Persona is a 1966 black and white Swedish film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. Personaâs story revolves around a young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) and her patient, a well-known stage actress named Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who has suddenly ceased to speak.
Persona has been labelled a psychological drama and modernist horror and was subject to cuts due to the filmâs controversial subject matter. It is the sixth collaboration between influential cinematographer Sven Nykvist and director Ingmar Bergman and features their trademark minimalism. As with Bergmanâs other works, the film is shot and set in Sweden and deals with the themes of illness, bleakness, death and insanity.
Persona is considered one of the major works of the 20th century by essayists and critics such as Susan Sontag who referred to it as Bergman's masterpiece. Other critics have described it as "one of this centuryâs great works of art". In the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight & Soundâs poll, Persona was ranked the 17th greatest film ever made in the critics' poll (tied with Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai") and 13th in the directors' poll. Persona won the award for Best Film at the 4th Guldbagge Awards and it was Sweden's entry to the 39th Academy Award category for Best Foreign Film. It currently holds a 93% "Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
The film was released on 31 August 1966, while the promotional premiere took place on 18 October 1966 at the Spegeln cinema in Stockholm. The film opened in the U.S. on 6 March 1967.
Persona begins with images of camera equipment and projectors lighting up and projecting dozens of brief cinematic glimpses, including a crucifixion, an erect penis, a tarantula spider, clips from a comedic silent-film reel first seen in Bergman's Prison (depicting a man trapped in a room, being chased by Death and Satan), and the slaughter of a lamb. The last, and longest, glimpse features a boy who wakes up in a hospital next to several corpses, reading Michail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time ("VÃ¥r Tids HjÃ¤lte" in the film), and caressing a blurry, transient image that shifts between Elisabet and/or Alma's faces.
A young nurse, Alma (portrayed by Bibi Andersson), is summoned by the head doctor and charged with the care of stage actress Elisabet Vogler (portrayed by Liv Ullmann), who has, despite the lack of any diagnosed impairment, become mute. The hospital administrator (portrayed by Margaretha Krook) offers her own seaside cottage as a place for Alma to nurse Elisabet back to health. Though Elisabet is nearly catatonic when the film begins, she does react with extreme panic upon seeing a Vietnamese Buddhist monk's self-immolation on television, and laughs mockingly at Alma's radio soap opera. As the two women leave the hospital together, Alma reads aloud a letter Elisabet's husband has sent her, which includes a photograph of her young son.
Together in the administrator's cottage, Elisabet begins to relax, though she remains completely silent and non-responsive. Alma speaks constantly to break the silence, at first about books she is reading and trivial matters, then increasingly about her own anxieties and relationship with her fiancÃ©, Karl-Henrik, who scolds her for lacking ambition â" "though not with my career, I suppose in some greater way." Alma constantly compares herself to Elisabet and begins to grow attached to her. As the act closes, Alma confesses to cheating on her fiancÃ© in a mÃ©nage Ã quatre with underage boys. She became pregnant, and had Karl-Henrik's friend abort the baby; "and that was that". She is not sure how to process the abortion mentally. Elisabet is heard to say "You ought to go to bed, or you'll fall asleep at the table", but Alma dismisses it as a dream. Elisabet later denies speaking.
Alma drives into town, taking Elisabet's letters for the postbox, but parks by the roadside to read what she wrote. She discovers in Elisabet's letters that Elisabet has been analyzing her and "studying" her. Alma returns distraught, accidentally breaks a drinking glass on the footpath, and leaves the shards there to cut Elisabet. When Elisabet's feet start to bleed, her gaze meets Alma's knowingly, and the film itself breaks apart: the screen flashes white, scratch marks appear up and down the image, the sound rises and screeches, and the film appears to unwind as brief flashes of the prelude reappear for fractions of a second each.
When the film resumes, it is following Elisabet through the house with a thick blur on the lens. The image clears up with a sharp snap when she looks out the window before walking outside to meet Alma, who is weepy and bitter. At lunch, she tells Elisabet she has been hurt by Elisabet talking about her behind her back, and begs her to speak. When Elisabet does not react, the nurse flies into a rage. Alma tries to attack her and chases her through the cottage, but Elisabet hits her during the ensuing scuffle causing Alma's nose to start bleeding. In retaliation, Alma grabs a pot of boiling water off the stove and is about to fling it at Elisabet, but stops after hearing Elisabet wail "No!" Alma explains that Elisabet wouldn't have spoken had she not feared death. Alma goes to the bathroom, washes her face, and tries to pull herself together. She then goes to Elisabet and frustrated by her unresponsiveness tells her, "You are inaccessible. They said you were healthy, but your sickness is of the worst kind: it makes you seem healthy. You act it so well everyone believes it, everyone except me, because I know how rotten you are inside." Elisabet tries to walk away, but Alma pursues and continues to accost her. Elisabet flees, and Alma chases her begging for forgiveness. That evening, Elisabet opens a book she is reading and finds a famous Stroop Report photograph of Jews being arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto. Elisabet stares at details in the photograph, but mostly at the boy with his hands raised.
