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The Persistence of Persona

The Persistence of <i>Persona</i>

When Ingmar Bergman died in July 2007—on the same day as Michelangelo Antonioni—an unexpected controversy arose. Among the obligatory eulogizing obituaries, celebrating his towering achievements and itemizing the admiration for his work by directors ranging from Woody Allen to David Lynch and Robert Altman to Lars von Trier, there were also dissenting voices (most prominently, Jonathan Rosenbaum in a New York Times op-ed) claiming he was overrated, lacked stylistic originality, and merely inflicted personal psychodramas on awestruck audiences. One might imagine this gainsaying simply reflected the longevity of Bergman’s career and a certain iconoclastic impatience with some of the more predictable hyperbole and praise heaped on the departed. But in fact it was a repeat performance: controversy over Bergman goes back a long way, and in New York was sparked by no less a film than Persona, his 1966 masterpiece. While Susan Sontag wrote an enthusiastic and, as it turned out, seminal article on Persona, another critical heavyweight, Andrew Sarris, wrote a dismissive review, taking time out to attack Bergman as a filmmaker generally, arguing that he had no talent for the medium (“His technique never equaled his sensibility”) and that he should have remained a theater director. Sontag anticipated much of the criticism of not only Persona when she wrote: “Some of the paltriness of the critics’ reaction may be more a response to the signature that Persona carries than to the film itself.” Evidently, by this point in his career, Bergman’s name had acquired a fixed set of, often contradictory, associations: “lavishly inventive” as well as “facile,” “sensual” along with “melodramatic.” But as Sontag hinted, Persona was something else altogether, taking the filmmaker’s stylistic and thematic repertoire to an entirely new level. Here, for the first time, was an unapologetically avant-garde work by Bergman that also dared to veer between vampire horror flick and hospital soap opera, all the while posing ontological questions about the reality status of cinema itself. Since that debate, writing about Persona has been for film critics and scholars what climbing Everest is for mountaineers: the ultimate professional challenge. Besides Citizen Kane, it is probably the most written-about film in the canon. Raymond Bellour and Jacques Aumont, Robin Wood and Roger Ebert, Paisley Livingston and P. Adams Sitney, along with Sontag and Sarris, have all written with gravity and great insight about Persona, not counting several books and collections entirely devoted to the film. In what follows, I shall not undertake yet another all-out assault on the mountain that is Persona but concentrate on what makes this film such an exemplary work of European modernism, as well as one of the creative peaks of world cinema.

Persona is instantly recognizable thanks to two shots that have become its emblems: a boy touching a woman’s face on a giant screen and two women looking at each other (and us) across an imaginary mirror. Defining images for the film, they also stand for an idea of the cinema—in fact, for two distinct but complementary metaphors of what cinema is: a portal, a window, a passage you can enter or (almost) touch, and a mirror, a reflection, a prism that gives you back only what you project onto it. Persona is also cinema about cinema—a point that Bergman makes clear with his six-minute prologue montage sequence—which is one of the reasons it is such an irresistible challenge for writers.

The first of these shots is from the prologue. A young boy with thick glasses, lying on what looks like a hospital bed, closes the book he is reading, sits up, and reaches out toward the camera, before a reverse shot reveals this to be a translucent surface, on which appears the face of a woman. The close-up of the woman’s face projected onto the surface and tentatively touched by the boy visualizes the cinema as a window that both fuses and separates, that invites touch but keeps us (like the boy) isolated in uncertain anticipation. As it becomes larger and larger, this face is both too close to be recognized and too blurry to be grasped. Representing the archetypal maternal imago, it is at once immediately tactile and irredeemably virtual: the boy’s longing for his mother, for direct contact and physical fusion, must remain unfulfilled, for what could bridge the gap between the two planes of psychic reality? The cinema itself is here the father figure that demands renunciation of the primary love object, to enable the boy’s eventual selfhood and identity, just as the cinema demands the separation of the body from the image for there to be spectatorship. This parallel is underlined by the boy’s initial gesture toward the invisible fourth wall, thereby obliging the spectator to feel directly implicated in his longing and to experience the separation right from the start: we will always remain “virtual” to him, meaning that he, like indeed every character in the film, exists only to the degree that we are prepared to grant him “reality,” through the act of activating our empathy, our human touch, the intelligence of our bodies.

