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Ingmar Bergman's Persona - Possible Spoilers

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Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
I've actually watched quite a few movies recently, but a couple of them, (Noriko's Dinner Table and Persona) deserve much more thorough discussions than I've had time to get into lately. I've had to deal with some major crap (don't ask, at least not yet), but even though I know I'm only scratching the surface, I feel I've thought enough about what Persona means to me to at least open up a discussion. I'm going to shoot the works and put this out as a thread instead of posting it in Movie Tab II. I've noticed a few people listing it amongst their fave movies, even if many of these members seem to be long gone. My main desire in starting a thread is that I don't want to have to keep linking to my original post when I come up with some more specific ideas (perhaps even this week), plus I'm hoping that enough people share their ideas to make it worthy of a discussion. I'm going to try to make this first post as free of spoilers as possible, but this is the kind of discussion which will lend itself to interpretations of specific actions shown in the movie even if their meaning is unclear. In other words, the theme and "plot" are so open to interpretation that maybe there are no spoilers!



Let me get out of the way what semblance of a plot there is here first. I'm not going to go into too many details because that would be spoiling, but I'm going to discuss what I think the "apparent" plot is. Elisabeth (debuting Liv Ullmann) stops speaking in the middle of a stage performance of Elektra, and she's subsequently taken to a hospital where it's determined that she's physically healthy and may be suffering from something psychosomatic. Either way, she still cannot or will not speak. Outgoing nurse Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) agrees (perhaps against her better judgment) to accompany Elisabeth to a remote island home where the doctor hopes that Alma's personality will draw out the now-mute actress's voice. Along the way, mysterious things happen, which may be fantasy, dreams or reality. In fact, there may be only one woman on the island, but if there is, which one is it?



Most of the discussions which I've seen about Persona seem to start off with the concept that the film is somehow about transference and is crammed with Freudian imagery, especially in the opening, closing and midway sections. Now, I want to keep those interesting, legitimate ideas in the bank account, so to speak, and spend my initial post discussing that I think there is an even more overriding concept found in the film. Most of the mysteries which the film seems to conceal (more than it reveals) involve communication between people. Now, it's true it could be communication between the two central characters in the film, who are set up to be very similar yet utterly different (or perhaps even two halves of the same person). It can just as easily be communication by any artist who is trying to connect with the audience, and the audience's capability of understanding what the artist intends. Here the artists would be writer/director Bergman and his cinematographer, the incredible Sven Nykvist. I want to bring this up because of the way the film begins and ends with the arc light of the film projector coming on and turning off. The film goes out of its way to tell you that it's a movie, but immediately the viewer seems to be confused, if not at what is being shown, then why it's being shown and what its meaning is.



While it's true that the seemingly-surreal images at the beginning concern sex, violence and death, they also produce some stirrings of life. A boy, who seems to be in a morgue, awakens to find blurred images on a white wall of the two lead characters. Later in the film, "both" women discuss (although only one talks) past experiences concerning their "children". I can accept the young boy as either or both of the women's sons, but I can also see him as a young Ingmar Bergman, straining to make out images on a wall which he feels he is unable to communicate with his audience. This way, the meaning of what happens in the film "proper" can be interpreted in more than one way and still work for the viewer. However, I believe that the easiest way for a viewer who finds Persona or most of Bergman impenetrable is to look at the "weird" scenes as a cry from an artist, or any human being, for that matter, for someone to try to understand his/her message, theme, art and accept it on a personal level. Most art is going to be appreciated by the viewer far more readily than how the artist sees it. The artist just hopes that someone can feel what they are expressing. If they can't feel, maybe their "intelligent admiration" will suffice, but a total rejection is often felt like a sharp knife.



Ultimately, I find Persona to be an initially bewildering movie which opens up upon subsequent viewings. I appreciate the various interpretations which have been passed down for forty-odd years. I watched the film for the first time in the mid-1970s at college, and I felt lost at sea, especially when some of my fellow classmates pontificated pretentiously about its "true" meanings. (You must remember that we watched the movie once, in 16mm. No VCRs, no DVDs, etc.) I now realize that my classmates had no more concept of what the film may be about than I did or even do now, although I truly believe I can find many more complex meanings for what happens in the film. For example, it's often stated as fact that the Elisabeth character only speaks once in the film, but I would have sworn that I heard her speak at least twice, and quite possibly three times. In fact, I will also swear that one of the times that Alma is supposed to have spoken, it definitely wasn't her, and if it wasn't her and it wasn't Elisabeth, who was it? Whether you like it or not, maybe we can agree that Persona is a trip. How many people do YOU see below?



