2018 Tarkovsky Award 3rd Place: Hannah Duane
Hannah Duane (14, Ruth Asawa School of the Arts)
Persona, a psychological drama, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, follows two women, Elisabet and Alma, in their stay on a remote island. The film was released in 1966 and was shot in black and white.
The plot opens with Elisabet’s sudden decision to stop speaking and moving, which doctors have deduced is not the result of anything being medically wrong with her, and rather the result of her willpower. Alma is hired to be her nurse, and it is decided that the two should spend some time in the summer home of Elisabet’s doctor. With Elisabet’s silence, Alma finds herself talking almost non-stop, sharing profoundly personal truths. As the spend more time together, Alma begins to find it difficult to distinguish herself from her patient. Bergman uses imagery, plays with themes of identity and vampirism, as well as both subtle and explicit dialogue to create a textured and captivating film.
The film opens with many images, among them a crucifixion, a spider and the killing of a lamb, and two figures in clown-like clothing playing a bed. Though these images are hard to relate immediately to the plot of the film, they set the eerie and surreal mood. This series is concluded by a young boy awakening in a hospital or morgue, with an enormous projection of the blurry face of a woman who may be Alma. These cold scenes bookend the film, perhaps symbolizing the disconnect between the characters and their psyche, as the images all reflect aspects of personality.
Bergman shows the audience the characters’ increased closeness with a number of images climaxing in a long scene in which their faces are put together. Early in the film, Alma is asleep, and Elisabet enters her room and wanders the halls in a flowing white nightgown. She appears ethereal, ghostly. The shot then jumps to the two of them standing in a line, in an unreal and sexually charged dance-like sequence in which Elisabet guides Alma’s head in a circle near Elisabet’s face. In the morning, Elisabet claims not to have been in Alma’s room in the night. Then, in one of the climaxes of the film, Alma delivers an accusatory monologue in which she speaks from Elisabet’s point of view about Elisabet’s qualms in becoming a mother. We see this monologue twice, once from Alma’s perspective and once from Elisabet’s. By hearing the auditory and emotionally charged passage twice, the power and eeriness is multiplied. At the conclusion of the scene, one half of Elisabet’s face is placed next to the other half of Alma’s, creating one person. This images causes the viewer to question if there really are two women, or if they are two sides of the same person.
If we take Elisabet and Alma to be one person, this leaves the question of who she is. Alma admiring an actress she loves? Elisabet in her descent into madness exploring the talkative and impulsive part of herself? Elisabet’s son attempting to discern who his mother is? Bergman gives the viewer few details to suggest who this woman is, while littering the film with the suggestion that only one woman exists. Though two women are seen arriving on the island, only one leaves, and it is unclear which one. In earlier versions of the film, it is said Bergman made it clear who left, however both options were done, leaving the truth ambiguous. The plot of the film only occurs because of Elisabet’s sudden disconnect from reality, so it is also possible that Alma is a part of Elisabet she was attempting to leave behind by not talking. However, one of the foci of the film is Alma going crazy as she has no one to talk to. Alma comes to loath Elisabet, breaking a glass and watching as she steps on a large shard and screaming at her, while also being dependent on Elisabet as a confidant, friend, and life purpose. Alma needs Elisabet to have meaning, to have someone to take care of.
Persona also alludes to vampirism. Elisabet is seen drinking Alma’s blood—another suggestion that they may be one person, or of the same blood. This image mirrors one in the opening sequence—a spider and a sacrificial lamb. However, the details and feelings of the characters around this incident are artfully obfuscated. While Elisabet drinks Alma’s blood, Alma’s hand in clasped in Elisabet’s hair, but it is unclear whether the hand is pushing Elisabet towards her arm or attempting to pull her away. The incident is never brought up again.
Elisabet only speaks twice, while Alma talks incessantly. The first is to beg Alma not to throw boiling water at her after they fight. This scene shows Elisabet’s vulnerability which she has attempted to rid herself of. On the second occasion, Elisabet says “nothing,” at Alma’s pleading. Alma curses Elisabet, telling her she is being evil by refusing to converse with Alma, and finally Elisabet gives in, muttering “nothing” as Alma begs her to repeat the word. Though Elisabet barely speaks, her expressive acting gives the viewer a well rounded view of who she is. Alma’s motivations remain clouded because it is unclear what matters to her. She is tangential and scattered, juxtaposing Elisabet’s composed and controlled personality.
It is no wonder Bergman’s films are used as a symbol for constantly internalizing, repressed WASP. Bergman’s characters reveal exactly what they want you to know, until they break from the stress of holding everything in. I found it absolutely enchanting and thought provoking, as each scene introduced or built on symbols, ideas and theories of what it means to be human. Though simple on the surface, this film deals with the core aspects of personality and relationships. Elisabet and Alma are constantly struggling for power, and attempting to control aspects of themselves.