Layers Upon Each Other

Ingmar Bergman's Persona

Persona‘s women fall into each other, like fingers interlaced, so similar that one cannot distinguish herself from the other. The two share fair hair, soft features, light skin, a resemblance emphasized by a veil of black and white film. Liz Ullman’s Elisabet Vogler, emphasis on her plump, expectant features, is silent. Alma, nurse to the now-silent actress Elisabet, chats incessantly while the two stay alone together in a beachfront home. The home belongs to Elisabet’s doctor, a stern chain-smoker, who hopes that her employee Alma will convince Elisabet to speak again. Before long, it is clear that Alma has become more of a patient than Elisabet is. After a career of tending to other’s needs, she is relieved to use Elisabet as her psychoanalytic outlet. In a thick night of never-empty drinks, Alma, who once claimed total fidelity to her fiance, admits to an orgy with strangers, a woman and two young men. Perhaps Alma hopes that her sincere confessions will shake Elisabet into speech. Her inebriation, however, implies another motive. How light it feels to talk, how good, when one’s audience is sure not to judge verbally. As Alma shares her story, curled in an armchair with Elisabet lounging across the room, she fidgets and demurs. She adopts flirtatious mannerisms shared by sheepish girls talking about their first kiss at a slumber party. Recalling the story brings back old arousal for Alma, and her eyes search Elisabet’s for sympathy, understanding, or any of the other emotions for which we wait after telling a story exhibiting us at our most primal. There is no absolution for Alma the confessor, however, not from Elisabet. She grants no validation of Alma’s lust-driven spontaneity. The women lurch toward real intimacy but never achieve it, in spite of their isolation together, and Elisabet only smirks when Alma tacitly begs for some sort of appreciation for her outpouring of honesty. Now Elisabet, having played so many roles on stage and at home, is the audience as Alma expresses the doubt and self-consciousness putting her in tension with the wholesome nurse persona she usually performs.

Elisabet denies Alma a critical element of communication. For all of the talking Alma does, Elisabet never reacts to what her nurse says. While Alma felt relieved to finally burst free with all of her sins, she did not feel any better afterward. She perhaps expected Elisabet to be compelled by such soul-baring to speak, to tell her nurse “You are OK. You are not a bad person. That must have been hard for you.” Instead, mute Elisabet smirks knowingly, as though her nurse’s tawdry but banal story does not surprise her at all.

No one else witnesses their unidirectional communications, save the viewers of Bergman’s’ film. Elisabet’s mute lips and constant smirk create conditions approaching solitary confinement for Alma. Delusions dance across days of living death for the frail-minded nurse. How can you confirm what you experience is true without any communication, tacit or explicit, of it being so? Consider when Alma hears Elisabet say “You ought to go to bed, or you’ll fall asleep at the table.” Elisabet denies speaking, but we viewers and Alma heard her do so. Alma feels a whisper of madness, remembering the physical and mental reality of Elisabet’s brief words but having no way to ascertain whether they occurred. Elisabet has an incredibly amount of control over Alma, in this regard, and it would be easy for her to engineer further breakdowns for her nurse. As the only two characters with whom we viewers are intimate blend together, it becomes even harder to tell what is true and what comes from paranoia and our scrambling toward logical consistency. We become as mad as Alma, as pliable in the hands of Elisabet as the lost nurse is.

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