That night, Alma watches Elisabet sleep, analyzing her face and the scars she covers with makeup. She hears a man yelling outside, and finds Elisabet's husband, Mr. Vogler, in the garden. Mr. Vogler (portrayed by Gunnar BjÃ¶rnstrand) mistakes Alma for his wife, and despite her repeatedly interjecting with "I'm not your wife", delivers a monologue about his love for her and the son they have together (repeating words he wrote to Elisabet in the opening act â" "We must see each other as two anxious children"). Elisabet stands quietly beside the two, holding Alma's hand, and Alma admits her love for Mr. Vogler and accepts her role as the mother of Elisabet's child. The two make love with Elisabet sitting quietly next to the bed with a look of panic on her face, and afterward, Alma cries. The image of Elisabet becomes blurry.
The climax of the film comes the next morning; Alma catches Elisabet in the kitchen with a pained expression on her face, holding a picture of a small boy. Alma then narrates Elisabet's life story back to her, while the camera focuses tightly on Elisabet's anguished face: at a party one night, a man tells her "Elisabet, you have it virtually all in your armory as woman and artist. But you lack motherliness." She laughs, because it sounds silly, but the idea sticks in her mind, and she lets her husband impregnate her. As the pregnancy progresses, she grows increasingly worried about her stretching and swelling body, her responsibility to her child, the pain of birth, and the idea of abandoning her career. Everyone Elisabet knows constantly says "Isn't she beautiful? She has never been so beautiful", but Elisabet makes repeated attempts to abort the fetus. After the child is born, she is repulsed by it, and prays for the death of her son. The child grows up tormented and desperate for affection. The camera turns to show Alma's face, and she repeats the same monologue again. At its conclusion, one half of the face of Alma and the other of Elisabet's visage are shown in split screen, such that they appear to have become one face. Alma panics and cries "I'm not like you. I don't feel like you. I'm not Elisabet Vogler: you are Elisabet Vogler. I'm just here to help you!" In a dreamlike sequence, Alma - dressed in her nurse's uniform - comes to the bed of Elisabet and tells her to say "nothing". Elisabet manages to repeat the word. Back at the cottage, Alma leaves, and later returns, to find that Elisabet has become completely catatonic. Alma falls into a strange mood and gashes her arm, forcing Elisabet's lips to the wound and subsequently beating her. Alma packs her things and leaves the cottage alone, as the camera turns away from the women to show the crew and director filming the scene. The film ends with the boy from the prologue touching the split-screen image of Elisabet and Alma.
Persona had several working titles: "Sonat fÃ¶r tvÃ¥ kvinnor" (Sonata for Two Women), "Ett stycke kinematografi" (A Piece of Cinematography), "Opus 27", and "Kinematografi", however the producer suggested something more accessible and the title of the film was changed. The film was shot on location on the island of FÃ¥rÃ¶ and RÃ¥sunda Studios, Stockholm. Principal photography began on 19 July and was completed by 15 September 1965. Bergman wrote Persona during nine weeks while recovering from pneumonia. He writes in his book Images: "Today I feel that in Personaâ"and later in Cries and Whispersâ"I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover." He also said: "At some time or other, I said that Persona saved my lifeâ"that is no exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up. One significant point: for the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success..."
According to Bergman, the origins of Persona trace back to an accidental meeting on a Stockholm street corner where Bibi Andersson introduced him to Liv Ullmann. His mental association of the two women helped form the idea behind the film. In another account, consistent with the first, he states that its seminal image â" of two women âwearing big hats and laying their hands alongside each otherâ â" derived from the âuncanny resemblanceâ he noticed in a slide he was shown of Andersson and Ullmann sunbathing.
Although five actors appear on-screen, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann are the only ones to appear for more than a minute, and Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann's character) speaks only fourteen words in the film.
