PERSONA. Ingmar Bergman’s extraordinary masterpiece

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona surprises and hypnotizes from the first second.

Karolina Nos-Cybelius

25 April 2024

PERSONA. Ingmar Bergman's extraordinary masterpiece

Two people in pursuit of their own identity and security
write roles for each other, which they accept out of a strong need,
to please each other.
The masks quickly crack and fall to the ground at the first storm.
No one has the patience to look at the other’s face.
They both turn away, shouting: look at me – but no one looks.

— Ingmar Bergman, Laterna Magica

Initially, we see a film reel and a projector. On the screen, for a fraction of a second, scenes and frames appear out of context. The dynamically edited mix of frenetic images includes: fragments of silent comedy and animated film, a picture of male genitals, a close-up of an eye – as if inspired by Un Chien Andalou – showing the tiniest broken vessels and veins, a huge spider, a hand nailed to a cross, seemingly dead boy lying on a cold table in a morgue, who suddenly opens his eyes… Eye, eyes, sight, gaze. Violence, pain, fear. Death, stillness, awakening. And the viewer in the role of voyeur. Doors open. We are inside the film. Persona.

Persona Bibi Andersson Liv Ullmann

Esteemed actress Elisabet Vogler undergoes a kind of nervous breakdown. For three months, she has been in a state of stupor and apathy, she has stopped speaking. No psychiatric illness has been diagnosed in her; it seems that she simply decided to shut herself in an invisible cocoon and observe the world and the few people she has contact with from a distance. The care of the gushing nurse Alma is supposed to snap her out of the stupor. The women go to a calm and secluded place. Surrounded by rocky beaches, the sound of waves and rain, they spend time in long conversations. These are very unusual dialogues. Elisabet still remains silent, but she performs small non-verbal gestures that embolden her caregiver. Alma opens up and reveals her most intimate secrets to the woman.

It is not known how much of what happens later is reality. Several scenes have the hallmarks of fantasy, of dreamy reverie. The creator of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, with finesse and sensitivity, deceives the viewer, creating illusions that he himself overturns in a moment. The tension between the two women gradually builds, leading to minor humiliations and finally acts of violence. During one argument, instinct takes over from unnatural self-control. Faced with the threat of mutilation, Elisabet screams: “Stop!”

Persona Bibi Andersson Liv Ullmann

That is the only word she speaks in the over eighty-minute film. Was everything that happened so far a calculated game and provocation on Elisabet’s part? Does Vogler continue to perform offstage? The film’s dreamlike atmosphere, creeping into what seems like a realistic picture, makes interpretation difficult. Is it a psychological drama or a symbolic allegory about art and artifice? A cinematic treatise on the loss of personality and identity, becoming an imitation, a prosthesis of a human, a titular persona.

What Witold Gombrowicz called “the gob” in his writing was defined by Elisabet’s doctor:

Don’t think I don’t understand it. The hopeless dream of being… Not pretending, but being. Aware of every moment, attentive… And the abyss between who you are to others and to yourself. Dizziness and a constant desire to be exposed. To be seen through and through. Reduced, even annihilated. Every tone of voice is a lie, every gesture false. Every smile a grimace. Taking your own life away, oh no, it’s terrible, you don’t do that. But you can become immobile, silent, at least not lie… You don’t have to play any roles then, show your face, make false gestures. It seems like that, but reality resists, your hideout isn’t airtight… You’re forced to react. No one asks if it’s true or not, if you’re lying or not. Only in the theater does such a question make sense, and even there not very much.

Persona Bibi Andersson Liv Ullmann

It cannot be overlooked that the two main actresses, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, share a striking external resemblance. It’s almost the same face, nearly identical eyes and lips. When both characters begin to dress similarly (until they move in together in Alma’s seaside house, Alma wears light clothes and a white nurse’s apron, later both wear black) and wear the same hairbands, they become doppelgängers.

That’s when the viewer experiences a cinematic déjà vu. Alma’s monologue, repeated twice, is the most emotional scene in Bergman’s work. First, the camera is right behind Alma’s back, capturing every twitch of Elisabeth’s face as the former talks about the actress’s career and personal life. Then we watch Alma, half of her face completely shaded. Bitter – perhaps jealous too – Alma can only hurt Vogler like this. With words that are the truth repressed from consciousness. Alma is just as good an observer and has delved into the silent Elisabet’s soul, or maybe Alma is Elisabet? Are there two women or one? This scene resembles a conversation with one’s own mirrored reflection…

Persona Bibi Andersson Liv Ullmann

The name of one of the characters is also not without significance. Alma means soul. It is the opposite of persona, which is a mask, a facade, behind which the true naked self hides. Just as these two diametrically different aspects of identity create unity through opposition and complement each other, Bergman’s film characters are like the light and dark side of the same face.

The famous close-up from Persona. Overlaid images of half of Alma’s (Bibi Andersson) and Elisabet’s (Liv Ullmann) faces. All the meticulously composed shots and close-ups in the film are owed to Bergman’s collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist.
The characters of Persona often stare directly into the camera, seeming to speak directly to the viewer. Elisabet even photographs the camera’s eye. Is this a signal that the whole story should be taken with a grain of salt? Are Alma and Elisabet’s journey not a real experience, but merely a cinematic metaphor, meticulously played out scene by scene? The film’s unusual prologue and its ending would suggest so. In the finale, we see a film set. The camera operator with heavy equipment on a huge platform suspended from the ceiling records what is below. In the camera’s mirror, we see Liv Ullmann’s face for a second… Film within a film or perhaps a sly way to show something completely different, to say that the world is a great stage? There is no doubt that Bergman, like many other artists, was fascinated by the idea of theatrum mundi.

Persona Bibi Andersson Liv Ullmann

On a side note, I saw Persona for the first time several, maybe even a dozen, years ago. Watching it again the day before yesterday, I was convinced that I would see the following scene: two women sunbathing naked on a deserted beach, being watched from afar by two young boys; a close-up follows, as passionate as it is perverse. Of course, there is no such scene in the movie. We only learn about this episode through narration. Alma tells Elisabet about her extraordinary erotic experience in such a vivid and suggestive way that I “saw” the event, and it probably stuck in my memory most strongly after watching Bergman’s masterpiece. The magic of cinema, a phenomenal image that, precisely where – theoretically – it shows nothing, where it is closer to a literary than a film story, creates an unforgettable frame in the viewer’s mind.