The main theme of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is undoubtedly that of identity. It’s melodramatic but also existential and it thrives on the dichotomies of reality and fantasy. It’s a rich text that has brought about a number of interesting interpretations – cinematic, semiotic and psychological – and it’s often classed as the greatest Bergman film.
Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman) is a stage actress who suddenly falls silent during one of her productions. She is committed to a hospital and is assigned to Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson). The hospital administrator suggests that Alma take Mrs Vogler to her summerhouse as a method of curing the mute actress. However, Elisabet chooses to remain silent. Initially, Alma interprets this behaviour as endearing, but as she grows closer to the actress – and begins identifying herself with her – she tires of the lack of communication and begins lashing out in the hopes of getting the actress to speak.
It’s unclear as to whether Elisabet’s silence is an act of protest, a creative experiment or simply a reaction to the nature of existence. It’s as if she had a revelation mid-stage and has chosen to internalise the fear or pain she feels. The only person who claims to understand is the hospital administrator. She attempts to expose Elisabet believing her behaviour to be merely a phase and an act with creative purpose, ‘I think you should play this part until it’s played out; until it’s no longer interesting. Then you can drop it, just as you eventually drop all your other roles.’ Elisabet has played so many roles in her life, so is this the last role she intends to play to figure out the purpose of her existence or her true self? Perhaps she is frightened of her true identity, of being a normal human being, and the process of being unmasked and having to face reality frightens her to the very core. But, as the administrator points out, ‘reality plays nasty tricks on you. Your hiding place isn’t watertight enough. Life oozes in from all sides.’ Eventually, Elisabet’s facade will wilt and she’ll become so weak that she’ll be forced to talk – or ‘react’ as the administrator says.
Sister Alma is much more of an open book. We learn of her family and her desire to become a nurse. She conforms to the structures of society and the expected roles of women – professionally and personally – but she (believes) that she broke this ‘role’ during a sexual encounter and is now haunted by the guilt. Alma reveals the details of this sexual encounter to Elisabet whilst they are staying in the summer cottage. Elisabet appears to be the sympathetic, supportive friend who merely listens to her ‘friend’s’ worries. At least, Alma believes this – ‘I believe you’re the first person who’s ever listened to me.’ Alma feels that she is finally ‘real’ to someone, unlike the man she had a five year affair with. She continues, ‘It feels so good to talk. It feels so nice and warm. I’ve never felt like this in all my life.’ In the beginning Alma professes that she always wanted a sister, but her behaviour is strangely erotic as if she desires more than friendship from the acclaimed actress. Furthermore, Elisabet’s silence influences Alma and gets her to confess her deepest secrets – an orgy on a beach and an aborted child. However, Alma feels betrayed when she reads a letter that Elisabet has written to the hospital administrator: an analytical letter in which she reveals her ‘studying’ of Alma.
On the evening of the confession, Alma also talks of her admiration for Elisabet and shares a personal experience after seeing one of her films. She describes going home, looking into the mirror and thinking, ‘we look alike.. I think I could turn myself into you if I tried. I mean inside.’ Alma sees Elisabet as a role model and she is undoubtedly uncomfortable in her own skin so she feels the need to identify with another. This is a significant moment in the film as Alma does try to turn herself into Elisabet. She is seduced by the idea of her and Elisabet’s silent treatment only serves to deepen Alma’s obsession.
When Alma retires to bed Elisabet appears through a billowing, otherworldly drape. It’s unclear as to whether this sequence is actually a dream, but it’s the film’s most pivotal moment as the two women’s identities and bodies will merge. They are seen in close up embracing each other. When they pull apart both women face the screen – Alma in front and Elisabet behind. Elisabet then pulls Alma’s hair away from her face; it’s as if the women are looking into a mirror and comparing their likeness. Furthermore, after Alma has read Elisabet’s private letter addressed to the hospital administrator she stares at her reflection in a small reservoir; a more direct visual message signifying her transition. At one point within the film Alma asks Elisabet, ‘Can you be two different people, both next to each other, at the same time?’
The letter magnifies Alma’s emotions. She externalises her thoughts and feeling with such magnitude she actually becomes the actress and in her hysteria the two women reverse roles – Alma becomes the patient and Elisabet the caregiver. Alma sets about taking revenge on Elisabet. She hopes to wound the actress with a shard of glass, boiling water and vicious words. Moreover, if Alma truly believes that Elisabet was only playing a part by being her confidant then the only way to wound Elisabet would be to play a role, too – the actress herself. At one point, Alma is extremely besotted with Elisabet she even makes love to Elisabet’s husband.
Alma’s desire to be so close to Elisabet; to become her, it drives her insane. Towards the end of the film, Alma becomes confused about her identity and which woman she actually is. She sits at the table opposite Elisabet and declares, ‘No! I’m not like you. I don’t feel the same way you do. I’m Sister Alma. I’m only here to help you. I’m not Elisabet Vogler. You’re Elisabet Vogler. I’d really like to have – I love – I haven’t…’ In a powerfully striking montage, the two women’s faces merge together and it becomes virtually impossible to tell the two apart.
Elisabet’s existence is based upon the roles she plays at various stages in her life. These masks are all that she has becomes and her identity is always fluctuating. Elisabet’s search for her ‘real’ persona, and finally coming face to face with it, is what ultimately destroys her. Her profession cannot save her. Alma, on the other hand, has the most difficult time. Alma only begins to struggle and question who she is after meeting Elisabet. She believes that becoming another is the key to her happiness. Both women are seeking consistency in their lives – Elisabet is transitioning from the persona as fantasy into the persona of reality, and Alma is transitioning from a persona based in reality to one housed in a world of fantasy.
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