PUTTING MEANING INTO CINEMA
Why does Elizabet Vogler (Liv Ulmann) go silent in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona? The first time I watched this stunning and complex film, I wondered more about the form than the content. Because having grown up on a diet of one-dimensional cinema, it was very difficult to comprehend this non-linear approach to filmmaking. There was a deliberate attempt on the director’s part to elaborate on the ‘make-believe’ world of cinema -- on the ‘illusion of reality’.
This time, I focussed on the content. Because despite it’s seemingly ‘fragmented’ plot, there is a narrative unity, albeit deliberately broken by the filmmaker from time to time. "For the interpretation, you can interpret it any way you like. As with any poem. Images mean different things to different people" – Ingmar Bergman.
Elizabet’s decision to stop talking is an assertion of her will. She has played every conceivable role on and off stage and the thrill has gone out of ‘acting’. For the sake of this analysis, I am assuming that one must believe the images and voices Bergman is inviting us to watch and am therefore trying to construct a linear narrative of a seemingly disjointed story. She gets admitted to an asylum and the psychiatrist assigns Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) to attend to her. Alma tries striking a mundane conversation with Elizabet and then invites her to listen to the radio, which the latter promptly switches off. Soon after, we see Elizabet cringing in a corner of a room watching a monk setting himself ablaze on television. The horrors of the world are in your face -- and Elizabet, who refuses to communicate with other individuals, somehow has no choice but to witness the rot of human civilization.
Throughout the film, everything that we understand about Elizabet is through other people’s voices and therefore it is their perception of her -- which in turn is Bergman’s take on these characters (framed in uncomfortable, tight, in-your-face close-ups), filtered down to us, the audience. Elizabet plays her ‘silence’ as superbly as any other role. The psychiatrist says she understands her condition and knows that she will move out of this role too, when she’s done playing it. Meanwhile she suggests Elizabet spend a few days in her summer home with Nurse Alma. Alma is obviously overawed by Elizabet. She speaks of trying to fit into the different roles she plays in her own life -- being a nurse, looking forward to her impending marriage, the prospect of having children and rearing them. But her voice lacks conviction. She isn’t sure if this is really what she wants to do and since Elizabet refuses to respond to her monologue, Alma launches deeper into her own thoughts. Nobody compels her to speak and yet she reveals her darkest secrets to the silent woman who neither judges her nor offers any sympathy.
Perhaps Alma speaks about her deep-rooted guilt over an episode on the beach that happened some years ago -- a story she has never shared with anyone else -- only because she knows Elizabet is not going to react. It is evident that Alma’s most shameful moment is also her most ecstatic. Reminds me of Hiroshima Mon Amour where the heroine bares her soul to an unknown man because she knows that he isn’t a part of her world and therefore she is in no danger of being condemned for speaking the truth. Elizabet writes a letter to the doctor, in which she speaks of how she finds Alma an interesting person to study and mentions Alma’s secret quite casually. Strangely, she doesn’t seal the envelope, almost inviting Alma to read what she has written.
Alma is furious about being used as an ‘object’ and suddenly, her body language changes from being amiable, almost submissive to restlessness and anger. In a confrontational moment between the two women, Elizabet finally expresses herself by hitting Alma. The latter threatens to throw a pan of boiling water on her and Elizabet speaks her first words in the film, “No, don’t.” While she seems to have accepted the futility of role-playing, she hasn’t given up on life yet. There is a fight within her, and therefore the fear of death.
From here on, the line between illusion and reality gets further blurred. We never know if what we are witnessing next is a dream, or a continuation of the psychological game between these two women. Elizabet enters Alma’s room at night and walks out through another door into a white, hazy, ghost-like light. Alma enters Elizabet’s room and runs her hand over the latter’s still face. Elizabet and Alma are framed in tight close-up, with the former running her hand through the latter’s hair. A voice calls out “Elizabet” and Alma, assumes her ‘persona’ and speaks on her behalf to a man who appears to be Mr. Vogler.
The film’s climax is a scene where Elizabet appears tentative as she covers the photograph of a boy (her son?) with her hands. Alma, looking more self-assured than ever before, reveals the photograph and then launches into a definitive analysis of Elizabet’s ‘guilt’. First, we just see Elizabet’s face (half lit, the other half in shadows) with Alma’s voice off-camera. Then, the same scene is repeated, this time with Alma’s face to camera and Elizabet’s profile (squirming?) in the left corner of the frame as she hears of her own inadequacies as a mother. At the end of the monologue, Alma asserts that she is nothing like Elizabet. I wondered if she was trying to convince herself that she hasn’t submitted entirely to her stronger adversary, when in fact, she has.
Frankly, I don’t know yet what Bergman was trying to suggest when Alma finally convinces Elizabet to say the word, “Nothing”. To me, the whole idea of Persona is about putting meaning into things -- visuals, narrative, dialogues, characters, faces. There is nothing definitive about people, about life, about cinema. Each of us is trying to make our own sense of it -- but no one knows to what end.