Persona begins with bursts of images. They are flipped through, interspaced by white frames to clear the image of a spider, a rolling film reel, a slaughtered sheep, and upside down cartoon, etc. They, with the building music, overwhelm the viewer's brain as they try to draw a connection between these images of life and death and the space in between. The final image is the nail driving in to presumably Jesus's hand. Because the other images, through unsettling (due to interesting angles/zoom), were displayed so quickly, infusing a level of anxiety in the viewer, this final images strikes in a traumatizing way. It strikes where it is least expected.
After a few shots of older people's mouths, the camera lands on a boy lying on a gurney. Somewhere, water drips. He appears to be dead. Then he stirs, takes out a book, and begins to read. Then he sits up. He sees some form of a screen switching between two out-of-focus women. Suddenly, one of the women's eyes close.
Opening credits role, a sequence of white screens, random images, and the boy or one of the women.
The film resumes with a silent woman, actress Elisabeth Volger. Her doctor explains to Nurse Alma that the woman stopped in the middle of a play. She claimed she did it to suppress laughter, now she lies in the hospital, completely sane, completely silent. Nurse Alma is unsure if she is experienced enough to resist Elisabeth's condition. It seems out of place considering there is nothing, physically, wrong with the patient.
The night after Nurse Alma waits on Ms. Volger, she turns on the TV. She is disturbed by the stories of the Viet Cong and the images of a man burning.
She receives a letter from her worried husband including a picture of their son. Alma reads the letter but Elisabeth stops her and rips the photo in half.
The doctor confronts Elisabeth, claiming to understand her. Elisabeth is afraid of dissection, analysis. She won't commit suicide because she dreams of simply being. She is sick of acting out falsity. The doctor sends Alma and Elisabeth to her sea side home where they become active. Elisabeth bathes by the sea, writes letters, reads plays, etc. Together, the two friends hum and enjoy each other's company. Alma narrates this portion of the film, filling the silence with her own beliefs of purpose, her sins, her longings to be like Elisabeth...
At one point, Alma lounges against the desk. Elisabeth whispers that it will be uncomfortable is Ama falls asleep there. Alma looks at her, lies down again, then says the exact thing that Elisabeth just said--as if she never heard her.
That night, while Alma is sleeping, Elisabeth crosses through the hazy halls into Alma's bedroom. Alma wakes up. They hug as Elisabeth sweeps Alma's hair to the side (a reoccurring image). The next morning, she accuses Elisabeth of being in her room. She shakes her head--she wasn't.
Suspicious, Alma opens a letter Elisabeth is sending back to the doctor. She recounts Alma's stories as if she is a subject for study. Alma, who has approached the relationship as one of intimacy and lost all concept of the division between patient and caretaker, feels betrayed.
She tries to return to normal, hiding behind sunglasses and smoking. She breaks a bottle. Elisabeth steps on it. White invades the film as it burns and shakes.
Elisabeth wanders around the home, out-of-focus, looking for Alma. When Alma appears, she demands Elisabeth speak. Alma told her secrets, she feels used. She brings boiling water towards Elisabeth after they've slapped each other into bleeding. Elisabeth begs her to stop.
Alma tells Elisabeth something along the lines of "Maybe you would be better if you were what you are." Elisabeth leaves. Alma stays out among the rocks until night when she comes to Elisabeth. Then Elisabeth's husband comes and Alma kisses him, speaking him as if she is his wife.
Elisabeth has something under her hand. It's the torn picture of her son. Alma tells her the story of how she wanted the child to die. The sequence is repeated with the camera on Alma.
The image that is on the poster comes into play.
Alma scratches her arm and Elisabeth sucks the blood. Alma slaps her.
They're in the hospital. Alma says, "Repeat after me: nothing." And Elisabeth does.
The dream in the dark where Elisabeth swoops back Alma's hair.
They're in the beach house, packing. One leaves.
The story is fragmented, characterized by time and perspective jumps. These play well into the characters' inner struggle. It traverses the psychological break down of Alma and the vacancy of Elisabeth. Their relationship is made up of fractured intimacy. The pieces grate against each other creating sparks the characters attempt to feel warmth by.
Ingmar Bergman allegedly created this film without caring if it was a commercial success. He wrote it while recovering from pneumonia and claimed it saved him as he felt completely washed up. His torture, relief, and freedom to explore are evident in the way he creates this collage of dysfunction. One of his actresses only has 15 lines, which means he is completely communicating her character through body language. Alma, on the other hand, he had to show as a coherent character who was losing herself to another person. Other than those two presences, there are only five other characters who represent pivotal points but only spend a minute on film.
Persona was originally going to be named A Bit of Cinematography, and it is that. It is characterized by extremes: extreme close-ups, extreme wide shots, low-key lighting, sharp shadows, illuminated eyes. The cuts throughout the film are often jump cuts as if Bergman cut for performance and to further unsettle the viewer as the characters developed. The film is gorgeous--almost every shot is photographable, a beautiful blend of light and dark, simple sets and complex emotion.
Personally, I love watching international films: they combine the magic of images with the fluidity of words. There is a level of interpretation that demands to be exercised as the viewer must connect the images to the words and explore their relationship in the story. I particularly enjoyed this representation as it explores the inner psyche and without giving a complete ending. It is messy, jarring, but beautiful, much like the relationships that make up life.
*(Image courtesy of Google.com)