not in our stars, but in ourselves
Before things unravel in Persona, Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) reads this passage to her patient, Elisabet (Liv Ullmann):
All the anxiety we bear with us, all our thwarted dreams, the incomprehensible cruelty, our fear of extinction, the painful insight into our earthly condition, have slowly eroded our hope of an other-wordly salvation. The howl of our faith and doubt against the darkness and silence, is one of the most awful proofs of our abandonment and our terrified, unuttered knowledge.
Alma asks Elisabet if she thinks that’s true, and Elisabet nods. Alma doesn’t agree. It’s hard to say what, specifically, Persona is about: it’s about cinema, it’s about society, it’s about psychology, it’s about humanism, it’s about a woman’s place in the world. In some sense – maybe solely on the level of character, which is itself a loaded question in this movie – I think the above exchange sums our two women up. But more about that in a moment.
After a jarring opening sequence – featuring brief shots of an erect penis, of a nail being hammered into a hand, of the sea and rocky beaches, of Alma and Elisabet; and then an extended series of shots of apparently dead people in a morgue, where a young boy wakes up and starts reaching towards a screen with our women’s blurry faces projected on it – we’re in a hospital. Alma is asked to look after Elisabet Volger, a famous actress who suddenly stopped speaking after a nervous breakdown onstage. Despite Alma’s chatty good nature, Elisabet doesn’t seem to improve. The doctor (Margaretha Krook) suggests that Alma take Elisabet to a seaside cottage for a change of scenery. Initially, this seems to improve both women’s health and their relationship with one another. Soon, however, it goes downhill. Alma is somewhat enamored of Elisabet, and – after getting good and drunk one night – tells her all about a ménage à quatre she had with two young boys and a stranger she’d just met. Elisabet writes to the doctor about Alma’s oversharing and infatuation, and Alma reads the letter. She’s terribly embarrassed and hurt, and conditions at the cottage deteriorate. There’s slapping and screaming and cutting and blurring of who’s who – and then we’re back to the little boy reaching out to the screen with the women’s faces.
It’s a bit avant-garde, you could say. It’s not unapproachable, though. Bergman understands human emotion pretty well, so for all the jarring cinematic tricks he pulls, he connects them all to Alma and Elisabet. During the opening montage, one of the images is the burning monk, Thích Quảng Đức. Even in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot, it’s disturbing. That’s not his last appearance, however. While she’s in the hospital, Elisabet watches an American news program on TV. The news camera – impassively, from a distance – records the flames jolting the monk’s charred body back and forth. Elisabet is horrified, and we begin to understand that she’s not just going through some sort of actorly cry for attention: it’s hit her, hard, that the world is a cruel place where people do awful things to each other, and she no longer wants to be part of it. Later in the film, she finds a photograph of Jews forcibly pulled out of dug-outs in the Warsaw Ghetto, and she can’t stop staring at the little boy with his hands up. Her focus is outward; she observes; she studies; she’s consumed with empathy. The name “Elisabet” comes from the Hebrew for “oath of God,” and the doctor talks about the strength of will necessary for Elisabet to have shut herself off so completely – as if she’s taken an oath, or a vow.
The name symbolism (coincidental as it may be) doesn’t stop there: “Alma” means “soul,” and she seems to represent what a woman’s soul is supposed to be all about. Before going to bed one night, she talks to herself about her fiancé, and how her life is all decided for her: she’ll get married, have kids, give up her job, and that will be it. She accepts it, but she’ll have to dam up entire rivers of her own personality. Her focus is on physical connection and sex; service; nurturing; the need to be needed. Where Elisabet decides to walk away from the world to be truer to herself, Alma decides to suppress what she wants and who she is in order to avoid what she fears most: embarrassment, loneliness, and pain. She very much wants to be in the world, whatever the cost to her sense of self. In other words, she’s doing everything she’s “supposed” to do in a world run by men, and it’s going to tear her apart.
Since I’m coming to Bergman so late, I have to say I’m surprised by his reputation. I had been intimidated by the reverence and seriousness surrounding him. I hadn’t heard a peep about the depth of feeling he has for his characters, his sense of fairness, his (very dry and very Scandinavian, of course) humor. And so, just as I was surprised by how lovely and warm The Seventh Seal is, I’m surprised by how feminist Persona is. He calls it Persona because, back in the day, that’s what ancient Romans called the masks that actors wore to represent different characters onstage. In the hospital, the doctor – perhaps speaking for Bergman, perhaps not – tells Elisabet:
I understand, all right. The hopeless dream of being – not seeming, but being. At every waking moment, alert. The gulf between what you are with others and what you are alone. The vertigo and the constant hunger to be exposed, to be seen through, perhaps even wiped out. Every inflection and every gesture a lie, every smile a grimace. Suicide? No, too vulgar. But you can refuse to move, refuse to talk, so that you don’t have to lie. You can shut yourself in. Then you needn’t play any parts or make wrong gestures. Or so you thought. But reality is diabolical. Your hiding place isn’t watertight. Life trickles in from the outside, and you’re forced to react. No one asks if it is true or false, if you’re genuine or just a sham. Such things matter only in the theatre, and hardly there either. I understand why you don’t speak, why you don’t move, why you’ve created a part for yourself out of apathy. I understand. I admire. You should go on with this part until it is played out, until it loses interest for you. Then you can leave it, just as you’ve left your other parts one by one.
Do men have to make these decisions, between dissolution of the self and being part of the world? I very much doubt it. I believe Bergman doubted it, too. It’s possible that Alma and Elisabet are the same person, the same woman, each a representation of the insane pressures bearing down on women, and the awful things we have to do to try to endure them. It’s possible that each is a representation of a mask that we’re forced to wear as we play our parts. It’s certain that there’s no real escape.