SPOILER ALERT: This is one of the most incredibly moving films I've ever seen. It overwhelmed me on my first watch. So, since I will discuss aspects of the plot, I highly encourage you to watch the film before reading this review.
Sometimes, a film speaks so perceptibly into my current life situation or mental condition that it reaches somewhere deep inside me, even to my very soul. My initial viewing of Persona was just such an occasion.
I was having one of those days where I struggled with a lot of self-doubt. Why is my personality so much different than who I was in college? I almost feel like a completely different person than I was just a few short years ago. Surely I am a different person in some ways, in other ways I'm the same. Am I a better person? Am I worse? Why do I so often find myself recharging through solitude and seclusion rather than through engagement with other people, as I used to? Is my newfound introversion something to celebrate, or have I neglected relationships?
If that paragraph sent you into a brief malaise, first of all, thanks for continuing to read. But rest assured that it sent me into an even deeper malaise that evening. My wife could surely tell that something was amiss. One of the ways we often describe these moods is by saying - "I just wasn't myself."
Think about that phrase for a second. I just wasn't myself. If so, who were you? In some ways, we all seem to have many "self's" - or maybe you prefer to say "personalities." Or maybe, the better term to use would be "personas."
I had been wanting to explore more of Ingmar Bergman's filmography ever since I discovered The Seventh Seal - what is now one of my all-time favorite films. As the evening wore on, I realized that I just needed to watch a film and set aside all this personal pondering that had me in a cloud of gloom. Some may call it fate. I choose to believe that there is design even in small things such as this. In any case, I landed on Persona and thus began one of my great cinematic experiences right in my own living room.
The film focuses on an actress named Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) who has suddenly become mute. A young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) is tasked with caring for her as she is brought back to health.
Before the film proper even begins, however, we're given a prologue that is rather difficult to describe. It has become one of the legendary sequences in cinema, and it points to Bergman's unquestionable genius. But, on a first watch of the film, it is very difficult to place and interpret. Since this first watch, I purchased the Criterion Collection version of the film and have watched interviews with Bergman and the actresses in the film. I've also read many critical reviews that attempt to describe the prologue sequence as well as later scenes that echo back to it. When asked about the meaning of the prologue and the film in general, Bergman himself said that he would never dictate meaning to the viewer, but that he preferred to put his work out there and let others find meaning in it. At the end of the day this film (as is the case with all art, really) is about the merging of what YOU the viewer find within it with the intentions of the artist. Its greatness comes in part from the fact that so many different viewers can find so many different interpretations and meanings within it.
The prologue begins with movie camera equipment and projectors lighting up and coming to life, in a sense. Themes of birth and beginning are clearly present - specifically the birth of cinema. We see clips from early silent film reels that Bergman used in his earlier work. Finally, we see a young boy who wakes up in a hospital next to several corpses. We see that he is reading Michail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. Then comes a famous shot of him reaching out towards the camera - towards us as the viewer. The perspective shifts, and we see that he is reaching out towards a large screen that is rotating between blurry images of two women - whom we will later discover to be Elisabet and Alma. Bergman is clearly toying with the idea of a movie as a mirror or window - the screen either providing a portal into the lives of other people or a medium by which we can see and consider our own reflections.
In the hospital, the adminstrator (Margaretha Krook) explains to Alma the dire situation and even offers her own seaside cottage as a place for rest and rejuvenation for Elisabet. The actress offers only blank stares at the beginning of the film, except for when she sees footage of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk burning himself alive and reacts with extreme panic. Alma must nurse her back to health, and the two of them do indeed decide to go up to the cottage to help Elisabet relax. Before they leave, Alma reads aloud a letter from Elisabet's husband, and shows her a photo of her son that was included with the letter.
At the cottage, Elisabet continues to be unresponsive. Alma fills the silence with feelings about books she is reading and other more trivial matters. She talks of how her fiance, Karl-Henrik, often says she lacks ambition "though not with my career, I suppose in some greater way." Alma repeatedly compares herself to Elisabet. Finally, Alma delievers a famous monologue about an adulturous sexual encounter she had with underage boys on a beach. There is no nudity displayed on screen. It is just Alma talking to Elisabet about what happened. However, it is vividly descriptive and erotic. I'll discuss the film's content at the end of this review, but this monologue alone certainly makes the film one that younger viewers should at least watch with care, if not save for when they are older.
Alma goes on to tell Elisabet that she became pregnant and had an abortion - "...and that was that." She has never told another soul about what happened on the beach, and though it seems she feels some kind of catharsis from telling Elisabet, it is clear that Alma has no idea how to process the beach encounter and the abortion mentally. It is at this moment that we hear Elisabet speaking for the first time as she tells Alma to go to bed. But, in the morning, Alma dismisses it as a dream and Elisabet denies ever speaking.
Alma drives into town to deliver letters for Elisabet, presumably for her husband. On her way, she notices that one of the letters is open. She cannot resist the urge, and she parks by the roadside to read it. She finds out that Elisabet claims to have been analyzing and studying Alma, rather than the other way around.
