This past week I've had the chance to watch Persona for the first time. It's an amazing movie, and probably one of the greatest movies of the past century. Ingmar Bergman said it was one of the two movies in which he pushed the genre as far as he could (the other being Cries and Whispers (Swedish "Viskningar och rop" [See the Wikipedia article with the citation from Jerry Vermilye), and it can be startling the first time that one sees it. But even if one doesn't get it the first few times, one has to marvel at the details. There is the cinematography: the lighting in the scene when Elisabet is falling asleep, the wonderful blend of light and shadow in the scene when Elisabet comes to Alma's room, the powerful shots of Fårö island. There is the music: haunting at times (Elisabet falling asleep), percussive at others (the music after the scene with the broken glass), and omitted at other moments. There is the aesthetic coherence of the work: the way that photographs, old film clips, and textures merge into a single work. The acting: how the actresses manage to mingle sanity and hysterics, the way they interact with one another, and the way words -- such as in the scene when Alma describes sex on the beach -- can be a powerful way of conveying emotion. And finally, there are moments where Bergman's shows unusual brilliance as a director: the way he can turn a photograph into a movie, the way he can created a single ambiguous face from the two actress' faces, and the way he orchestrates the scene(s) when Alma discusses Elisabet's child. Finally, there is a feature of the movie that really appeals to me: the fact that Bergman incorporates enough detail and ambiguity that the film hovers just beyond comprehension. Unlike a director who spells out every detail for his audience, Bergman is intentionally creating a mystery.
Even a mystery, however, is capable of some degree of interpretation, and hence I'd like to present some thoughts on the film tonight. It is important to recognize, however, that any interpretation of the film is going to fail to capture the full meaning and force of the work. This goes far beyond the normal caveat for the medium. I think Bergman is using themes creatively, and organically, combining them in interesting ways, and hence it isn't the job of an interpretation to fully explain the film, but rather to provide insight into the work that can be used as a stepping-stone for further exploration and interpretation. Also, I would urge anyone reading this post to see the movie before you read what follows. Part of what Bergman is working with is shock and bewilderment, and so I think it is useful to experience it. The first time I watched the film I wasn't even sure I was watching the right film at the beginning!
So with these caveats in mind, I think I am partial to the interpretation that at some level all the female characters within the film are the very same person. This might be suggested by the title, since a "persona" was originally an ancient Greek theatrical mask, and it so happened in Greek drama that the same actor wore different masks, and in a similar fashion the character at the heart of Persona may be merely expressed in multiple masks. The unity of Alma (played by actress Bibi Andersson) and Elisabet's (played by Liv Ullmann) personalities is underscored by the merging of the two actresses' faces towards the end of the work, and the way that Alma can know things about Elisabet's character that no one could possibly know under the circumstances. Also, there is the way that Elisabet is present but does not respond when Alma is making love to Elisabet's husband; or the fact that both Alma and Elisabet deal with similar issues, such as pregnancy and its results (I think that it is fairly clear that the boy in the beginning fits into both their stories). Other pieces of evidence are the end of the movie: we see Elisabet packing up a suitcase, we see Alma closing up the summer house, but we don't see Alma packing or Elisabet closing up the summer house, and only one person clearly leaves the island.
Further, with the addition of the Doctor at the outset one has the makings of a fairly persuasive Freudian tripartite psyche. In this interpretation, Alma is the Ego, Elisabet the Id, and the Doctor the Super-Ego. At first this may seem unlikely, but there is a lot detail at least pushing in this direction. Like our unconscious, Elisabet does not speak. She just experiences emotions, and reacts. There are two possible exceptions to this: first, when Alma is drunk at the table and apparently incapable of separating herself from Elisabet, and secondly, and more importantly when Alma starts to throw boiling water at Elisabet. In this latter case the words that are spoken are less thought-out content, and more some sort of primal reflex to danger (and importantly not necessarily coming from Elisabet, but from somewhere else). And the Doctor is an interesting force overseeing the relationship between Alma and Elisabet. At the outset, it is the doctor who hears Alma's fears and who is Alma's authority figure, and the Doctor is the one who gives permission for Elisabet to carry out her desires -- a permission that is spoken of almost as a punishment. Further she mediates between Alma and Elisabet, and it is when Elisabet writes a note to the Doctor (or is it Alma? It is ambiguous: note how it is difficult to see how many pages the note has, as if Alma is looking at the same note in a manifold of different ways), revealing everything Alma has been saying from a dominant viewpoint, that the movie comes to a climax. As if one part of the psyche is "telling on" the other. Finally, the vampire theme can also fit into this interpretation, since one might see the final arm biting episode as a decision on Alma's part to accept the drives and impulses of the Id. This approach also opens the door to seeing the movie as an exploration of mental illness, and the classical move of the ego to fail to accept the Id. It is possible that the movie even goes further, and is specifically dealing with a kind of schizophrenia, although this is perhaps going too far. Sometimes the difference between sanity and insanity is only a matter of degree.
The interpretation I've outlined makes sense of a lot of the film, but it omits a lot as well. Clearly the film also has something to say about the doctor-patient relationship and the phenomenon of transference. And, there are other layers. For instance, there is the vampire theme that occurs again and again throughout. Obviously, saying the Id is a vampire preying on the ego makes some sense, but the drama pushes this to such limits that it clearly goes beyond the Freudian paradigm. And if the Freudian interpretation makes sense, the paradigm is clearly warped by making the three parts of the soul three different people with different personalities, hopes and fears. There are also the sexual tones between Elisabet and Alma that requires some explanation.
And finally, the tripartite soul interpretation tells nothing about the self-conscious film-making that occurs This adds further depth to the film throughout: the fact that it begins with early 20th Century films, that pictures, television, and radio all have prominent roles within the story, that Bergman repeatedly underscores that it is a movie by showing the film reel, and that we sometimes even get to see the people filming the story.
I tend to be an anti-reductionist, so I don't want to see this movie as reduced to an exploration of a particular psychological paradigm. If that is all the movie was, then it would not be nearly so interesting. Rather the film involves all these interpretations: the tripartite soul, the doctor-patient relationship and transference, the vampire theme, a summer on an island, a relationship between two people, and all the extra ambiguity Bergman has packed into the film. It is the multitude of meanings, the exquisite detail of location and human interaction, and the way that all the components grow into one another like an organic whole that makes this movie the remarkable creation that it is.