Persona (1966)

Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook

(I definitely reserve the right to fix this one up later.)

It’s interesting that Elisabet chooses silence as her escape rather than blindness. Her letter proves that she is not shy about communicating, necessarily, but more importantly it is her sight which terrifies her, forces her back into herself. In one scene, she has the news on and watches the famous newsreel of the self-immolating monk protesting the Vietnam War. In another, she stares deeply into a famous picture of a child surrendering in the Warsaw Ghetto. Frequently referenced is the picture of her son that she rips in half. The sight of the monk on fire pushes her literally into the corner of the room, cowering with her hand up at her mouth. The picture from the Warsaw Ghetto is parsed with a thoroughness, with a microscopic focus on the many, less iconic faces in the picture. The boy’s panic is now suffused with the faces around him which are less panicked and worried than his own. Yet this picture also seems to strongly affect Elisabet, a meta reminder that single images, present long enough to attract our searching views, have a power and life of their own. They are also reminders of the power that lands heavily upon individuals who take drastic action to return some small amount of power to themselves. To me, these aren’t statements of politics so much as they are clues of Elisabet’s powerlessness, and the anorectic strength she needs to exhibit to return any amount of power to her own situation.

Persona is a film which lives to provide images and not sequences. It is the apotheosis of Bergman’s inclination to point and shoot, with the caveat that how he points his camera is always fitting. The film is unsettling from the first, with images which are highly religious. Someone’s hands are nailed to a cross with an old-fashioned hammer and nails; we linger here. A lamb is slaughtered and its organs hang out; this happens rapidly. Somewhere innocence is being destroyed, someone is standing in as a sacrifice for someone else, and our revulsion is shaped by our pity. It’s a fabulously bold choice to begin a story which returns to those images only fleetingly but uses them as symbolic vessels for the concepts which Persona hits on over and over again.

Who the innocent is – Alma (Andersson) or Elisabet (Ullmann) – is the question. It’s probably neither. Probably the innocents are their children, the son Elisabet never wanted or the child Alma aborted. In the scene which stands out the most to me, the camera stays on Elisabet’s face, half-wreathed in shadow, as Alma tells Elisabet the unknowable story of her child’s conception and birth. “You wished it would be stillborn,” Alma says. Elisabet, she recounts, had the baby almost as the response to a challenge that she was not motherly. Bergman is fond of these shots, shots which require his actresses to react subtly over minutes at a time; I was reminded of Liv Ullmann getting a tongue lashing from Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata at this point, although on further reflection it’s more like Liv Ullmann getting a worse tongue lashing from Erland Josephson in Cries and Whispers. And then, incredibly – it might be the most daring thing I’ve ever seen in a movie – Bergman repeats the scene from Alma’s perspective. With her own face half-wreathed in shadow, the same monologue is repeated, but instead of watching Ullmann look hurt, we see the passion on Andersson’s face instead. From both sides the monologue takes on a new life, one which firmly supports the conclusion that their solitude together is radically altering them. Alma used to be more or less self-assured; at this point in the film she vacillates back and forth between an anger so consuming that she threatens to scald her patient and a need for her patient that forces her onto the beach, running after Elisabet to beg her forgiveness. Elisabet used to seem vacant; she cannot be vacant when so much attention is placed on her all the time. And it is in this context that the two faces are melded together, and if the decision to repeat the monologue is daring, then to put Alma and Elisabet’s faces next to one another as if they were one person is pressed-back-in-your-seat shocking. For much of the film the two of their faces have been practically on top of each other, either in perspective or in fact, and here we merely take the next step. Bergman lingers here a moment, and the longer one looks, the more it looks like one person. Andersson and Ullmann are easy to differentiate, and in a color film this illusion would fall apart immediately, but in black and white we can convince ourselves that Alma-Elisabet are a single identity in one largely symmetrical person. (Personally, I found myself clinging to Ullmann’s nose to remind myself that it was a clever edit and not one individual.)
At this point Alma’s been taking Elisabet’s silent punishment for so long that she can barely remember when it was a mostly harmless self-imposed condition, a statement of Elisabet’s willpower rather than one of her ability to inflict pain. Elisabet has not given up her power of expression. She has written a letter which recounts the deeply private story which Alma shared with her not long before, a confession (for that’s how any secret this deep must be shared) of group sex on the beach. It is a profoundly erotic story; it is also one that Elisabet callously shrugs off with an offhand “It’s fun studying her,” the same way that it must have been “fun” studying the part of Electra. It is one of the most aggrieving betrayals I’ve ever witnessed in a text; through her self-imposed silence, Elisabet practically goads Alma into her confessions and congratulates herself on her cleverness. I half-wished that Alma would have thrown that pot of boiling water in Elisabet’s direction, but it turns out that the fake-out was enough: Elisabet cries out involuntarily. Alma wins that round, forcing a verbal reaction from the woman who was so superior to her. Among the dissatisfaction that swirls around everyone, this one moment is as close to a triumph as we get. (The moment where Alma booby traps the walk with a shard of glass is a little less glorious.) Yet that triumph is itself hollow if we grant, as I have, that Elisabet’s silence is manifested to return strength to her own life rather than siphoning her self out in little pieces to a family or to a job.

The boiling over that Alma and Elisabet create – one brings the water and the other provides the heat – was reminiscent to me of a passage in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” that’s always stood out to me. Adrienne Rich notes earlier in the section that lesbian existence is not necessarily sexual, but “woman-identified experience.” It is in this context that she says:

It [lesbian existence] is also a direct or indirect attack on male access to women. But it is more than these, although we may first begin to perceive it as a form of nay-saying to patriarchy, an act of resistance. It has of course included role playing, self-hatred, breakdown, alcoholism, suicide, and intrawoman violence; we romanticize at our peril what it means to love and act against the grain…

There’s only one adult man in the action of this story: Elisabet’s husband (Gunnar Bjornstrand), who appears to be blind, mistakes Alma for Elisabet despite Alma’s best efforts to correct him. Other than that, the rest of the diagetic characters are adult women. The summer house is loaned to Alma and Elisabet by Elisabet’s doctor (Krook). Alma and Elisabet spend their summer there almost entirely alone, surrounded by one another. Their experience that summer, despite the recollections of men, is “woman-identified” and totally unconventional. Alma is twenty-five, engaged, a nurse. Elisabet is older, a mother, a wife, an actress. What they involve themselves in – this strange, one-sided verbal relationship fueled by Alma and the one-sided physical touch that Elisabet provides – is certainly “against the grain.” But as Rich says, the early steps of lesbian existence are fraught with difficulty. Alma’s breakdown, which forces her to pick herself up again, leads to physical “intrawoman violence.” Both of them ultimately leave the summer home on the beach, presumably to return to their previous lives; one wonders if they will be prepared to, or even desire, to reenter “the lesbian continuum” after their experience.

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