Art House Rating:
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Hey, it made my list. On tho ol' PS3 atm so typing is missions but will chime in soon. Will say , though, that Lynch owes a lot to this film.
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I actually watched this movie for the first time this year and I was confused and bored. That's all I have to say. I would watch it again, but only if someone does this to me:




I really love this film. Easily one of my favorites from Bergman. I'll have to watch it again and then I'll post something a little more substantial.

But nicely done, mark_f.



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Great stuff, Mark! I have seen this twice, while on a mission to study Lynch's influences. I got the most out of this film and Fellini's 8 1/2, as far as that line of study was concerned. Since Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite films, and it clearly owes a ton to this film, Persona is right up my alley...
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Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
Looking back at my original post, I must have made enough misstatements of fact to qualify me as a Presidential/Vice Presidential candidate.

Here they are:

1. Elisabeth is not considered to be suffering from anything psychosomatic. It appears to be a personal choice for her not to speak.

2. The doctor says that Elisabeth did "apologize" (apparently by voice) after the incident at the theatre, but she stopped talking again soon enough.

3. They don't go to an island; they go to a seaside home.

4. It's so difficult to determine who speaks during the following scenes: 1) The scene at the table where Alma is either told, or "hears" that she shouldn't go to sleep at the table"; 2) The scene where Alma is ready to throw boiling water on Elizabeth. Who cried out not to do it?; 3. The scene where Elizabeth unequivocally talks. Why did she do it? It was in the hospital, after all. Was it a flashback, a dream or a fantasy?

I also need to know if Elixabeth left her letter unclosed for a reason. Why were the points of this letter shown in isolated paragraphs? Why did Elizabeth's husband not recognize her as being different from Alma? I explained to Sarah that Elizabeth possessed Alma, but it didn't fully explain what was going on in that scene. In fact, Sarah asked me if her husband was blind because he pulled off sunglasses and couldn't seem to know who his wife was, but he did seem to know where to kiss her, so I rejected that idea.

Just a beginning here.



I really should watch it again to remind myself enough of it for a good conversation. My initial thoughts were they were the same person, hence making love to the husband isn't a mystery as he is making love to his wife, whether it's the Elizabeth or Alma persona that's his wife, i'm not sure. I thought he was blind at first, however when it was made more explicit that the two women could be the same i just assumed the blind point to be redundant as he still just saw his wife. I think letter was left unopened intentionally because for whatever reason, she wanted that reaction or something similar to happen. As for the little boy watching, i think i always made him out to be the son in the film.



Coolio Mark-O. I did not know you had a thread on this flick. I have it right here on top of my DVD player and am trying to get to it soon. I'll try to check back in here at some point good sir.
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I can't believe how few posts there are in this thread. It's a shame, really.
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Why wouldn't you bump it then?

I really love this film. Easily one of my favorites from Bergman. I'll have to watch it again and then I'll post something a little more substantial.

But nicely done, mark_f.
Never happened.

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This will be edited later. I've got to watch Daisies.
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Firstly, I don’t think there can be a definitive literal interpretation of the film. If we accept everything we see as fact, much of the movie contradicts itself and makes no sense. Bergman very intentionally left ambiguities in his film, so we can assume he wants to leave it open to interpretation. This is that rare kind of film where everyone takes away something unique and personal, molds the events to fit their experience and feelings.

Okay, first I'll just give my opinions on some of the general information about the movie debated earlier in this thread...


1.) I'm more or less positive Elisabeth's husband was blind. This has been generally accepted as a simple fact in nearly everything I've ever read about the movie. He wears glasses indoors, he never looks a woman in the eyes, and he's tricked into having sex with the wrong woman, for crying out loud. He probably should have known Alma's voice was not that of his own wife, so that leaves the mystery that Alma and Elisabeth are the same person, but it's entirely possible that he was simply duped into having sex with Alma-because he is blind. A simpler explanation, and one that is very possible, is that this was a sexual fantasy of Alma's in which she further assumes the roles of Elisabeth. Remember in her graphic retelling of her sexual awakening at a beach, another woman stirred her arousal. Alma only joined in after being aroused by her female friend. In asking the man who just had sex with her friend to also have sex with her, Alma is symbolically sparking a sexual relationship with her female friend. In the same way, having sex with Elisabeth’s husband in a dream is a sexual fantasy in which Alma indirectly has sex with Elisabeth. If it is a dream, no real coherence is necessary.

