Fifty years later
Óscar del Pozo
The whole thing has its origin in a photograph: two women that look very much alike standing next to a wall. These two women are Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, and when Ingmar Bergman saw that picture, he had an idea. “I thought it would be fun writing something about two people that lose their respective identities through their relationships and that are somehow quite similar,” he explains on the book Interviews with Ingmar Bergman. Well, it wasn’t exactly fun. It’s 1966 and the Swedish director has been at the hospital for a while due to a virus infection in his left ear that causes him vertigo. He needs to lie down for hours, without watching TV or reading, contemplating a black stain on the ceiling of his room. He’s thinking about making a movie just with these two actresses, a small technical team and a few sets. The film, entitled Persona, ends up being shot and edited very quickly and despite its modesty becomes a U.C.O. (Unidentified Cinematographic Object). Should it land on the cinema rooms of today, it would be more modern, radical and revolutionary than any of the films premiered this or last year or even the year before. And the most incredible thing is that it’s fifty years old!
Seeing Persona can be a difficult experience, even an exasperating one, and it always leaves part of the audience feeling frustrated. Deciphering it is something that critics, writers and psychologists have been trying for years during these five decades, and most of them still haven’t agreed on anything. Let’s say, thus, that it tells the story of the relationship between two women, Elisabeth (Ullmann), a successful actress that suffers a crisis after losing her voice on stage during a performance of Electra, and Alma (Andersson), the young nurse in charge of taking care of her. As the film moves forward, the mood of both of them becomes more and more similar: Alma, apparently stronger, has episodes of confusion and hysteria, and we learn that she’s as insecure and vulnerable as her patient; whereas Elizabeth seems to recover little by little. It’s as if the evil blood in one’s body is translated to the other’s body (an act of vampirism that we see on the screen, literally: in one scene, Alma bites Elisabeth’s arm and sucks her blood). The title also gives us a clue: it’s a reference to the masks that actors wore while performing classical tragedies. “From meaning ‘mask’, persona ended up designating the person hiding behind it,” the director affirms in Interviews with Ingmar Bergman. Thus, this is also a story about masks that fall off.
The reason why there are so many different interpretations of Persona is due, above all, to its second act, because from then on we start seeing things we don’t know if they are real or not. Some sequences seem Alma’s dreams, or fantasies, or hallucinations, but it’s unclear whether that or something similar is really happening. An example of this is the visit of Elisabeth’s husband, in which he mistakes Alma for his wife. In this and other episodes, the author of The Seventh Seal hides the signs that would be useful to tell fantasy from reality. In most films, parts that belong to dreams haven’t got the same appearance of objective reality as the real ones, but in Persona, they do. That’s why we shouldn’t watch it as a psychological drama, as it’s been done many times during these fifty years (check Google for the interpretation given by eminent psychologists and you’ll see!). “While working on the script, I had the vague notion of creating a poem, not with words but with images,” the director confirmed. Persona, then, tends towards abstraction; although it can be watched and followed perfectly well as long as we accept that some of our questions will be left unanswered. For example, we will never know exactly why Elisabeth stopped being able to talk, although it kind of looks like a symbolic suicide.
Persona frustrates the spectator’s desire to know everything, but other seventies masterpieces had done so too. Why the protagonists of El ángel exterminador can’t get out of the room? Why do Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds start attacking people? Is the protagonist of Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 ill or not? The best directors of the moment were breaking up with classic storytelling thanks to the initial efforts of Godard and the nouvelle vague, and they were looking for audiences more critical and active than earlier. That’s why the author of Wild Strawberries introduces here several, let’s say, Brechtian elements: to remind us that we’re watching a performance. At the beginning, at the end and towards the middle of the film we see the film’s projector and actual celluloid. The hypnotic prologue has also a distancing function. In it we briefly glimpse images of a beheaded lamb, a hand pierced by a nail, a spider, an erect penis, cartoons and a morgue. It concludes with a child caressing Bibi’s projected face, which soon becomes Liv’s face… And from there we go back to Bibi, who opens the door in a frontal shoot as if she were on a theatre stage. The performance starts. The idea of it all being a show is reinforced by the first sets, cold, stark and illuminated in an unrealistic way.
More than a conventional story, in Persona there’s a topic: duality. This topic will manifest itself through two people that exchange their identities or, maybe, of two identities that belong to just one person: the pure and naive (Alma) and the dark and tormented (Elisabeth). I like watching Persona that way because it connects it to Mulholland Drive, one of the films that owe the most to Persona up to date. In David Lynch’s work, both protagonists are also the same person, before and after losing her innocence. In any case, this would be the way in which I SEE Persona, because Bergman always denied that the film had an only meaning: “It can be interpreted any way you like, exactly like poems. Images mean different things for different beings.”
Alma and Elisabeth could be the same person also because of what we see during the climax, a mirror-scene in which a monologue is completely repeated twice, one while we see Elisabeth and the other with Alma on the screen. At the end of the second one, the faces of both of them are fused into one. It’s the most iconic image of the film and one of the most famous ones in the history of cinema. In his autobiography, Images, Bergman explains how the idea came up while working with his Director of Photography, Sven Nykvist. “During the repeated monologue, Sven and I wanted to illuminate the whole face, but somehow it didn’t work, so we agreed to leave half of it in total darkness. After that it was a sort of natural evolution to combine, at the end of the monologue, the illuminated halves of both their faces and let them become one.”
Interpretations aside, what critics have always agreed on is the huge talent of both protagonists, in particular Liv Ullmann’s, who was debuting here with Bergman and had to represent a great range of emotions, from depression to astonishment, compassion or pure terror, without pronouncing a single word. No interpreter could surpass her in the job. Maybe that’s why a director so sensitive to actor’s and actresses’ acuteness as Almodóvar chose a sequence from Persona, the one in which Alma tells Elisabeth the details of an infidelity that ends up becoming an orgy, as his all-time favourite. He did so in 2011 on TVE’s programme Días de cine: the description he makes of the scene is simply delicious.
And if all these arguments do not convince you to see (or revise) the film, maybe this reflection by Bergman that can be read in Images and which wraps it all up will do: “Today I’ve got the feeling that with Persona I’ve reached my limit; that, with total freedom, I’ve scraped those wordless secrets that only cinematography is able to bring to light.”
The trace of Persona
It’s one of those films that has influenced directors from all generations. Or at least that’s what many of them say, because one thing is aspiring to shoot a Persona and another one accomplishing it. In any case, apart from Mulholland Drive, its influence is evident in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, a masterpiece in which two twins (the same person again?) live on the verge of psychiatric collapse until one of them falls and takes the other one along with him. Saying that it’s on the same level as Persona (and I don’t mean only for the poster) might be saying too much, but it doesn’t matter, I’m saying it. A film that hasn’t aged so well is Robert Altman’s 3 Women, in which Sissy Spacek adopts the personality of Shelley Duvall with a mute woman as witness. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and David Fincher’s Fight Club are two peaks of modern cinema that drink both from Bergman’s film’s themes (duality, identity crisis) and form (that celluloid that burns in Fincher’s movie).
Other examples of this never-ending influence: the performance diva (and her assistant) that tries to isolate herself in Olivier Assayas’ Sils Maria, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s mirror game in La double vie de Verónique, the soap opera star that brusquely ends his career and devours nurses in John Sayles’ Passion Fish, and even the poster for Almódovar’s (again) Hable con ella… Up to twenty-nine films are mentioned in this brief video essay that proves the last fifty years of the history of cinema wouldn’t have been the same without Persona.