the chasm between what you are to others and what you are to yourself. The feeling of vertigo, and the constant hunger to be unmasked once and for all. To be seen through, cut down… perhaps even annihilated.”
Persona is perhaps the greatest exploration of the “self” ever put on screen. A Bergsonian deconstruction (and eventual reconstruction) of the self, the film offers us two titular characters to explore the two parts of the self through — two parts which are akin to Bergson’s deep-rooted self (or inner core) and superficial self (or outer-core) self’s. For the sake of this film and in its context, the inner core-self is equivalent to the soul, represented by Elizabeth (Liv Ullmann), and the outer-core is equivalent to the “societal mask” represented by Alma (Bibi Andersson).
It’s almost impossible to cover every aspect of this 84-minute Goliath of a film. There’s so much to take away and each viewing is not only better than the last, but richer.
To clarify and avoid any confusion; an analysis of Persona, like the film itself, will have to consist of a combination of the film’s surface narrative (where Elizabeth and Alma are two separate individuals), and a more philosophical, metaphorical one in which they are two parts of the same self.
“She complains that her notions about life fail to accord with her actions.”
For some reason, I’m going to start at the very end of the film, after Elizabeth and Alma have ‘converged’ and it is known that they are/were one, when it seems as though she has recovered. In isolation, Elizabeth/Alma didn’t have to put on her mask to hide her truths from everyone; she didn’t have to hide her guilty conscience, her shortcomings, her regrets, anxieties, etc. This is seen in the way Alma opens up to Elizabeth. At one point Alma says to Elizabeth:
“I told you things I never told anybody else.”
Really, she told herself these things. She was finally honest with herself when in isolation, with nobody around her to lie to, or to put on a mask for. The “two parts of her self” were able to align, find some peace, and fall back in place into one.
So, at the end of the film, as she is leaving the summer house for good, leaving isolation and preparing to once again need to put on the mask and speak (essentially begin to lie), Bergman cuts to a quick shot of filmmakers moving the camera onto an actress, Liv Ullman’s character in costume, acting. This signifies that at this point, Elizabeth/Alma — as soon as the bus is pulling up, where she will surely encounter the first group of other people — now puts on her mask, ready to act the part once again. What she needed though, was to be honest with herself before doing so, and that’s what she did in isolation, alone with herself.
In the beginning of the film, while talking to herself as nurse Alma, she says that she’s happy with her life, with getting married and having children — “that’s good,” she says — half-trying to convince herself of it. She was dishonest with herself. She needed that time in isolation, alone with Elizabeth, alone with her soul, to speak honestly without a mask on. Having done that, she was prepared again (or as prepared as one could ever be, because as she essentially says earlier in the film, we need to lie sometimes to live in this world); she was prepared to put on the mask and act the part again, because as Bergson also argues, we must act from our outer-core self everyday in order to live in the world amongst others. The outer-core self, the mask we put on for others and act through, may not accord with our notions about life and ways of being; and that’s when there is crisis in one’s soul, as Elizabeth/Alma suffers from in Persona.
Additionally, notable are the details behind the narrative characterization of these two characters. Alma is a nurse. Keeping in mind the story she tells Elizabeth near the end (by this time we realize she is essentially talking to herself) about her failure to conform to society’s image of her as a woman with “motherliness,” and her subsequent inability to love her son, who she once wished death upon; it is interesting to note that the image of herself that she created, nurse Alma, is the complete opposite of the version of her self that she is ‘ashamed’ of and feels guilty for being. Rather than being a supposedly “selfish person who put her desires of being a great actress in front of her ‘duty’ to be a good mother,” her fabricated image of her self is a woman of the most unselfish profession, one who wholly cares for others, dedicates her life to it in fact. This reminds of Alma’s early confessions to Elizabeth, when she recounts the details of a small house at the hospital for retired nurses who dedicated their entire lives to the profession of helping others. About this, Alma says:
“Imagine believing so strongly in something that you devote your entire life to it. Having something to believe in, working at something, believing your life has meaning. I like that. I think that’s how it should be. Meaning something to other people.”
So, Elizabeth/Alma’s created self is the type of person who she confesses she admires most and sees the most meaning in being. She, like all of us, is desperate to live a meaningful life.
Now here’s another interesting tangent to take. Her real profession is that of Elizabeth’s: an actress, or an artist. In many of Bergman’s films, there is an autobiographical element to them, especially through his artist-characters. This is prevalent in films like Shame (1968), Hour of the Wolf (1969), and many others. Bergman is also never shy of self-criticism through his portrayal of these characters. In Persona, the artist is characterized as selfish and unable to live in society. The artist here is subjected to only being able to cope through living within herself/himself, only living as soul, unable to conform enough to live productively as a part of society. The artist is represented by Liv Ullman’s Elizabeth — unable to speak because she is unwilling to lie, or to play a part for others. When restricted of speech, the artist resorts to communicate through creating — and that’s just what Bergman did. The self-critical aspect of it is that in Persona, this characterization is synonymous with selfishness. In a moment earlier in the film, when Alma is desperate for Elizabeth to speak, and she doesn’t, Alma frustratedly says:
“I always thought great artists felt this great compassion for other people… that they created art out of great compassion and a need to help. That was silly of me.”
In other words, artists don’t create out of compassion. Art is an act of selfishness, a means of self-preservation. Its for artists, the ones who are most atune to the presence of societal masks, to communicate without having to physically speak themselves — without needing to put on a mask — without being in the world with others in any meaningfully tangible way. This is a common reality for many great artists who dedicate all their time to their art, often at the detriment of those around them. Art comes from the human soul; it is a form of communication without needing to hide behind the veil of a mask.
Moving on, Bergson said that the inner-core self, in this context the soul, only “speaks” in defining moments of our lives. This is displayed in Persona in the only scene in which Liv Ullman’s Elizabeth speaks — in fear of Alma throwing a boiling pot of hot water on her. As Alma put it, it was Elizabeth’s “fear of death” that motivated her to finally speak. Our instincts for survival and self-preservation force us to put on a mask — in the film this “mask” is synonymous with speech. When threatened, Elizabeth speaks, she puts on a mask. This is essentially why we must act from our outer-core self, via our masks — to not only live, as Alma states, but to survive in this world.
Alma, wanting Elizabeth (her soul), to speak, says,
“Does it really have to be this way? Is telling the truth really that important?”
If our souls would speak more often and not just in our defining moments, Alma wonders if we would feel more at ease, more comfortable, more happy. But the soul does not worry about our everyday issues. It laughs at them, as Ullman’s Elizabeth does in one scene, because our everyday actions are trivial in the grand scheme of things.
In the same way that The Seventh Seal and many of Bergman’s other films regarding the silence of God feature a protagonist reaching outwards to receive guidance from a higher power (God) but not hearing anything back; in Persona, the protagonist reaches inwards instead, hoping for her soul to speak, to guide her, but finds that like God, our souls too refrain from speaking back to us.
Of course this is just my reading of the film — one of many possible interpretations. Persona is a film full of symbolism and mystery and can be experienced in various ways by each viewer. It’s such a testament to the film that it can be and has been analyzed from the perspective of such a myriad of different philosophies, as well as in wholly new and original ways.
MY RATING /5:
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