An actress, in perfect mental and physical health, suddenly refuses to speak. A nurse is brought in to assist her, and the two move to a seaside house in order to continue the actress’s treatment.
This is, in its simplest form, the plot of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona; and yet, such a simple outline seems to barely touch the deep well of hidden truths and feelings that the film contains, rich content that makes it just as vital today as it was upon its release fifty years ago. The very magic of Persona exists in its relative simplicity—Bergman himself, in his book Images, states that he felt that the film was as far as he could go, and that it allowed him to touch “wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.”
The invocation of the cinematic medium by the director is important, because Persona is very much aware of the fact that it is a film. It begins with images of the inside of a projector spinning to life, before Bergman hits us with a succession of disconnected images—a tarantula walking across the screen, a hand being crucified, a young boy looking at a wall where a woman’s face is projected, always just out of focus. This all works to remind us that what we’re watching is fiction—a tale about people, but a simulation. The camera creates a lie. When we see something on screen, no matter how much truth it carries, we also must be aware that it is inherently untrue. It was staged, lit, directed, and acted. What we watch when we watch a narrative film is all performance.
The idea of performance is at the heart of Persona. Why do we perform for others? How much of our lives are mere performance, simulations of what we think they should be? The actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), initially fell mute during her performance in a play. Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse who cares for her, is performing by nature: she is assigned the role of caretaker, and has to play it. Of course, as the film develops, we see these roles begin to change and mutate, but as an initial scenario, Persona gives us nothing more than two women: one performing her job, the other refusing to perform any longer.
If Vogler is attempting to free herself from the idea of constant performance by falling mute—in essence, to find her true self through silence—Alma seems to specifically use her speech to explore her own truth. Alma divulges deep secrets to the silent Vogler, thinking her a confidant: stories of infidelity, of her doubts about her partner. This is a sort of performance in and of itself—the act of confession to make one’s self pure again. Because it is a familiar performance, we do not initially register it as such, but when watched carefully, we see how Alma is playing to certain expected beats and notions of how one should confess. Throughout her spilling of secrets, we become acutely aware that while she is telling the truth, she is following certain rules in how she does so. She is performing without realizing it.
The circumstances of Vogler’s condition are more difficult to parse and analyze. While initially it seems that her silence is a withdrawal from the performances of humanity, we begin to see that the silence itself is another sort of performance. She has turned herself into the “other,” the unreachable outsider. We know early on that her silence is a conscious choice (confirmed by a doctor in Alma’s hospital), but when she finally breaks it and yells for mercy when Alma threatens to toss a pot of boiling water on her, we realize that this, too, has been a simulation. The Vogler that screams in fear of her safety is the true Vogler, the basest form of her human essence. The silence that she has implemented, while perhaps intended to separate her from the sort of simulated humanity that she has been living, is in itself nothing more than a different sort of simulation.
Deeper into the film, the lines between Alma and Vogler begin to blur, as they begin to take up each other’s personas and perform as one another, or as one bizarrely connected entity. There is not the space here to delve into all that this might mean or how it might be interpreted, but it continues the theme of humanity defined by performance. In a shattering scene towards the end of the film, when Alma has become a sort of second-Vogler, the two have a confrontation over Vogler’s feelings about her child. Bergman first shows the scene in a series of close-ups on one of the women’s faces while she hears the story being told. We then see the exact same exchange again, in full, as the other woman tells it. Two people, playing the same role, experience the same story. We get no indication of whether or not the story is true or not. Instead, it feels like someone is noting up an actress’s work, giving them background information on their character’s life. And by that point, that is what Alma and Vogler have become—characters, not humans. Perhaps it’s what they were all along.
It’s worth noting that Persona arrived at something of a midpoint in Bergman’s career. He had already made many of his more overtly religious films—The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring, The Trilogy of Faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence)—and afterwards, would move into films that plunged into the depths of human emotion—Passion of Anna, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, and Fanny and Alexander. Persona is a film about humanity, but it explores the topic with the sort of symbolism and surrealism that marked Bergman’s religiously tinted films.
There are no real answers at the end of Persona. There are mysteries, images that haunt us, and suggestions of existential horror, but nothing concrete. We understand the problem of performance, of unconsciously simulating our own humanity, but Bergman offers no answers to this problem. Perhaps there are none. Just as it began, the films ends with the inside of a projector, and the suggestion that someone, somehow, is watching our illusion.