PERSONA directed by Ingmar Bergman (Sweden, 1966)
“Identity is a crisis, can’t you see?” Poly Styrene of X-ray Spex hit the nail on the head when she sang this.
Ingmar Bergman’s classic movie covers the same territory in a more highbrow manner.
The rapid montage of images at the beginning – including an erect penis, a crucifixion, bodies in a morgue and a young boy in front of a huge screen – puts the ‘art’ into artifice and prepares us for the unexpected.
The burning film reel is an equally memorable finale for a movie which, since it can be interpreted in so many ways, is manna from heaven for movie buffs and film critics. It has rightly been voted as one of 50 best movies of all time in the BFI/Sight & Sound poll.
The silence of Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman), a famous actress who freezes during a performance of Electra, is interpreted by one female doctor in the movie as a gesture of anguish towards what she calls the “hopeless dream of being” but the same medic also warns her that “no hideout is watertight”.
Elisabet’s disengagement becomes in itself a statement of intent. In the privacy of her room she shows she is not emotionally detached from the suffering in the world. On the contrary, perhaps her problem is that she feels the pain of human suffering too acutely. We see her wincing in horror as she watches newsreel footage of the self immolation of a Buddhist monk in Saigon as a protest against the Vietnam war and she stares tearfully at a photograph showing Nazi troops rounding up Polish jews in a Warsaw Ghetto.
From a letter written by her husband, we learn that she likened their roles in their marriage to “two anxious children governed by forces we can only partially control”.
Her relationship with the 25-year-old nurse, Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) is enigmatic to say the least. Initially there’s a strong bond between the two but the closeness becomes cloying and ultimately destructive.
Alma comes to regard her as like a sister and so feels she can reveal secrets that she hasn’t told anyone. “No one has bothered to listen to me” she says.
One of the key mysteries of the movie, which Bergman deliberately leaves us guessing about, is to what degree these two women embody different aspects of the same person.
In another scene Alma speaks of the way she and Elisabet resemble each other and says, half jokingly, “I think I could turn myself into you”.
This becomes reality when the actress’ husband returns and mistakes Alma for Elisabet, and the climax comes when Alma speaks for Elisabet about her reluctance to have children.
In a virtuoso piece of filmmaking this narrative is repeated word for word so we see it told first from Alma’s perspective and then from Elisabet’s.
The morphing of the two becomes gradually more pronounced during the film and is visually expressed in a famous sequence in which their two faces become one.
It’s an emotional time bomb of a movie where repeat viewings confirm its status as a masterpiece.