by Richard Corliss
Ingmar Bergman’s films are a perverse kind of Pearl White serial of the intellect. The characters and themes scrutinized and seemingly resolved in one episode are challenged in another. Thus, the performers of The Naked Night were reprieved, by an absurd deus-ex-machina device, in The Magician. The father’s facile homily at the conclusion of Through a Glass Darkly, that God is love and love proves God’s existence, was mocked in Winter Light. And the vibrant young wife of The Seventh Seal, who escaped death by believing that “it’s always better when one is two,” finds her cozy philosophy tested beyond its, or her, endurance when she is placed in the terrifying position of being alone in the presence of another person, and the two become one, in Persona.
The other person is an actress, Elizabeth Vogler, who stopped playing her role in midperformance one evening, and has been silent since. She can be humanly moved—but not by acting. When she hears another actress sincerely intoning the words “Forgive me!” she breaks into silent laughter. For her, all acting is lying and, by extension, every action is a lie. She has decided that there is little difference between existentially performing an “action” and theatrically “performing” an action. It’s difficult to tell the truth—and it’s so easy, so generous, so human to lie. Truth wounds; lies soothe. People love to be complimented, to be lied to. Granting this, we imagine the actress asking herself, how can I stop lying? The answer: stop speaking. And what act is not a lie? The act of suicide, and the sight of a monk’s self-immolation is the only pin to prick her mask and make her cry.
In Persona the girl of The Seventh Seal has become Alma, a twenty-five-year-old nurse, smiling and engaged, a shining example of mens sana in corpore sano. When Alma, on first meeting her mute patient, hears the “Forgive me!” on the radio, she makes a little speech on the importance of the actor-artist to society, “especially to people with problems. Of course, I don’t know much about acting.” Elizabeth smiles. She has spent enough time putting on a look of agony, shamming convulsion, simulating a throe, to see that Alma’s level-headed Miss Sweden is nothing but a well-performed if unconscious role, and that she has problems of her own anxious to be expressed. In fact, Alma feels guilty about a wild beach orgy that led to pregnancy and abortion.
Realizing this, Elizabeth begins to study the nurse, taking advantage of Alma’s genuine girlish infatuation with her patient (whom she laughs and flirts with, pets and tells secrets to), drawing Alma out of her persona, draining her of all experience, so that she can “be” the nurse in some future role. But gradually, Alma becomes more than one of the actress’s parts—she becomes part of the actress, and learns how to play the role of “Elizabeth Vogler, performer.” When Elizabeth’s blind husband visits, he mistakes Alma for his wife; they make love and she tells him, “You’re a marvelous lover”—a double lie that does not make a truth.
Through all this, the actress remains silent, so Alma plays tricks to get Elizabeth to talk: first she tries ingenuous charm, then pleading, then broken glass in a vulnerable spot, and finally threats. The glass elicits an “Ow!” and the threat of scalding water an inadvertent “No, don’t!” But even these are only hysterical reactions, and the actress is still in control. When the nurse begs forgiveness and says, “You don’t need me any more,” Elizabeth smiles, remembering the radio program. “Oh, yes,” Alma taunts, “I know how false it all sounds”—a true sentiment which, uttered by a person in a state of crisis, so often comes out a cliché.
Slowly Alma comes to understand that she is just another of Elizabeth’s “props.” The actress had borne a child to help her “live the part” of a mother, but was disgusted by the boy’s determination to stay alive after the role was completed. Now she wants to toss Alma away like an old prompt-book. In the end, Alma has been used so much that she is nearly used up; her persona has been peeled off like summer-skin; she is no longer herself and may not be anyone at all. Thus completely self-less, she lets Elizabeth commit the final act of vampirism. And in response to Alma’s cessation of acting, in any sense of the word, the actress finally speaks. Carefully coached by Alma, Elizabeth, whose “every movement and inflection has been a lie, and every smile a grimace,” says one word: “Nothing.”
