It’d been awhile since I’d seen this one. I remembered liking it, finding it interesting enough to revisit on this blog. I had forgotten — or maybe never appreciated — just how stunning it really was. Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson give mesmerizing performances, bringing a naturalism to the oftentimes complex and abstract narrative. Most of all, I found myself astounded by the cinematography by Sven Nykvist — I mean, just look at it:
It’s incredible. The contrast between fore- and background, light and shadow; the textures of rocks and gauze curtains and faces. One reason it took me so long to get this post up was that I had to find something to talk about, instead of just fan-boying it up over Nykvist’s camera work.
So much has been said already about Persona (1966) — the bizarre montage at the beginning, the sudden physical breakdown of the film at the midpoint, the question of whether Alma and Elisabet are actually two different people, or manifestations of a single mind. Instead, I thought I’d look briefly at the interplay between the cinematography and director Ingmar Bergman’s blocking of its scenes.
In film and theater, blocking refers to the position of the actors in a scene, and the way they move as it progresses. Bergman was a master of composition, arranging the elements of every shot to subtly convey the psychology of his characters. In Persona, he also uses the blocking to suggest shifts in the power dynamics between the young nurse and her silent charge.
Although there’s a lot of disagreement as to the meaning of the film’s narrative, on the surface Persona is the story of a young idealistic nurse named Alma and her charge, stage actress Elisabet Vogler. Elisabet has been silent and mostly immobile for three months, from no apparent physical or psychological illness. She simply refuses to interact with the world. Hoping that time away from her usual surroundings will do Elisabet some good, the doctor has sent the pair to live at a remote country house for the summer. Over time, their relationship changes, and the strain of Elisabet’s silence slowly drives Alma mad.
For most of the first half of the film, our focus is on Alma. Usually quiet and reserved, Alma finds herself suddenly with a captive audience — a famous actress, no less! Over the course of a day and night, the increasingly inebriated Alma tells Elisabet everything: her childhood as the family’s only girl, her first love, her engagement to medical student Karl-Heinrich. In perhaps the film’s most infamous scene, she describes in detail the time she cheated on her fiance in a ménage à quatre with another young woman and two underaged boys. She cries, remembering the abortion she had to have afterward.
Throughout all of this, the camera, like the audience, focuses on Alma. Whenever both actresses are in the frame together, Alma is usually in the foreground. On those rare occasions when Elisabet stands in front, her back is almost always to us, or her face is in shadow, out of focus.
Then a shift happens. In one of the film’s most beautiful and perplexing scenes, Elisabet comes into Alma’s room, waking her. After pushing Alma’s hair back in imitation of her own high forehead, Elisabet crosses behind the young nurse’s head as we fade out.* In the next scene, the blocking has reversed. Now Elisabet is the focus of attention. She shakes her head, denying Alma’s accusations that she came into her room. We don’t know if the preceding scene was a dream or reality. We don’t know if Elisabet is lying or not. So we search her face, seeking the slightest hint. Alma recedes into the background, or turns away from the camera. Before, the nurse held the power; now her patient holds the cards.
Alma discovers that Elisabet is writing letters to the doctor, exposing Alma’s secrets. When she breaks a glass on the patio, Alma decides to get revenge. She leaves a piece of glass where Elisabet will step on it; she does, and injures herself. As they glare at each other — Alma in darkness, peering through a gauze curtain — the film jams, then catches fire. Alma’s idealism, her desire to be helpful [one might say, her nurse-self] burns away.
So, to, does the straightforward nature of the story. Alma confronts Elisabet about the letters, then attacks her, finally forcing her to speak. Overcome with remorse, Alma tries to reconcile with Elisabet, who runs away into the cottage. Alma waits outside on the rocks as night falls.
The blocking here continues in the pre-established pattern. When Alma rages, we focus mainly on her. When she attempts reconciliation, Elisabet regains our attention. The transfer of power is symbolized in an interesting way here as well. Alma enters the frame from the right, facing the camera. Elisabet, her back to us, hands Alma a cup of coffee. Alma begins by questioning Elisabet’s reasons for silence, suggesting even dishonesty is better than no communication at all. She paces behind Elisabet; now both women have their backs to us. After a moment, Elisabet turns to face us. Alma’s face, by contrast, remains hidden. She’s lost her footing again.
Now things get very weird. Alma wakes in her bed to the sound of a man shouting Elisabet’s name. Leaving the cottage, she finds Mr. Vogler, who confuses her for Elisabet. At first, Alma argues with him. Then Elisabet appears. Standing behind Alma, she lifts Alma’s hand to caress his face. Alma rushes into Vogler’s arms; they embrace.**
The framing changes again. Instead of peeking out from behind Alma, Elisabet has moved to the foreground, so much closer than the other two, in fact, that they seem almost to be a vision taking place in her mind:
Unlike previous sequences, this blocking does not mean that Elisabet is in control of the situation. Indeed, the more Alma seems to embrace her role, the more she seems to be calling her own shots. She tells Vogler to buy their son a special gift, then agrees to make love to him. Note the glance she throws towards Elisabet here — withering? triumphant? — and the way Elisabet’s face morphs almost imperceptibly from placidity to amusement to sudden horror.
