With Persona I am now halfway through the ten Ingmar Bergan flicks. The only one I watched for this blog was The Hour of the Wolf… which I don’t think I really got. I still liked it, but it wasn’t the horror movie that I would have expected for a Halloween viewing.
Speaking of horror, Persona is another of Bergman’s films where I’ve seen horror listed as a sub-genre. This time I did not take that too seriously and I think it helped. What I didn’t quite expect was for this to be such an art film. I know that The Seventh Seal has the chess game with Death and that Fanny and Alexander has elements of magic… but this takes artiness to the next level. Not just because of that crucifixion clip, but in how Persona keeps breaking the fourth wall and playing with the idea of this being a film.
It’s really hard to describe Persona. It’s one of those films where I have seen a large number of interpretations that all have their own merits. On the surface of it you have a film about a nurse (Bebe Andersson) looking after an actress (Liv Ullman) who has had some sort of breakdown. For most of the film they are isolated in a remote cottage on the coast where the void left by actress’s silence leads to the nurse filling it with her own secrets.
As a description that is completely pants, mainly because such a surface description for a film like Persona is utterly pointless. The great fun with watching a film like this is to see where Bergman and his imagery takes you. He creates such an atmosphere of uncertainty in that everything you see feels like it is part of some grand deception and in the end that is what Persona is. Well, to me it is.
Having seen this I subscribe to the interpretation that Alma (the nurse) and Elisabet (the actress) are one and the same person. Bergman frames so many of the shots so that their faces overlap and when we are introduced to Elisabet’s husband he mistakes Alma to be his wife… despite the fact that they are standing with each other.
The question, therefore, becomes who is the real person and who is the persona? Or are there two people with one projecting on the other? For me, it being just Elisabet in that cabin with a nurse makes sense. The character of Alma comes from Elisabet’s subconscious and her regrets. If the beginning and ending is to be interpreted a certain way – I think that Elisabet hurt this son she never wanted and had some sort of breakdown.
Through Alma’s monologues Elisabet is coming to terms with the fact that, unlike the roles she plays on stage, being a mother is a role and a truth that she can’t excise from her life. It’s like she has been trying to reject the gender norms of female parenthood and this experience is the whiplash of it all coming crashing down on her.
Then again those are my thoughts. Persona doesn’t have a single interpretation and that’s what makes it a great film. It stays with you and makes for a great talking point.