Persona can be a difficult film. Like Buñuel and Deren before him, Bergman tossed out the conventions of filmmaking and reinvented cinema on his own terms. This leaves viewers (especially those with no avant-garde experience) with little familiar turf from which to appreciate the movie. Also, its narrative and characters are secondary to its technique: a self-conscious deconstruction of film art.
And so, Persona begins with the lighting of a carbon arcs and rolling film reels. Then we see images that represent many uses of the moving picture: documentation (a spider, moving hands), entertainment (a Chaplin-esque silent comedy, a children’s cartoon), propaganda (hands being nailed into wood, evocative of Christ’s crucifixion), arousal (an erect phallus), provocation (carving open a sheep, and a shot that reminds of the famous eyeball-slicing scene from Un Chien Andalou), and art (a still, painterly shot in a Swedish forest). Shots of sharp fence bars and a mound of dirty snow also foreshadow the stark, desperately cynical nature of the movie, and of the stage in Bergman’s career that began with the hopeless end of his previous film, 1963’s The Silence.
Next we see several corpses lying in what could be a morgue, and a boy lying in one of the beds wakes up. He stares at the camera (another Brechtian alienation technique to upset the fantasy of the film and remind us that it is a construct), then moves his hand over a large image of a woman’s face, which morphs into another face and back again. This may reference Bergman’s inspiration for the film. In a hospital, he was struck by the similar faces of the women who became his leads for Persona, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann.
Finally, the credits sequence. Titles are in extremely high-contrast black and white, with more split-second images displayed between each title. The music, expectedly, is jarring, contemporary avant-garde composition.
And then the story begins. Part of the fun of Persona is its openness to interpretation. I’ll begin with a literal reading.
Actress Elizabeth stops speaking during a performance of Elektra and months later is sent with Nurse Alma to an island house for therapy. Alma cannot get Elizabeth to speak, but finds in her a good listener, and in this way they become friends. While bringing mail to the post office, Alma reads Elizabeth’s outgoing letter. Elizabeth sees their roles reversed; she is studying talkative Alma. Alma is angered by this, and later leaves broken glass for Elizabeth to step on. Finally, frustrated that Elizabeth refuses to speak, the two fight, reconcile, embrace, and leave the island.
Though the literal reading works if you grant poetic license to this poem in images, Persona gives us many opportunities for creative interpretations that may work even better. No movie has more replay value than Persona.
My favorite is a popular theory, that Elisabeth and Alma are the same person – two personas that split when the actress stops acting. She stops acting for a living, but also stops acting for the outside world. Alma represents the outer, interactive persona. Elisabeth represents the inner, quiet, stronger persona. The film is a metaphor for the interaction between these two personas within a single human being. The outer character is comforted by the quiet inner strength, but frustrated that it does not give answers. Each scene shows a dialogue between the inner and outer. And when the actress’ husband arrives, she recognizes Alma, and doesn’t notice Elisabeth, who is merely a metaphor for the inner character of the actress. This unity is represented by the cinematography, which often positions the two lead faces overlapping each other, until finally they are superimposed over each other in a startling shot.
According to this interpretation, the child at the beginning of the movie may represent the actress’ aborted child, looking upon the dual personas of his mother from beyond the grave.
We are never allowed to forget that this is deconstructionist cinema. At one point, the film breaks down and burns up entirely, shows brief clips from the opening sequence, then returns to the story. At one point, a scene plays twice in a row from different camera angles, indicating the subjective possibilities of art. And at the end, the reels stop and the carbon arc goes out.
I have barely begun to explain how specific scenes may be interpreted, including the dreamlike bedroom scene, the vampirism scene, and the beachside chase scene. I leave that to curious minds.
In its relentlessly deconstructionist presentation, its brilliant portrayal of psychology, its inventiveness, its openness to interpretation, its cinematography, its powerful lead performances, and its frightening originality, I believe Persona is the greatest film ever made. I might have to write a scene-by-scene commentary to seriously make such an argument, and perhaps I will.
But if you’re not ready for Persona, try Mulholland Drive, a modern masterpiece that shares a multitude of strong similarities with Persona.