If the cinema is a tactile window in the first iconic image, in the second, another look into the camera/screen, it is imaged as a mirror: Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) and her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), face each other in the middle of the night in front of what may be the bathroom cabinet, where the two of them discover—or merely imagine?—an uncanny resemblance. As the scene unfolds and the lightly clad actresses move as if to kiss, their faces overlap, seem almost to be superimposed—anticipating a later shot where a split-screen image of the two women combines their faces, and making us wonder not only who but what is this face looking so intently at us.

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From the 1960s to the mid-1970s, film theory, influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s distanciation effect and modernist self-reflexivity in literature and the visual arts, often focused on a film’s “mirror construction.” In this, ­theory tried to catch up with the practice of European art cinema. Reference to other films and self-reference to the fact that you were watching a film became essential elements in the stylistic arsenal of New Wave directors in France and elsewhere—Godard’s Contempt and Fellini’s 8½, both from 1963, being Persona’s precedents. If Hollywood made sure you could enter the world of a film through a metaphoric window or door, the mirror construction was meant to block this passage, rendering the relationship of spectator to screen more complicated (and complicit), especially when it came to deciding what was “out there” and “for real” and what was “inside” and “subjective,” or even merely a dream or a hallucination. Persona is almost a textbook case, relishing these confusions; we can never be quite certain if what we see has actually happened, and if so, why and to what (narrative) purpose. Sontag, for instance, suggests that Elisabet and Alma may in fact be one person: “It’s correct to speak of Persona in terms of the fortunes of two characters named Elizabeth and Alma who are engaged in a desperate duel of identities. But it is equally pertinent to treat Persona as relating the duel between two mythical parts of a single self: the corrupted person who acts (Elizabeth) and the ingenuous soul (Alma) who founders in contact with corruption.”

But Bergman does not keep the spectator merely guessing or at a (Brechtian) distance. On the contrary, Persona has an almost hypnotic pull; it draws the spectator in and never lets go, partly because, as demonstrated in the two iconic shots, the screen can be a window before it turns into a mirror. The film continually shifts between these modes, but ultimately it is the mirror that is its major structuring motif, both bringing us into the cinematic space as alternately copresent with the characters and cut off from them and defining the relation between the emotionally remote and psychically traumatized actress Elisabet and the younger, seemingly cheerful and good-natured Alma. Having suffered a nervous breakdown onstage, in the middle of a performance of Elektra, that leaves her unable (or unwilling) to speak, Elisabet is placed in the care of a warmhearted but practically minded chatterbox, at first in a rehabilitation clinic and then, just the two of them, in a country cottage on a remote island. The ensuing rapprochement between the women gives rise to moments of intimacy and the promise of mutual trust, but also leads to mounting tensions and open conflict, with the fluctuating relations depicted as a temporary blurring of their identities in the mirror shot described above.

This scene is so memorable because it relates profoundly to the inner movement and dramatic development not only of these characters’ journey of self-discovery but of the film itself, its narrative doublings and reversals—form and function perfectly coalescing in images of exquisite harmony and delicacy, which nonetheless leave room for extraordinary violence, both emotional and physical. The more unsettling, therefore, that the following morning Elisabet denies the very occurrence of the encounter. Yet this, too, has an inner logic, in that it corresponds to the two movements in Alma’s character and sensibility: the outgoing emotion, the desire that brings the vision into being and makes it materialize on the screen, and the self-doubting, mirrorlike apprehension that dissolves it again. In such scenes, Bergman brings out fundamental tensions between emotion, intellect, and perception—our separate ways of apprehending the world—if we allow ourselves to follow the characters’ actions and are willing to open ourselves to the conflicting emotional signals emitted by their often unexpectedly violent interactions. In this respect, Elisabet and Alma are stand-ins for those of us spectators who first have to sort out our complicated feelings after an intense film experience before we know what to make of it.

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