What better way to start the New Year than with a bracing dose of existential fear and trembling?

The BFI kicks off its Ingmar Bergman centenary celebrations with the revival of Bergman’s 1966 film, Persona. Deeply absorbing, it is another of the director’s lavishly symbolic films, playing with the ideas of artifice, the self, and imbalances of power.

Persona has been extensively analysed over the last 60 years, generating divided opinions among critics and academics. For an 84-minute film, it is a very rich text. Some have found it opaque or mysterious – but also disquieting and entrancing.

The film opens with a willfully disconcerting montage, in the Surrealist style – a nod to Bunuel and Dali among others, glimpses of cartoons and silent films, and allusions to past Bergman work. Early sequences include footage of older people, some dead, and of a boy (Jörgen Lindström, who had previously appeared in Bergman’s 1963 The Silence), lying, then later reading, on what may be a mortuary trolley. Recurring images of the boy, hand outstretched, reaching out towards a woman’s face projected on a semi-opaque screen – the woman’s face becoming increasingly unattainable – become an important theme.

At times, Bergman reminds us we are watching something constructed, staged, a film. He inserts images of arc lights burning, of film stock melting in the heat of a projector gate. Towards the end of the film, the camera pulls out to reveal film workers in action, including Bergman’s long-standing cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. Persona is framed by such reminders. Such devices are a new departure for Bergman – this film can be argued to be a different phase in his work.

The central element of the story is an evolving psychological conflict between two women. A celebrated theatre actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), affected by sudden mutism on stage during a performance of Electra, is hospitalised. A self-assured and breezy young nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), is assigned to care for her. It transpires that Elisabet Vogler is not ill. Her inability – or refusal – to speak is assumed to be a reaction to something as yet undefined. Her doctor (Margaretha Krook) confirms her to be sane, and generously suggests Elisabet convalesce at her island cottage, under Alma’s care.

Early on, Alma remarks that she might become psychologically overpowered by Elisabet’s silence. This indeed happens, when the two women retreat to that stark, bare, island. It is out of season; the cottage and its surroundings appear austere and isolated. The film is shot in black and white. This reinforces the starkness of the landscapes, and increases the stylishness of both women; it is hard to understate the glamour Sweden – and Bergman – held for international audiences in the 1960s.

Alma is chatty towards her charge, initially out of kindness. Encouraged by her patient’s continuing silence, which she assumes is well-meaning, Alma goes on to confide in Elisabet, revealing in an extended stream of consciousness increasingly intimate thoughts.

Alma becomes infatuated. In the barren landscape, where from day to day the women don’t seem to encounter any other human beings, life becomes hallucinatory. Elisabet wanders about the house one night as if she were a ghost, and embraces Alma, but the next day denies that anything happened; another time, one sucks blood from the other’s wrist. There are intimations here of vampirism, but those are brief vignettes; Persona is not a horror story – the bloodsucking is another kind of metaphor. The existential horror shown here is one of everyday life in the Bergman universe, where a slipped mask typically reveals sadism, prurience, and harshness, and where humiliation is a norm.

The difference in social class between the two women becomes evident, deeply marked – the relationship becomes not one of patient and career but almost mistress and servant. Alma is no longer sure of the boundaries between her and her silent companion; when Elisabet’s husband comes to visit – or does he? – he embraces Alma thinking she is Elisabet. He is possibly blind – this sheds a different light on Elisabet’s mutism: how would a blind husband and a mute wife communicate, especially if the wife avoids the husband, and places another woman in his path, as Elisabeth seems to do with Alma?

Soon, it becomes wholly unclear whose point of view the audience is observing. Perhaps there is no cottage, perhaps Alma never confides in Elisabet. Perhaps Elisabet never leaves her hospital room; perhaps she too, is the figment of someone else’s imagination.

One day, while on the island, Elisabet gives Alma a letter to post – the letter has been left unsealed. Alma reads it surreptitiously, and discovers she has been betrayed. The half-smile of her otherwise blank patient’s face was all along a smirk. Elisabet’s letter relates, condescendingly, Alma’s intimate secrets. Alma understands that Elisabet’s silence was a form of aggression, an exercise of power. There is a hint that Elisabet might have left the envelope unsealed on purpose. Alma rebels. The tables seem to turn, for a while. There is no doubt however as to who is ultimately the dominant character.