2.) It was Elisabeth who screamed "No! Don't!" when Alma was about to throw the boiling water. I haven't seen the movie in a few months so I'm not sure, but I think she either mouthed it then dubbed her voice later, or she said it outright. In any case, it is Ullmann's voice and Ullmann's character crying out. Her breaking her silence here is important to the story.

3.) The boy, I think, represents the would-be children of the two women, held in embryonic limbo. The walls are soft white and womb-like and the huge screen shows the mothers' faces. For Alma, this is the baby she aborted which fills her with guilt; for Elisabeth, it's the deformed son she only had to feed her own ego and symbolically disowns when she tears his picture. This child is the motivation for much of the psychological trauma the women experience. I agree that it's reasonable to think it could represent Bergman himself, as the actor who played the child is someone often cited as his cinematic protégé. He also played the neglected son who quietly observed the agonizing relationship between two women in The Silence—virtually the same circumstances as Persona.

4.) I think Elisabeth's letter being left open is subject to three interpretations: the easiest is that it enables Alma to read it and thus moves the plot forward—logic and realism are eschewed in favor of narrative fluency. The second is that Elisabeth wanted Alma to read her letter. Throughout the movie, there seems to be a sort of power struggle between the two women, who push each other's buttons at certain points to gauge the other's reactions. For example, when Alma discloses her intimate story with the hopes of reciprocation, Elisabeth seems to take pleasure in holding back and leaving her hanging, making Alma feel insecure. And when Alma gets frustrated with Elisabeth, she places a shard of glass on the ground to see if she'll cry out and speak. Forcing Alma to read the letter may be Elisabeth's way of shaming or embarrassing Alma; it's a sort of betrayal and breech of Alma's trust that Elisabeth would relate to a third party such a personal story shared by Alma in confidence. I usually accept this construal, though my opinion changes with virtually every viewing.

The last interpretation is that the two women are one and the same. This theory would require another post.



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This discussion begins.

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FYC

Alma: nourishing, kind, maiden, girl, secret, soul, work.
Elisabet: "I am God's daughter."

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In asking the man who just had sex with her friend to also have sex with her, Alma is symbolically sparking a sexual relationship with her female friend. In the same way, having sex with Elisabeth’s husband in a dream is a sexual fantasy in which Alma indirectly has sex with Elisabeth. If it is a dream, no real coherence is necessary.

Now for exactly what happens: The man scares Alma and she screams. Alma then denies that she is Elisabet. The man doesn't seem to believe her. He just continues talking as if she is Elisabet, telling her about their son and so on. As if she is denying it because she is angry at him. As she is doing this, Elisabet walks up behind Alma. Alma repeats once more that she is not his wife. He continues without listening. Then Elisabet reaches in front and takes Alma's hand. She places Alma's hand on the man's cheek. This is the moment Alma decides to pretend to be Elisabet. He takes off his glasses, and Alma rushes forward and starts kissing him and calling him darling and they exchange cliches. Elisabet stands about a foot or two away the whole time, now looking away. We cut to Alma and the man apparently after sex. Elisabet is still about two feet away. Alma freaks out and says it's all for pretend. The sequence is over.

My point with that whole thing is that Alma wouldn't have done it unless Elisabet approved it. And even afterward she's disturbed by it, and is probably mad at Elisabet for giving her the go-ahead. The key here is that Elisabet makes Alma "do it". She urges her on when Alma's better senses tell her not to.


It was Elisabeth who screamed "No! Don't!" when Alma was about to throw the boiling water.

A little cut on your feet still keeps your face/mask/persona intact. The destruction/deformation of the face would be too much.

The boy, I think, represents the would-be children of the two women, held in embryonic limbo. The walls are soft white and womb-like and the huge screen shows the mothers' faces. For Alma, this is the baby she aborted which fills her with guilt; for Elisabeth, it's the deformed son she only had to feed her own ego and symbolically disowns when she tears his picture. This child is the motivation for much of the psychological trauma the women experience.

I like this.

I agree that it's reasonable to think it could represent Bergman himself, as the actor who played the child is someone often cited as his cinematic protégé. He also played the neglected son who quietly observed the agonizing relationship between two women in The Silence—virtually the same circumstances as Persona.

I've yet to see The Silence but this essay also makes the comparison between them. I tend to think since the camera and film is shown, Bergman still retains the role of director off the screen. He's the one ripping and burning the film and so on.

The last interpretation is that the two women are one and the same.

If so, the letter is an important "fixed point" at which we can pinpoint the different roles. It's unclear to me if Alma is exterior and Elisabet interior or the other way around--at any point in the film, that is.

