I’ve just watched Persona, making it the 12th Ingmar Bergman film I’ve seen (after Autumn Sonata, The Silence, All These Women, Cries and Whispers, Wild Strawberries, Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Seventh Seal—in that order). And it’s the most difficult.
Some critic has said, if Wild Strawberries is the most plagiarised Ingmar Bergman film and The Seventh Seal is the most parodied, Persona is the one most written about. It’s a rich, complex and ambiguous film with multiple layers that can be interpreted in lots of different ways.
The most discernible meaning is that, like Through a Glass Darkly, Persona seems to reflect the director’s own concerns and anguish as an artist. In Through a Glass Darkly, the writer uses the personal experience of someone close to him (his own daughter) for his art. In Persona, Elisabet, an actress, feels like, as an artist, she can’t respond authentically to large tragedies like the Vietnam War or the Holocaust. Her art is helpless.
At the same time, everything seems false—Elisabet’s acting even when she’s not acting. Her being a wife and then a mother is just a persona; she’s tired; her refusal to speak is her way of discarding it all.
(It’s interesting to note that the only thing that can make her talk is fear, when Alma threatens to throw boiling water at her—like fear is the only real feeling left, the only trace of vitality in Elisabet).
That’s the most obvious meaning. How do you understand the film as a whole? 1 interpretation is literal—as we see in the film, Elisabet is silent and her nurse Alma does all the talking, then slowly she talks for Elisabet and starts to imagine herself as her. Alma is weak. When she lets her patient get hurt by the broken glass and later hits her, she allows anger, resentment and the sense of betrayal take over her and reveal her weakness—she abandons the discipline of her profession. Then she lets Elisabet take over her being, even when she tries to assert her own separate identity. The 2 merge into 1.
Another interpretation is that the 2 are the same person—Elisabet is the external person and Alma is the inner turmoil, the self-conflict and self-loathing, the 2 of them making up the persona (Alma in Spanish means soul). At the beginning of the film, we see the images of them blending and morphing into each other. Near the end, their faces are merged. Elisabet studying Alma is her looking inward and examining her own life, her own dreams and longings, her own fears, her own selfishness, hypocrisy and cruelty. Alma’s story of the abortion is a denial, a way of hiding from the truth that she (Elisabet, the external person) has a son.
Both interpretations make sense.
But then what do you think about the ending? Why is it that we see Elisabet packing but afterwards only Alma gets on the bus, apparently carrying the same suitcase? What’s up with the creepy giant sculpture at the end? What do you make of the opening sequence of Persona?
I perhaps would never completely understand it, but this is a wonderful film.