Dir.: Ingmar Bergman; Cast: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook, Gunnar Björnstrand; Sweden, 83′.
Silence has always played a big part in Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre – his 1963 feature The Silence being a perfect example of his near obsession with the theme. In The Silence it was God who was the un-communicative element. In Persona an actress uses silence as a way of protecting herself in a loosely structured philosophical discourse exploring the wider meaning of the word ‘persona’.
During her performance of Electra on stage, the actress Elisabeth Vogler (Ullmann) suddenly stops reciting her words, as if making a conscious decision not to utter another line during the play. After a medical examination a doctor (Krook) diagnoses her physically and psychologically sane, and she is sent with nurse Alma (Andersson) to a remote seaside retreat to recover. Alma tries to help Elisabeth, opening up to her, and sharing intimate secrets in the hope of bonding with her patient. To no avail. When Alma later discovers that Elisabeth has denigrated her in a letter to her doctor, Alma. is naturally discouraged and disillusioned. The two women engage in a psychological battle, but the result is a merging of their psyches as they gradually become more like each other: in the end, Vogler’s husband (Björnstrand), visiting the two, talks to Alma, mistaking her for his wife.
Freud compared dreams to an archaic language whose interpretation could be contradictory. Delving deeper, he examined the work of the linguist K. Abel, to find out about the opposite meaning, or antonyms, to certain words whose lexicography or roots appear to contradict their contemporary meanings. The word ‘person’ means a man or woman in possession of all faculties. But the French word ‘personne’ can mean someone or no-one depending on the context in a sentence. In PERSONA Bergman, examines the double meaning of the word ‘mask’: is the actress, in this case Elisabeth, using the mask, on stage, to hide her face, to deliver the text faithfully, or to cover up her deepest feelings. Littre wrote that mask means “wrong face, painted on”, and therefore de-masking allows the true meaning of the person’s intentions to be disclosed. By confessing her own deeper self, Alma (meaning: the giver of good) offers up her own confessions.
According to Greek mythology, Electra saved her little brother and disobeys her stepfather’s orders so as to save her real father. In the same way, Elisabeth uses her silence to ‘disobey’ society. But when Alma discovers what Elisabeth really thinks about her, she loses her own identity: instead of giving, ie. healing, Elisabeth’s unkind words diminish her. But at the same time, Elisabeth has destroyed their complicity: her mask has dropped, destroying their relationship. In de-masking her, Alma becomes Elisabeth: the nurse had undergone an abortion, and Elisabeth had also harboured murderous feelings towards her own child.
The brilliance of Sven Nykist’s compositions almost eclipse Alma’s monologue, as we are mesmerised by the poetic ebb and flow of the characters’ faces, melting into the landscape. As ever, Bergman is relentless: Mallarme wrote about the rich, decoded postulates, but Bergman proves that he only deals in delusions.
PERSONA HEADLINES A SEASON OF INGMAR BERGMAN’S FILMS DURING JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2018 | BFI SOUTHBANK, LONDON