In her angry vulnerability, Alma tells Elisabet who she – Elisabet – really is, her pathology, her failings. This scene, in its anger, mirrors a cooler scene, earlier in the film, where the Doctor, too, tells Elisabet ‘who’ she is. The accusations that come to the fore allude to moral failings, to a woman’s failure as a mother. This latter accusation perhaps ties in to the recurring images of the boy behind the screen, and makes the use of symbolism in the opening sequences of the film somewhat heavy-handed – in retrospect. The personal indictment, of being a bad mother, feels like a universal one, directed at all of womanhood; there is ambiguity here about whose voice this really is, and why exactly those harsh words are being said.

Whether this scene comes across to viewers as a form of psychological violence, likely depends on the audience. This type of telling off, the indictment of a woman for what she is alleged to be, is one which appears in other Bergman films – for example in Cries and Whispers (1972), where a doctor (Erland Josephson) tells his married lover (Liv Ullmann) ‘what’ she is. It is a chilling, dark scene. She responds that maybe he sees too much of himself in her. That scene echoes something that is already present in Persona.

Both Elisabet and Alma are revealed to have lived a lie, at which point they seem to merge – the merging however is open to interpretation – it could as well be a doubling up, and this point has generated much interpretative debate. Persona, as other Bergman films do, shows close-ups of faces side by side, sometimes with swan-like necks almost intertwined. This iconic imagery has since then appeared in many subsequent films: aesthetically and philosophically, Bergman has had an immense influence on other key filmmakers. Persona is a film which delights enthusiasts into uncovering reference after reference. Such is Bergman’s power of suggestion that some critics have stated that Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson look very much alike – even though the actresses have such different and distinct features.

There are times when the female characters in Persona feel like a second-hand account of what it might be to be a woman. It has been said that Bibi Andersson re-wrote part of Alma’s monologue, recounting an experience at the beach, because the actress felt it sounded too much like the recollections of a male character.

To a degree, the considerable narrative tension in the film is due to its puzzling nature and formalist games; there is also a strange sort of voyeurism, at times prurience, which is both compelling and repulsive. There’s a scab being scratched at, with an festering wound beneath. One aspect of Bergman’s great talent was to step unhesitatingly into the darkness of people’s minds – that is, the darkness of his own mind. Might the two women in this chamber piece be Bergman’s alter egos – or even his own persona, rather than representations of how he imagines women are like?

The idea of a persona as social mask (as imagined by Carl Jung), something that conceals someone’s true nature – and not just a convention of ancient Greek drama, is compelling. If the mask is dropped, what is left? If women portrayed in his films are in some ways Bergman’s alter egos, they also bear pathologies traditionally thought to be archetypally female. Unpacking this is an important part of re-evaluating Bergman’s lifework. Perhaps his female characters give voice to the masochist in him, but they are at the same time subjected to his sadism.

The influence of the writer and artist August Strindberg on Persona is overwhelming. The film is inspired by his play The Stronger (1889), where two women are in conflict with each other – ostensibly over a man: one woman remains silent, while the other speaks at her, with growing resentment. The anger and the bitterness, the sense of powerlessness and lost opportunity, are overwhelming.

Strindberg’s influence in Persona is far-reaching – it is not just the combination of silence and speech, but also the splitting, merging and multiplication of personas amidst bitter psychological power struggles, familiar themes in Strindberg’s work – the tensions of modernity.

In Persona, Bergman shines a light on how much certain repressive values of the 19th Century find themselves on the battleground of the 20th – possibly the tensions of post-modernity. Yet more material for Bergman fans to argue about! In the meantime, Persona remains a gripping film, with an edge of unwholesome disquiet that is uniquely Bergman’s.

Persona (B&W), 1966
Director/Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematographer: Sven Nykvist
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Margaretha Krook, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jörgen Lindström

Originally published on on 1st January 2018