Film Review: Persona | Light vs. Bright

qb persona

This is a movie about two women staying at a beachside cottage for an indefinite period of time. This is a movie about how the two interact with one another. This is a movie where the characters of these women are drawn out and questioned, with conflict arising from the closed environment and the opposite personalities of the two women on screen. This should be an easy movie to understand, but it is probably one of the most striking surrealist films ever made.Directed by Swedish legend Ingmar Bergman, Persona is a 1966 drama that pushes many different boundaries of what was considered conventional at the time. The American release had to have a few notable edits, such as removing a still image of an erect penis that appears briefly, while also heavily editing the dialogue in one particular scene. Persona is a movie that appears very alien to the viewer, but watching the film causes the viewer to be completely thrown off. Everything the viewer knows about cinema is uprooted by this film.

The film opens with a series of strange images and sounds. It opens with a film projector, images of an old cartoon, a silent era film, a sheep getting its throat slit, a hand getting nailed to a cross, and more. It then settles on a bespectacled boy, who reads a book in bed, then caresses a large blurry image that shifts between the two lead actresses. In the first five minutes, the viewer isn’t sure what to think. They can try to assume that the images will come into play in the film or are all symbolic of something greater to come, but no clear answer is given.

It’s then that the film begins the real story. A nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) is tasked to care for a patient named Elisabet (Liv Ullman). Elisabet is a well known stage actress who suddenly went mute during one performance. Although there is no physical or mental reason for this behavior, Elisabet is unable to talk. The director of the hospital sends Alma and Elisabet to her cottage, hoping the quiet serenity of the beach will allow Elisabet to relax and open up.It is during the extended stay at the cottage that the film begins to show a dichotomy between Alma and Elisabet. Alma talks, Elisabet doesn’t. Alma is bright, Elisabet is dark. Alma is open, Elisabet is closed. While the women don’t realize this at first, it begins to emerge the longer they stay. Alma is there to help Elisabet, but because the two women are alone together, they begin to have a parasitic effect on one another.

The scene that had to be edited down is when the first sign of trouble arises. One evening, Alma is talking on and on to Elisabet, discussing her family, her fiance, and the troubles that have arisen from her life. One particular event is when Alma and a friend had a fling with two underage boys, an event that caused Alma to get an abortion. There’s never a real reason for why Alma shares this story with Elisabet, but there’s also never a reason for why Elisabet writes the event down in a letter to give to the administrator. What does matter is what this scene means for the movie.

It’s in this scene that two major themes and events begin. First, Alma and Elisabet begin to trade roles and begin to blur in identity. Before, Alma wore mostly light colored clothing, but begins to wear darker clothes as a result of learning about Elisabet’s betrayal. Alma’s character begins to change as well. Earlier, she was a lot gentler and more happy to be around Elisabet. Now she’s a lot angrier and prone to lashing out at her patient. She allows Elisabet to step on broken glass, tries to throw a pot of boiling water at her, and begins to throw more insults at Elisabet.

Elisabet, on the other hand, reacts with a lack of reaction. Throughout this, Elisabet never speaks a word. There’s a moment where she might have said something, but it’s never really confirmed. Elisabet has an understanding that there’s some boundaries and roles in her and Alma’s relationship. She knows Alma has a strange affection for her, and knows Alma’s role as nurse makes her somewhat dependent on caring for Elisabet. Elisabet can storm away from the cabin after a fight, and Alma will still follow her, begging for forgiveness.

The second is that it causes a larger discussion on womanhood. As the women begin to become more combative with one another, it’s clear that there’s some jealousy each one feels for the other. The climax of the film is a one-sided discussion Alma has with Elisabet that plays twice, each time keeping to a close up of one woman. In this scene, Alma and Elisabet are dressed the same, and Alma is discussing Elisabet’s marriage and child. Alma claims Elisabet never wanted to be her mother, but was pressured by family and friends to have a child. Both women were presented with the chance to be a mother, but only one was able to avoid the responsibility by having an abortion.

Alma and Elisabet are both reflections of the other woman. Both are heavily tied to men in their lives and are expected to play certain roles. Alma’s supposed to be the dutiful nurse, one who can be nurturing to her patients and start a family with her fiance. Elisabet’s supposed to be a great actress, a master of her craft, but also is expected to be able to be a mother at the same time. Both women are terrified about losing their identities because of pressure exerted on them. They each see the other as a vision of what they could be, and the realization of that causes their relationship to sour.

Admittedly, there’s no real concrete answers for what goes on in Persona. There are some theories that are widely accepted, such as the idea of the women being parallels or doppelgangers to one another, but everything else is a lot harder to understand. If anything, like most surrealist films, there is enough to build theories and allow the viewer to form his or her own ideas on what’s really going on in the movie. That image of the boy looking at the image of what may be Elisabet or Alma is probably the best representation of this issue: there’s something there, you can try to view it, and although you might be able to make something out, you can never be too sure. For that, Persona is unlike anything else.

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