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Persona (1966) Review: Facades of Self!

A minimalist poster for the film Persona.

Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” is a cinematic masterpiece that explores the complex psychological and existential themes of identity, self-discovery, and the blurring of boundaries between reality and imagination, presented through stunning visuals and powerful performances.

The Inspiration Behind Bergman’s Masterpiece Persona

Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Persona, which is shown among the best films in the history of cinema and whose effects we have seen in the films of many directors… Did you know that the director’s illness inspired this film?

Here’s the story: Bergman suffers from an inner ear infection in 1965 and is constantly dizzy, even while sleeping. Bergman, who is tied to the bed for weeks with a tape on his head, tries to prevent his dizziness by looking at a spot his doctor has painted on the ceiling. But at every glance, the room feels like it’s spinning like a pinwheel. Concentrating on the point on the ceiling, Bergman tries to imagine the two faces intermingled, and it helps him a little. After recovering, he looks out the window and sees the nurse and the patient sitting on the bench. Bergman’s masterpiece Persona is based on this patient-nurse dichotomy and mingling faces.

Jung’s Theory of Archetypes in Persona

To summarize the story of the movie, Elisabeth, a famous actress, suddenly falls silent while staging the play Elektra. His doctor tells her that he has no physical or mental illness, that his silence is a conscious choice, and assigns nurse Alma to take care of her. The treatment process, the rest of the film, takes place in the doctor’s cottage by the sea. While the two women spend time in isolation at the cottage, Alma reveals all her secrets to Elisabeth’s provocative silence and comes face to face with the threat of losing her own identity in front of Elisabeth’s identity.

Bergman’s cinema is the cinema of neuroses. His films are based on repression, his traumatic childhood and World War II. It bears traces of the depression of Sweden after World War II. For this reason, we see that most of his films are open to be read with psychological analysis. Persona is a movie that can be read with Jung’s Theory of Archetypes. Therefore, before talking about the movie, it is useful to talk about Jung’s Theory of Archetypes.

The concept of Persona, which bears the same name as Bergman’s masterpiece, is one of Carl Gustav Jung’s most basic theories. Accordingly, the outer faces we show to the world are the part of ourselves that we allow others to see, our persona. Referring to the masks worn by the Greek actors, the persona is the mask of our personalities that we show to others. It is the costume that covers our side that we hide in order not to be reacted by the society. Thus, we protect ourselves against dangers and secure our interests.

In some cases, the individual believes that the persona he wears is actually himself. The individual who identifies with his persona is thus alienated from himself. Jung describes this situation as “inflation”. These individuals are too caught up in their roles, lost under the domination of their persona, disconnected from their own reality. This is what happens to Elisabeth in the movie. Elisabeth is identified with her persona, she has lost her own reality. That’s why she consciously chose to remain silent. Because that way he won’t pretend, he won’t lie.

Another concept is the “shadow”. The shadow is the force that is the opposite of the persona. In other words, it is the unwelcome wishes and ideas that the person avoids confronting, hides from the society. This is the other self (alter ego), the dark side that is always with us but often goes unnoticed.

Bergman uses techniques to break the perception of the audience in his films. The reason for this is to remind the audience that they are watching a movie. Thus, the audience does not identify with the film, becomes alienated from the film and looks from the outside. For example, in Persona, we watch a show consisting of successive one-shot images at the beginning of the movie, which proves the powerful effect of the image on the audience. The movie begins with the lights reflected from a projection and the image of the filmstrip. Bergman then shocks us by showing, in turn; the spider, the head of a sheep that was cut off, the tripe pulled out, a hand with a nail, an erect penis, the dead in the morgue, and finally a child lying in full length in the morgue…

The child touches the reflection of his mother.

