Opening with a haunting and bewildering series of disturbing and explicit images, which go unexplained, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is brilliantly intense. Renowned as one of the most well-edited sequences in film, it appears to be a psychoanalysis of a woman’s mind. This sequence grasps the viewer by the throat, drawing them into the dreamy, stunning, and rough story of two women desperately searching to understand their identities.
Liv Ullmann is Elisabet Vogler, a famed stage actress who has suffered a psychological breakdown and become mute. For reasons unknown, she fell silent during a production of Electra and has since been admitted to a psychiatric facility. Bibi Andersson plays Alma, the young nurse assigned to care for her. The supervising doctor (Margaretha Krook) decides to lend the pair her beautiful summer home as a place of solace during Elisabet’s recovery.
Rather than Elisabet, Alma is the one who begins to speak. First shy and slightly awestruck at being entrusted with the care of such an actress, Alma tiptoes around Elisabet. Soon, she sees her own voice as a tool to heal the actress; like a flower she opens, petals peeling outwards layer by layer as her most suppressed thoughts begin to spill from her lips. Revealing her most hidden secrets to Elisabet becomes a sort of catharsis for Alma. Alma tells the beautifully poised actress all of her crises and problems, receiving only eloquent silence and piercing eyes in return. Alma is almost childlike in her fascination for Elisabet and it shows in her desperation for communication and her sharp anger when she feels Elisabet has betrayed her; she is dramatic and loud, her movements dynamic. By contrast, Elisabet only expresses herself through her eyes: the way they change when she is actually listening to Alma’s dilemmas and the way they grow wide when Alma admonishes her for not speaking. Meanwhile, Elisabet continues to be challenged by graphic images of war and struggle from the outside world, similar to those in the opening sequence. The pressure becomes intolerable as Alma’s desperation for anything other than silence builds.
All the while they grow closer and closer. Their bouts of physical intimacy become more frequent. It doesn’t matter whether they’re reaching out for comfort or in anger; they find each other and seek a response. Although subtle, there are many scenes which suggest sexual overtones between the two women, which the larger themes of the film seem to reflect—silence, identity, connection. Persona is a twisted, uninterpretable love story. Both women fall in love with the idea of the other, with the concept that they have found someone who could understand them in a profound way. They have been tossed into a remote beach house together, yet find something between them so powerful that it ultimately draws Elisabet out of her silence.
Masterful cinematography by Sven Nykvist makes the film even more raw, daring, and vibrant. Sharp shadows, soft angelic lighting, and contrasting tones and paralleled images add even more depth to the dramatic relationship between Alma and Elisabet. Perhaps the most iconic image in the film is the split shot of half of Alma’s face placed next to the other half of Elisabet’s. It is uncanny, unsettling, and ingenious. The two women have merged; what is real is unclear to us and to them. They have become one and the same. Alma is Elisabet and Elisabet is Alma; where one ends, the other begins. They are a shared person now, more connected than ever before.
Persona is able to bewitch audiences even if they are overwhelmed and puzzled by what the film is attempting to convey. It is a film that coaxes you into a time of contemplation and analysis and allows each viewer their own individual interpretation of what Bergman is portraying. Persona is one of the greatest films ever made, regardless of whether or not you completely understand it, and will continue to stand as a giant in the history of film, even as time continues to pass.