There are enough parallels between Persona and other Bergman films to fill a Master’s thesis, but here are three:
In the Persona prologue, we see the boy from The Silence, three years later, picking up a book his possessive aunt had translated as a testament for him; he leafs through it, and Persona begins—a story she had wanted to tell him. In the earlier film God’s silence turned two women into auto-erotic animals; in Persona the silence of the actress-priestess turns the nurse into an incoherent nothing.
Elizabeth Vogler shares surnames with the performer-priest in The Magician, whose original title, The Face, referred to the phony whiskers and wig he wore to conceal his identity—in other words, his persona. Albert Vogler shocked a skeptical scientist into momentary belief by pretending to be dead and then alive again; Elizabeth Vogler shocks Alma into self-revelation by pretending to be mute. Both Voglers are at once actors and priests: Albert is giving the scientist an almost mystical experience through his performance; Elizabeth is hearing Alma’s confession by gathering human material for her performance.
The Seventh Seal’s ever-questioning knight confesses, unknowingly, to Death: “I want God to stretch out his hand toward me, reveal Himself and speak to me.” Death, his confessor, replies: “But he is silent.” A later encounter shows the knight demanding Death to tell what he knows, and Death answers: “Nothing.” In Persona Alma, infuriated by Elizabeth’s silence, screams: “Say something, even if it’s a lie!” And at the film’s end, Elizabeth says something: “Nothing.”
It is worth noting that both Persona and Antonioni’s Blow-Up examine the artist’s use of false, cruel stimulants (the photographer’s camera and car horn, the actress’s silence) to provoke an honest human response which can be caught and used in art. And as Blow-Up told the photographer’s story in an album of beautiful photographs, Persona offers us a portrait of the actor by dazzling actors. Liv Ullmann, who looks quite like Hayley Mills, could have played the actress’s role as “just another pretty face,” but her face implies every nuance of feeling that her silence stifles; as for Bibi Andersson, whose first important film role was that of the young wife in The Seventh Seal, her performance as the nurse is perhaps the best Bergman has ever coaxed from an actress.
Bergman’s camera and editing techniques have always been at the service of his script. This has earned him the prejorative epithet theatrical,” although it’s never been made clear why critics praise Steinbeck for the “filmic” dialogue in his novels and Brecht for his use of movie effects on stage, yet damn Bergman because his scripts are literate and complex and because he allows his camera to linger on the faces of his magnificently trained actors. These critics seem to prefer simple-minded stories and obtrusive camera-work that they can call “plastic” to Bergman’s taut, terse scenarios and characters with life and depth, which they call “theatrical.”
Unfortunately, the criticism seems to have troubled Bergman; and so Persona includes parentheses to show us that it’s only a movie, that we should keep our distance and not be fooled by those actors—those liars—up on the screen. The prologue shows us certain images which automatically elicit certain responses (a nail driven through a hand gives us vicarious pain, for example); the epilogue reminds us that the characters with whom we have become involved were simply images. Throughout the film the suggestion of aloofness is continued by the use of a narrator (Jarl Kulle), a motion-picture camera reflected in Alma’s glasses, a reproduction of film burning when Alma gets her first reaction from Elizabeth (“Ow!”), and a shot of a tracking camera at the end. Alma’s early jest to her patient, “I could change myself into you if I tried hard. I mean, inside me,” comes to pass, and the symbolic act of metempsychosis is shown by fusing the right side of Alma’s face with the left side of Elizabeth’s; thereafter only one side of each actress’s face is shown. But it is Ingmar Bergman’s faith in the eloquence of the human face—a faith held since the opening shot of Torment and one that has rewarded him immensely—that keeps us involved with his characters despite the visual obstacles which fashion has placed in our path, and it is Bergman’s own continuing concern for his people, and thus all people, that make him a great artist and Persona a truthful, burning, and brilliant film.
Source: Film Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Summer, 1967), pp. 52-54