Overview: A well-known actress (Liv Ullmann) and her nurse (Bibi Andersson) retreat to a small cottage after she has a breakdown, and their lives become increasingly surreal. AB Svensk Filmindustri; 1966; Unrated; 84 Minutes
Tearing Down the Wall: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is a terrifically unsettling paean to the artist and the audience, forever trapped in each other’s orbits but rarely coming close enough to meet. Bergman aims to directly influence his audience, to make them furrow their brows and shift uncomfortably in their seats. The great joy of Persona is that he does this by making a film about precisely that. From the opening moments, Bergman is experimenting with the barrier between his film and its audience, and how close he can come to violently breaking them down. The film begins with a series of jarring, grotesque imagery combined with shots of a projector, followed by a scene of a boy waking up in bed and looking directly into the camera. A reverse-shot shows the boy looking at giant, blurry faces being projected in front of him. These faces are meant to be our faces, of course, and by acknowledging them, Bergman is deliberately violating a sort of unspoken trust between art and observer. And with that, he’s off to the races.
Taking Off the Mask: The relationship between artist and audience is further explored as it applies to the relationship at the film’s center, between Elisabet, the actress played by Liv Ullmann, and Alma, the nurse played by Bibi Andersson. They are introduced to each other in a doctor/patient context, with Alma being tasked with literally observing her. Their first interaction has Alma make things even more explicit by praising Elisabet’s work as an actress. In an early scene, Alma seems to speak directly to the audience: “You’re free to do as you please, my whole life is decided for me. It’s inside me.” “We are governed by forces we can only partially control.” Alma seems to be aware that she is a construct, though she is (initially, at least) comfortable with that fact. Elisabet is not so at peace with herself. Her breakdown, as far as we are told, is a result of identity confusion stemming from her job as a performer. She “hungers to be unmasked,” as the doctor puts it (the doctor and the husband at the end, incidentally, seem to take on the role of critics in this metaphor – interpreting behavior without directly engaging in it). Alma states a desire to live for her work as a nurse, but Elisabet is suffocated by her work as an actress. When they start to intertwine and blur together, these differences are only made more apparent.
Reaching Through the Mirror: Midway through the film, Alma tells Elisabet a story of an encounter she and a girlfriend once had on a beach, wherein they caught two young boys spying on them and had sex with them. Alma describes the experience as incomparably pleasurable, stating that “nothing was ever like it again.” Here we see her belief that a direct intersection between audience (the spying boys) and artist (her and her friend) is a literally orgasmic prospect. Of course, the story ends with her getting pregnant and having an abortion, after which she felt tremendous guilt. Alma seems to at least be aware of the negative potential of this kind of interaction, though that doesn’t stop her from demanding two-way communication from Elisabet later in the film. By the end, the two of them have blurred together completely, appearing to have become a single person.
Smashing Up the Glass: In one of the film’s less immediately striking moments, Alma puts a piece of broken glass on the ground and watches as Elisabet subconsciously avoids stepping on it with her bare feet. This takes place not long after a scene which begins with Elisabet popping out of frame and taking a picture of the camera (and presumably the audience). Frustrated at Elisabet’s avoidance, Alma walks away, and immediately afterwards Elisabet steps on the glass. This implies that the artist is protected to some degree by audience observation, and that this relationship is vital to both parties. But immediately afterwards, we see the “film strip” begin to break down and burn up, and the same horrifying imagery from the opening is again displayed in quick flashes. Bergman won’t let us get away with any easy answers here, and that’s really what makes the film such a masterpiece. Expectations and interpretations are dashed at every turn.
Wrap-Up: Persona coils around your brain and pulls tight, smashing you against itself until the film and its watcher are the same thing, just as its characters eventually merge. It’s an unbelievably brilliant masterpiece.