She returns to Elisabet distraught and feeling betrayed. She breaks a drinking glass and leaves one of the shards for Elisabet to step on. She does, and when her foot begins to bleed she looks up knowingly at Alma. At this point, the film itself breaks apart and flashes and scratch marks appear. We are then given glimpses of the earlier prelude.
When the film returns, we see a blurry image of Elisabet. The image clears when she looks out the window at Alma. She goes out to meet her, and Alma is still saddened and bitter. At lunch, Alma tells Elisabet that she has been hurt by having Elisabet talk about her behind her back. She begs Elisabet to speak. Elisabet still does not react, which sends Alma into a rage. Eventually, Alma threatens to throw a pot of boiling water at Elisabet before Elisabet finally exclaims - "No!"
I'll refer you to the great Roger Ebert and his own review of the film to discuss the significance of this scene. His thoughts on the film as a whole have certainly influenced my own. One quote at the end of his review I find to be particularly meaningful:
Alma finally pursues Elisabet to ask for forgiveness. Later that evening, Elisabet opens a book to find an image of Jews being arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto. She specifically focuses at a boy in the photo with his hands raised. This, along with the earlier video of the Buddhist monk, suggest that the unbelievable evils of the world have pushed Elisabet into silence.
Then comes the famous dream sequence. That night, Alma watches Elisabet sleep. She then hears a man yelling outside and finds that it is Elisabet's husband, Mr. Vogler (Gunnar Bjornstrand). But he mistakes Alma for his wife. Alma repeatedly tells him that she isn't his wife, yet he continues to proclaim his love for her and the child they have together. Elisabet stands quietly beside them, her face in full view of the camera with Alma in profile behind her. This has become a famous cinematic image along with others in this film. I should pause her to specifically mention the cinematography of Sven Nykvist. Especially in this dream sequence (if it is indeed a dream - that is for you to decide), the gray hues and the soft lighting are mesmerizing. At other times, his work showcases the beach and the beautiful scenery around the cottage, but the cinematograpy is stellar throughout.
Finally, the film ends with Alma finding Elisabet in the kitchen the next morning with a pained expression on her face. Alma recites Elisabet's life story back to her while the camera maintains a tight focus on Elisabet's face. We hear of Elisabet's pregnancy and her failed attempts at aborting the fetus. We hear of how she is repulsed by the child and even prays for the death of her son. The child is tormented by a desperate longing for affection. We think back to the images of the boy reaching for the screen at the beginning of the film.
Then the camera turns to Alma as she repeats the same monologue again word-for-word. When she is finished, one half of Alma's face and one half of Elisabet's are shown in split screen until they seem to merge. This is the film's most famous image, and it is said to have startled the actresses when Bergman showed it to them.
Alma then panics and leaves crying out - "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!" Alma leaves, returns later and finds that Elisabet is completely catatonic. She packs her things and finally leaves. As she does so, the camera pans to show the crew and director filming this very scene.
This shot of the camera crew seems to be Bergman showing that all movies are creations and it is impossible to completely remove the artist from the work of art. All movies are contrived - in a sense - in that they are not happening in front of us. They are written and conceived and often contain illusions or things that are fake. Even when they depict real-life stories, there's an added element of separation. There's always that window or mirror - the screen. And the creators are always present in the work.
In similar fashion, so much happens when I'm watching a film. The content of the film itself - both the images and the words - obviously have an impact on me. But I also bring something to the experience. My own history, beliefs and current life situations often inform how I perceive a film. There's simply no way to completely divest myself from the movie and watch it completely blank. So moviegoing - for me - is this beautiful mixture of many different inputs. As I said before, it's this merging of the intentions of the creator and the thoughts and feelings of the viewer that are one of the many reasons I love movies. And Persona must surely be one of the greatest examples of this.
Are Alma and Elisabet two distinct people, or are they two sides of the same person? I would posit that the film's singular title gives us a hint in that regard, but nothing is certain here. Persona is one of those films that doesn't seem possible to fully grasp. I look forward to revisiting it many times to discover new things about it. I'll always remember that initial viewing for how it spoke into my own struggles with who I am as a person. The next time I watch it, I will surely be a different person in some ways and the same person in others.
Note on content: The movie does depict violence both through images that Elisabet looks at (the immolation of the Buddhist monk, the Warsaw Ghetto) and also through scenes of physical violence between the characters (Elisabet cutting her foot on the glass, a physical fight between the two, Alma cutting her own arm). Also, in the film's prologue, a sheep is shown being slaughtered and a human hand is shown with a nail being driven through it (this will be shown again later in the film). In general, the film deals with heavy psychological themes and is very mature in that regard. There is some minor profanity, but most of the film's vulgarity comes in Alma's erotic monologue about her sexual encounter on the beach. The monologue is extremely vivid, and though no nudity is shown on screen during the monologue, her account of it is not much tamer. This is the most overt sexual content in the film. In the film's prologue an image of a penis is shown for less than a second to the point where a blink will cause you to miss it. There is a scene where Alma and Mr. Vogler kiss and presumably engage in intercourse, but no nudity is shown. The two women also walk around in bathing suits, but they are not overly-revealing. Overall, I found this to be one of the most moving and thought-provoking films I have ever seen, but it will probably not be appropriate for younger viewers. However, for viewers of a certain age and maturity, I could not recommend the film any higher.