The child cannot cover himself and lies on his face and reads Lermontov’s novel “A Hero of Our Time”. Until this moment, from our point of view, the child is outside of us. Then our gaze suddenly shifts, and where we sit as spectators, we replace the image of Elisabeth and Alma’s faces. At that moment we are in the same room as the child and we look from the inside out. Even before the movie started, a lot of questions arose in our minds. Bergman aims to break the perception of the audience with these images. In the continuation of this scene, the child gets up with a phone call and touches the screen with his hand.

Introducing the Characters of Persona

Next, the characters played by Bibi Andersson (Alma, nurse) and Liv Ullmann (Elisabeth, actress) are introduced to the audience. The famous actress Elisabeth, who suddenly became silent while staging the Elektra play, was then hospitalized. Nurse Alma is assigned to take care of her.

Bergman begins to give clues about what we will see from the very beginning of the movie. It is not coincidental that Elisabeth is a famous actress or that she was silent while staging the play Elektra.

In a physical sense, the actors themselves are personas. They convey the personalities and stories of the heroes whose faces they portray on stage. In this context, Elisabeth is our character representing the persona in the movie. Elektra, played by Elisabeth, had her mother killed, who betrayed her father in mythology, despite her “maternal bond”. While in the hospital, Elisabeth tears up the photograph of her son from the letter sent by her husband. Does he deny the “maternal bond”? As a matter of fact, Bergman answers this question of the audience in the scene where Alma and Elisabeth face off towards the end of the movie.

While in the hospital, Elisabeth is disturbed when Alma plays the mercy-themed play on the radio, and she reacts with a laugh, just as she did on stage. He approaches the realities of the outside world with fear. On television in his hospital room, he watches in horror as a Buddhist priest burns himself in response to what happened in Vietnam. Reality bothers her.

Two women with their eyes closed and intertwined.

Also, what the doctor said to Elisabeth seems to summarize Elisabeth’s situation and the theme of the movie.

“I understand, all right. The hopeless dream of being – not seeming, but being. At every waking moment, alert. The gulf between what you are with others and what you are alone. The vertigo and the constant hunger to be exposed, to be seen through, perhaps even wiped out. Every inflection and every gesture a lie, every smile a grimace. Suicide? No, too vulgar. But you can refuse to move, refuse to talk, so that you don’t have to lie. You can shut yourself in. Then you needn’t play any parts or make wrong gestures. Or so you thought. But reality is diabolical. Your hiding place isn’t watertight. Life trickles in from the outside, and you’re forced to react. No one asks if it is true or false, if you’re genuine or just a sham. Such things matter only in the theatre, and hardly there either. I understand why you don’t speak, why you don’t move, why you’ve created a part for yourself out of apathy. I understand. I admire. You should go on with this part until it is played out, until it loses interest for you. Then you can leave it, just as you’ve left your other parts one by one.”

The Fluidity of Reality and Identity in Bergman’s Persona

After the hospital sequence, the movie continues at the doctor’s cottage. Two women who don’t speak (Elisabeth) and don’t keep quiet (Alma) are brought together. The film is based on a monologue, Alma talks all the time, while Elisabeth remains silent. Elisabeth, a famous actress, is already in a position that triggers identification. In addition, her provocative silence encourages Alma even more and causes her to share her most intimate secrets. Thus, the roles of the two women change. Alma falls into the position of the patient, and Elisabeth rises to the position of the ‘clinical observer’ who patiently listens to her and encourages her to voice her problems.

When you look at the whole movie, it is not clear where the dream begins and where the reality ends. Therefore, events do not follow each other in a chronological order as in classical narrative cinema, and the expectation of the audience in this direction is frustrated.

After Alma pours out her heart to Elisabeth, we see Elisabeth (persona) and Alma (shadow) come face to face in an imaginary dimension. The faces of the two women meet and one begins to transform into the other. Bergman is one of the directors who use close-ups most strikingly. Being aware of the fact that these striking close-up face shots are very effective in conveying the emotions desired to be aroused in the audience and their contribution to the narrative and dramatic structure, Bergman frequently uses close-up shots in his films. Trying to replace each other, the two women rest their heads on each other’s shoulders. Elisabeth’s head is in Alma’s body, and Alma’s head is in Elisabeth’s body. Elisabeth wants to get rid of everything and be simple like Alma, while Alma wants to get rid of everything and be charismatic and beautiful. Elisabeth/Persona and Alma/Shadow are as different as night and day, but seem strangely complementary.