- Bibi Andersson as Alma, the Nurse
- Liv Ullmann as Elisabet Vogler, the Actress
- Margaretha Krook as the Doctor
- Gunnar BjÃ¶rnstrand as Mr. Vogler
- JÃ¶rgen LindstrÃ¶m as the Boy, Elisabet's son
Themes and Interpretations
Persona has lent itself to a variety of interpretations.
Lloyd Michaels sums up what he calls "the most widely held view" of Personaâs content. According to this view, Persona is "a kind of modernist horror movie." Elisabetâs condition, described by a doctor as "the hopeless dream to be", is "the shared condition of both life and film art". Bergman and Elisabet share the same dilemma: they cannot respond authentically to "large catastrophes" (such as the Holocaust or the Vietnam War).
Frank Gado sees Persona as relying on a "double-threaded process of discovery involving motherhood". Elisabet's withdrawal into silence could be a way of rejecting the role of mother, the only role the actress couldn't slough off. The nurse realizes that she has done precisely what Elisabet tried and failed to do: erase a child from her life by means of abortion.
Marilyn Johns Blackwell highlights how Elisabetâs resistance to language can be interpreted as a resistance to her gender roles. By showing this tension as one experienced primarily by women, Bergman can be said to "problematize the position of woman as other" and that the roles society assigns to women are "essentially foreign to their subjecthood". She argues that the attraction between Elisabet and Alma and the absence of male sexuality cohere with their identification with each other and the permeability of boundaries between the self and the other, creating a doubling which reveals the "multiple, shifting, self-contradictory identity", a notion of identity that undermines male ideology. This theme of mergence and doubling surfaces early in the film in Almaâs statement that she went to see one of Elisabetâs films and was struck by the thought that they were so much alike. Blackwell also states that the original title suggests a possible key to the interpretation of the film's themes; A Piece of Cinematography could be an allusion to a concern with the nature of representation (the status of the image, of the word, of action, of the film medium itself).
Susan Sontag also suggests that Persona is constructed as a series of variations on a theme of "doubling". The subject of the film, Sontag proposes, is "violence of the spirit".
Two scenes are frequently cut from versions of the film; a brief shot at the beginning depicting an erect penis, and segments of Almaâs night-time monologue about her abortion and mÃ©nage Ã quatre (the American print makes no reference to ages; in the original, it is implied that the boys are twelve or thirteen).
When MGM archivist John Kirk restored Persona as part of a larger restoration project, he worked with the original, uncensored version with the brief shot of an erect penis. He also created new subtitles by commissioning several language experts to provide new, accurate translations for the dialogue; this is particularly noticeable during Almaâs graphic sexual descriptions, which some were reluctant to translate without toning down the language. The original, uncensored version wasnât widely available in the U.S. until 2004, when MGMâs home video department reissued Persona on DVD, utilizing Kirkâs work.
Bergman features prominently in Woody Allenâs films. Love and Death references Persona in its final minutes; two characters are lined up, one facing the camera, the other at a 90-degree angle, with their mouths in the same space, just as in Persona.
Robert Altmanâs impressionist film 3 Women is also influenced by Persona as Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek begin to shift roles/identities.
Birgitta Steene reports that a television spoof of Persona appeared on Canadian SCTV in the late 70s.
Persona won the 1967 National Society of Film Critics awards for Best Film, Best Director (Bergman) and Best Actress (Andersson). The film was selected as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 39th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.
The film was included in The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. In 2010 it was ranked #71 in Empire magazines "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema".
- List of submissions to the 39th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film
- List of Swedish submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
- Cahiers du Cinema No. 189 (April, 1967, p.Â 51)
- Bergman, Ingmar (1972). Persona and Shame: The Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman. trans. Keith Bradfield. New York: Grossman Publishers. ISBNÂ 0-670-15865-8.Â
- Lloyd Michaels (2000). Ingmar Bergman's Persona. Cambridge University Press. ISBNÂ 978-0-521-65698-6. Retrieved 23 July 2013.Â
- Susan Sontag (2002). Styles of Radical Will. Picador. ISBNÂ 978-0-312-42021-5. Retrieved 23 July 2013.Â
- Persona at the Internet Movie Database
- Persona at the Swedish Film Institute Database
- Persona at Rotten Tomatoes
- Roger Ebertâs review
- An essay on the film by P. Adams Sitney
- Experiencing Ingmar Bergman's Persona on HonestBlue