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In Freud (I hear the hissing already), the Id is the reservoir of pure desire, and it is the silent one. Yet is Elisabet really the desiring, obscene force here? She is mute, yet, but she is quite composed and restrained. If anything, Alma is the obscene, perverse one, as evidenced by the "orgy" monologue. Yet she always voices herself. Her voicing of these desires is also something that she wants to keep hidden. Alma does feel however, that it was Elisabet who "made" her reveal her secrets. This could be twisted around in a way to explain Elisabet not as an embodiment of the Id, but someone who'll bring about the reveal of deepest desire. She is the one who "lets" Alma have sex with her husband after all. In these moments, it's like she takes over. Though she herself is not shown to be obscene, she's still the "force" that "brings about" obscenity in Alma.

Elisabet's development could thus be charted as humanity's development from animal to human. She, the Id, was originally an actress, completely unrepressed and unrestrained expression of libidinal desire. Only afterwards, when she looses the ability to talk, does she become the Id--do we truly become human. Alma is then the Ego, attempting to reconcile the Super-Ego's (doctor/hospital) demands and of course the seemingly innocent prompts of Elisabet. This whole analogy seems to fall apart when you take into account that, in the form of the unrestrained animal Id, it is there that Elisabet is the actress--it is there that she has the mask. Only after she looses the mask does she become human. This is a contradiction since the emergence of human society and the formation of the Ego and Super-Ego would seem the ideal metaphor for the formation of a global mask.

If we take this interpretation, we loose perhaps the main theme of identity--a la Persona, the title itself.

Ah well. Mark, you win.



This discussion begins.

Alma: nourishing, kind, maiden, girl, secret, soul, work.
Elisabet: "I am God's daughter."
Yeah, Bergman often gave his characters' names meaning. Cries and Whispers: main character--Agnes, as in agnus dei, sacrificial lamb and "born without sin."



Elisabet's development could thus be charted as humanity's development from animal to human. She, the Id, was originally an actress, completely unrepressed and unrestrained expression of libidinal desire. Only afterwards, when she looses the ability to talk, does she become the Id--do we truly become human. Alma is then the Ego, attempting to reconcile the Super-Ego's (doctor/hospital) demands and of course the seemingly innocent prompts of Elisabet. This whole analogy seems to fall apart when you take into account that, in the form of the unrestrained animal Id, it is there that Elisabet is the actress--it is there that she has the mask. Only after she looses the mask does she become human. This is a contradiction since the emergence of human society and the formation of the Ego and Super-Ego would seem the ideal metaphor for the formation of a global mask.

If we take this interpretation, we loose perhaps the main theme of identity--a la Persona, the title itself.

Ah well. Mark, you win.
OK, so brass tax, do you think they were two manifestations of identity in the same person, two distinct, different people, or that we can't ever know?



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Cutting to chase. I like it. But I thought we could settle together maybe?

If anyone's real, I'm convinced it's definitely Alma. She's the only one who talks to other people directly and the scene were Elisabet takes Alma's hand and how Elisabet is this obscene voyeur is precisely suggestive of her "spectral" presence.

What do you think of her fascination with the burning monk and the boy in the Ghetto?



Cutting to chase. I like it. But I thought we could settle together maybe?

If anyone's real, I'm convinced it's definitely Alma. She's the only one who talks to other people directly and the scene were Elisabet takes Alma's hand and how Elisabet is this obscene voyeur is precisely suggestive of her "spectral" presence.

What do you think of her fascination with the burning monk and the boy in the Ghetto?
Excerpt from Ebert's Great Movies review:

Early in the film, Elizabeth watches images from Vietnam on the TV news, including a Buddhist monk burning himself. Later, there are photographs from the Warsaw ghetto, of Jews being rounded up; the film lingers on the face of a small boy. Have the horrors of the world caused Elizabeth to stop speaking? The film does not say, but obviously they are implicated. For Alma, horrors are closer to home

I agree with this statement. Bergman was hospitalized and bed-ridden as he wrote this story, and these are things he actually saw on TV I think. I take these images as documents that are completely personal to Bergman and are given only as suggestions to Elisabet's condition. With them, I think he's more or less saying, there are terrible things in the world, unspeakable horrors that could easily lead an emotionally unstable person to turn inward. But we can't know specifically what makes Elisabet stop talking. Maybe she doesn't even know.

Brass tax, I think they are two separate people. But I got work in like five hours. So I'll get back tomorrow if I can. Go read my Top 100 thread or something.



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Power to the proletariat. Sleep well.



Great review Marky haven't seen it for years must watch it again
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