Elisabeth gives Alma a letter to send. Unable to read the letter, Alma learns Elisabeth’s true thoughts about her. She looks at herself as another eye from the outside. After reading the letter, he gets out of his car and looks at her reflection in the lake.

The first mirror in human history is water. The mirror may be implying the extent of destructiveness and aggression that will be encountered later. On the other hand, it may represent a limit, that is, something that cannot be crossed. After all, Alma, who reads what is written in the letter, realizes that she cannot become Elisabeth.

Two women sitting together and reading books during their vacation.

Elisabeth’s Narcissism and Alma’s Fragility

Elisabeth always listens to Alma in a tolerant mode, but it’s important to remember that she also wears her masks when she’s with Alma. Indeed, in the letter she wrote to her husband, she refers to Alma as “fun to study her”. Elisabeth’s narcissistic identity does not allow her to be humble. She sees Alma as a tool for her own recovery. While Alma has revealed her secrets with the intention of forming a friendship with her, Elisabeth sees this situation only as words that are expressed with the psychology of guilt and observes her torture with the air of a therapist listening to her patient. She does not enter into an emotional intimacy with her the way Alma did to her. Because of her narcissistic personality, Elisabeth cannot direct her attention, love to anyone or reciprocate the love of others. Therefore, like her husband and son, Alma suffers from her careless attitude.

Nothing is the same for Alma, who has a break with the letter. Bergman describes Alma’s fragility in a metaphorical language. The audience begins to see a filmstrip in the movie. With Alma’s face centered, the film begins to burn. In this scene, not only is the connection between Alma and Elisabeth broken, but also the connection between the audience and the film. It is possible to say that from this moment on, there has been a fractured in the film, and for Alma, the expression of the fear of fragmentation is in question. Everything is back to normal but Alma realizes that she cannot be the same as Elisabeth and begins to resist to protect what she has left.

Fragmentation and Loss in Bergman’s Persona

The burning of the movie is also reminiscent of the scene where the Buddhist monk burns, which Elisabeth watches in her hospital room. The ‘disturbing reality’ this time is not the image of the Buddhist priest, but Alma’s own reality, which she begins to see through Elisabeth’s gaze.

Elisabeth’s silence starts to infuriate Alma and now forces her to speak. In the continuation of the scene where Alma wants to sprinkle boiling water on Elisabeth, we see her hand tugging at Elisabeth’s face. Alma was disturbed by her self in the mirror and wanted to tear it apart. This scene brings to mind the mirror phase of Jacques Lacan. When the child identifies with her reflection in the mirror, he experiences two kinds of loss. The first is the loss of its fragmented reality, and the other is the loss of that reflected-provocative image that it will never reach despite the process of identification. Although Alma experiences identification, she realizes that she has become one with Elisabeth in an imaginary line, and even though she thinks that they are the same and one, she will never be like Elisabeth, her mirror image. She wants to eliminate her fear of fragmentation by destroying the “ideal self” that constantly provokes and seizes her. However, the other point that frightens Alma and drags her to neuroses is the loss of her own reality.

In the continuation of this scene, in the scene that we think is Alma’s dream, Elisabeth’s husband comes to the cottage. And he treats Alma like Elizabeth. Elisabeth watches Alma and her husband’s conversations and intimacy. Alma, on the other hand, expresses what Elisabeth cannot express.

