Monday, February 26, 2018


Persona derives from the Latin for "mask of the actor." Of course, one of the major themes of the Bergman masterpiece, currently in revival at Film Forum, is the structure of personality and more particularly the notion of the false self. Heidegger talked about the notion of authenticity, a state that could only be attained through the awareness of death. In Persona (1966) an actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) stops performing her Electra, henceforth refusing to talk. Her psychiatrist explains to Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse who has been brought in to take care of her, that there's nothing wrong with Elisabet from a physical or mental point of view. What then is the etiology? The film was made in the 60’s and the image of a self-immolating Buddhist monk, along with the famous Warsaw Ghetto shot of the terrified child with his hands up act as a kind of shock therapy, but is horror the problem or the cure? Bergman’s film is one of the great exemplars of binary art. Like Waiting For Godot, it’s about two characters who are chained to each other and who triangulate with an absent god. The only difference is that the narrative drive is two becoming one and one of the most chilling scenes is the melding of faces. At the end, in telling the story of Elisabet’s pregnancy twice, Alma is obviously rehearsing her characters lines and when Elizabet’s husband (Gunnar Bjornstrand) appears in a scene which may or may not be conceived of as fantasy, it's Alma who acts as if she were his wife. The theme of authenticity actually runs as a leitmotif throughout the film. In one of the most famous speeches Alma, who does all the talking, disburdens herself of an erotic episode, which in a cruel betrayal Elisabet parrots dismissively in a letter that’s purposefully left open. But Alma is disturbed not only by Elisabet’s demeaning behavior but by the content of  her vignette which describes a moment of heightened sexuality with her husband that's a result of her infidelity. The purity of emotion itself is tarnished when the memory is unearthed. Like all great works of art Persona is about a myriad of things, all of which are themselves subject to shifting interpretations. Filmmaking and factititiousness bookend the film with marvelous sequences employing grainy stock to render everything from silent film comedy to crucifixion. On the subject of therapy, the film reverses the analytic paradigm. Usually it’s the patient who does the talking. In Persona it’s her caregiver. Or is that just a piece of film run backwards? Alma does get Elisabet to talk twice. One in which when threatened with hot water she cries “no” and another when she repeats the word “nothing.” One after the other the ways of looking and iterating accumulate and cross-pollinate almost virally. "The rest is silence" are Hamlet's famous last words. And the same might be said here.

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