As we dissolve to their lovemaking, Elisabet retains her position in the frame at first, but when Vogler speaks her name, she cannot resist turning toward the bed. Alma assures him of his skills as a lover, but then breaks out of character. Thrashing, she screams out, “I can’t go on anymore…Leave me alone!” As Vogler tries to calm her, she shouts, “It’s all lies and imitation,” and we pan back to Elisabet’s close-up, her face inscrutable, before fading to white.
Fading back in, we see Elisabet seated at a table. Her hands cover something. Alma enters, dressed in identical clothing. She lifts Elisabet’s hands, revealing a photograph of Elisabet’s son, which Elisabet tore up in an early scene. Seating herself across the table, Alma asks Elisabet to tell her about her son. When Elisabet remains silent, Alma begins telling it for her: how Elisabet became pregnant in order to play the role of an expectant mother; how she longed for a stillborn baby [possibly to then play the role of the grieving mother?] so she could avoid the actual responsibilities of motherhood; how she hates the son she bore and wants to drive him away.
At the beginning of the scene, Alma stands slightly closer to the camera than Elisabet, but we would be hard-pressed to actually say she dominates the frame. Here they are equals, nearly identical:
As Alma tells the story, however, she becomes a mere silhouette. We zero in on Elisabet’s reaction — sometimes denial, sometimes shame and agonizing acceptance. The camera moves closer, and closer again, until the whole frame is filled with Elisabet’s face, closing in on her. There’s no escape, no way out from the truth Alma reveals from her very soul.
The scene suddenly begins again, exactly as before. Only this time, we watch Alma as she narrates this story from Elisabet’s past. Now it is Elisabet who sits in shadow, out of focus. We stare into Alma’s face, cool, certain. And again, the camera cuts closer and closer, until Alma, totally absorbed in this memory that is not hers, which she cannot know yet somehow knows, becomes just as trapped.
Slowly, realization dawns in her face — perhaps too late. In diving so deeply into Elisabet’s soul, she has lost herself. “No!” she cries. “I’m not Elisabet Vogler! You’re Elisabet Vogler! I would like to have — I love — I haven’t –” but she is unable to complete any of these thoughts. Alma has lost the ability to differentiate her internal self. The image cuts to a composite, half Alma’s face, half Elisabet’s:
At first glance, we’re caught off guard, intrigued. The longer we look, however, the more disquieting it becomes. See the nose, how it almost seems to melt to one side. See the lopsided mouth, longer on the right than the left [audience’s point of view]. It’s a deformity to rival a Lon Chaney creation. If you’re interpreting these two women as separate people, then the image suggests that trying to become one with another person, to know them inside and out [as Alma seems to want to do with Elisabet] is impossible. If you see Alma and Elisabet as two parts of the same personality, one the outer, public self [what Jung, significantly, called the “persona”], one the inner, private self, it suggests the impossibility of merging the two into one wholly authentic self. The result does not fit together properly; we’re left with an almost Uncanny Valley feeling.
It’s worth noting how Nykvist lights the sequence as well. The actresses sit across from each other at the table, with a sunlit window to one side. Andersson’s right side is bathed in sunlight, her left side cast in shadow, while Ullmann’s left is lit, her right side in darkness. Yin and yang, we think, just before we’re hit by the asymmetry of that final image.
I won’t spoil the end of the picture for you. Instead, I’ll leave you with a few images from those final scenes. Make of them what you will.
Ingmar Bergman himself said that in Persona, he had pushed the boundaries of film. Persona is one of the earliest, and certainly greatest, examples of cinematic poetry, abstraction made concrete. Without it, there could be no Mirror, no Mulholland Drive. It remains one of the most important and influential films to come out of mid-century Europe. It stands as a master class in storytelling through cinematography. And, let’s face it, it’s just damn gorgeous.
On deck: A Bergman disciple’s take on love and loss in the Big Apple…
*What’s especially intriguing is that their body language suggests looking into a mirror as they face the camera. Yet a moment ago we could see the whole room around them — there is no mirror there!
** More than one commentator seems to think that the sunglasses which Mr. Vogler wears at the beginning of the scene indicate that he is blind. However, given that he looks straight at Alma more than once [not to mention finding her shoulder without fumbling at the scene’s beginning] seems to dissuade this. Alma herself wore nearly identical shades in a previous scene, but no one uses that to suggest she has impaired vision. My belief is that the sunglasses are symbolically significant — Vogler sees what he wants to see, not the truth. On the other hand, Alma wears sunglasses to hide her true emotions.