Just as Elisabeth mirrors Alma, Alma does the same to Elisabeth. Elisabeth, a famous actress, is too caught up in the role she plays against society and has pushed aside her suppressed side. Elisabeth, who lost her reality and became one with her persona, tries to prevent this falsehood by keeping silent, but she continues her role when she is with Alma. It is Alma who unmasks Elisabeth. Elisabeth had a child not because she wanted to be a mother, but because she thought that all she lacked as a famous woman was a child. Elisabeth, who is constantly watched by the society, hides her hatred for her child, this secret and suppressed feeling under her persona. The Elektra character she plays avenges her father by having her mother killed, ignoring the maternal bond. It is very meaningful that Elisabeth kept silent while playing this game. Maybe because it reminds her of her bond with her child, because the truth bothers her, she shuts up. Silence is her conscious choice, this is how he escapes from the truth and takes refuge in silence. Her reaction when she sees violent scenes on TV in her hospital room is screaming, she. A Buddhist priest setting himself on fire during a Vietnam protest or a child with a gun pointed at his head in a Nazi camp are real. Elisabeth, on the other hand, cannot tolerate the truth.

The Same Scene, Twice: Bergman’s Unique Approach to Storytelling

Bergman repeats the same scene twice. We watch the same scene for 8 minutes.

First, we watch Bibi Anderson in the first scene with the over-the-shoulder shot technique. In this scene, Bibi Andersson tells something to Liv Ullman.

In the second take, Bibi Andersson retells the same subject in exactly the same words. But this time the camera shows Bibi Andersson all the way through. In this episode, which consists of plans that Elisabeth listens to, Alma persecutes Elisabeth by judging her with her words. Elisabeth’s gaze visually complements Alma’s words.

For this scene, Bergman says: “The story you tell is not the same as the story you listen to.”

Two women intertwined in the movie Persona.

In classical narrative cinema, such a scene is shot in the form of a shot/reverse shot angle and presented to the audience in the illusion of the present. Thus, the audience immerses themselves in the flow of the story without breaking away from the content. Begman, on the other hand, repeats the same scene twice, diverting the attention of the audience to the film’s elements such as shooting, scene, dialogue and distracting it from the content. It constantly reminds the audience that they are watching a movie.

Also, another detail in this scene is that the two characters are dressed in the same color and shape. The sameness in costumes integrates the different in a single symptom, and Alma and Elisabeth create a single body by wearing exactly the same costume, just as Alma and Elisabeth had a single face by wearing the same mask. Although Alma had an abortion with a child she didn’t want, she told Elisabeth, “I’m not like you. I don’t feel like you. I am nurse Alma”.

At the end of this scene, Bergman combines the faces of the two women on Alma’s face and creates a single face. This can have two meanings.

First, the two women represent each other’s incomplete other half. Second, both women have a similar point. In the prologue of the movie, we see a child caress two female faces (Alma and Elisabeth) that blend into each other on the screen. In this context, we can say that the child represents a common aspect of the two women, in other words, their “unwanted children”.

The Final Act: Identity Confusion and the Questioning of Reality

Considering that all of Bergman’s films present sections from his own life, or in other words, he goes over his illnesses with each film, we are dragged to another point about the child in the film. Bergman is born an unwanted child. Thus, the child may also represent Bergman’s alterego.

Alma puts on her uniform as if to prove that she is not like Elisabeth. When he arrives, he pretends to remove the mask from Elisabeth’s face and speaks to her like that. Later in the scene, Alma bleeds her own wrist with her nail and Elisabeth sucks her blood. Alma knows that she can no longer wear her persona and continue her plain and simple life as before. Elisabeth actually absorbs her soul by sucking her blood, so Alma is freed from Elisabeth’s influence. Or, as in the rest of this scene, so that Alma can dominate Elisabeth. Again, we see Alma and Elisabeth in the hospital room in an imaginary scene. Alma dominates Elisabeth, making her repeat what she says.

All the facts have been revealed. Elisabeth runs away from reality as she always does. He chooses the most narcissistic side, acting and the cinema/illusion world. Alma puts on the nurse’s uniform and leaves. As in the credits, in the finale of the film, the impression is created that the film is broken and we cannot see the last text.

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Last modified: September 24, 2023