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Film / Persona (1966)

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A 1966 psychological drama by Ingmar Bergman, starring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. As with much of Bergman's filmography, the movie rides heavily on symbolism and philosophy. Its plot is...hard to explain.

At first, it is pretty straightforward: an actress named Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann) suddenly decides not to speak and is thus considered mentally ill. She and Alma (Andersson), the nurse who takes care of her, are sent to a Summer cottage in hopes that it will help nurse the actress back to health. Alma talks to her a lot, first about trivial things and then about increasingly personal matters, among them a sexual tryst Alma had with underage boys. When Alma happens to read a letter from Elisabet to her doctor, which has references to the tryst and other things Alma told her in confidence, plus a comment where Elisabet says she's "studying" Alma, Alma begins to suspect that Elisabet is toying with her. Cold war ensues.

Whatever happens from there on is entirely up to you to guess. The director's lack of explanation does not help. However, it is still regarded as one of Bergman's best movies, and one of the greatest films of all time.

Unrelated to the Persona video games, although Jungian psychology is a major theme in both.

This film contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Abortion Fallout Drama: Alma's darkest secret is getting an abortion after an orgiastic tryst with underage boys. When she recounts this, she burst into tears and talks about how she is haunted that she isn't living according to her values. This sets up the duality between her and Elisabet, who is outwardly a perfect mother but deeply resents her son after failing to abort him.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Averted — as the title suggests, psychology in this film is primarily based on Jung's ideas, which the viewer is apparently expected to know all about.
  • Born in the Theater: The famous moment in which the film appears to crack and melt right after Elisabet and Alma are about to have a confrontation.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Things start to get weirder around the halfway point, in the scene where Elisabet enters Alma's room and starts caressing her, while both stare straight at the camera.
  • Broken Ace: Elisabet is a talented and respected actress and has a successful marriage and a son. Except she hates the kid and the very society she lives in, which leads her to become mute and need treatment.
  • Broken Pedestal: Alma seems to look up to Elisabet as an actress at first. When it turns out Elisabet is writing about Alma in a rather condescending tone in her letters, Alma loses her respect for her and starts hating her.
  • Call-Back: The opening montage contains several nods to earlier Bergman pictures - the boy from Tystnaden, the Show Within a Show from The Devil's Wanton, the spider god from Through a Glass Darkly...
  • Creator Cameo: Bergman's cameraman right at the end.
  • Elective Mute: Elisabet has been sent to recuperate after suddenly deciding to stop speaking; the number of times she speaks during the film can be counted on one hand and all of them may just be imagined by the characters.
  • Gainax Ending: Alma and Elisabet packing up to leave, a ghostly Elisabet caressing Alma in the mirror, Alma leaving alone as Elisabet seems to have disappeared, brief shots showing Alma seemingly acting out the memory of a stage play that was Elisabet's. Then a shot of Ingmar Bergman filming the movie, and a shot of film running out of the camera and the arc light going out.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Averted. Alma talks about having an abortion after getting pregnant, and Elisabet (supposedly) tried to abort her baby but failed.
  • Hospital Hottie: Alma wears her full nurse uniform in the early scenes, and she's played by Bibi Andersson, so she qualifies.
  • Imaginary Friend: Although it's never really made clear in this Mind Screw of a movie, it's eventually at least hinted that "Elisabet"—the character played by Ullmann, that is—is not real, and is actually a figment of the imagination of "Alma" (Andersson) who is the real Elisabet. Note the scene where Elisabet's husband shows up and calls Alma "Elisabet". Alma denies it at first but then starts talking to the husband like she actually is Elisabet. Meanwhile, the husband does not seem to perceive the presence of Liv Ullmann when she shows up in the scene. Note also how the camera cuts to Ullmann just as Alma, apparently in "Elisabet" mode, shouts "It's all just sham and lies!" This is also strongly implied towards the end with the famous Repeat Cut address scenes—Elisabet as Alma addresses her, then a cut to Alma doing the talking, then a horrified Alma insisting that she is not Elisabet, then a shot with one half of each character's face joined together to make a whole.
  • Impaled Palm: One of the surreal inserts that opens and closes the film is a shot of a palm getting a nail pounded through it Jesus-style.
  • Juxtaposed Halves Shot: Alma and Elisabet in the climax of the film. Their faces are juxtaposed to show that their individual identities have become indistinguishable from each other (or they've melded, or they were each other all along, or something). When Bergman first showed the shot to his actresses, they both turned to each other and said in unison "But that's an awful photo of you - wait, what?"
  • Madden Into Misanthropy: Apparently this is what happened to Elisabet. The stress of all the white lies people have to tell and the masks people have to wear drove her to stop talking to anyone.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: The montage of surreal imagery that starts the film includes a brief shot—less than a second, but still recognizable—of an erect penis.
  • Mandatory Motherhood: In the past, someone told Elisabet that the only thing she was lacking was being a mother. She had no interest in having children before, but what that person said bothered her, so she allowed herself to get pregnant without being sure of whether she really wanted it.
  • Meaningful Name: Alma, which is Spanish and Portuguese for "soul".
  • Melting-Film Effect: Trope Codifier at the least, as this is just one of the ways Bergman reminds you his movie is only a movie.
  • Mind Screw: Just what the hell is going on here? Is Elisabet real? Are Elisabet and Alma the same person? What do the brief clips from some old slapstick silent comedynote  signify? Why is there a penis?
  • Minimalist Cast: There's only four or five (if you think the boy from the prologue is meaningful) characters in the whole film. It's only Alma and Elisabet who are onscreen for the great majority of the film, with the head doctor and Elisabet's husband being in it very briefly.
  • Painting the Medium: The director reminds us several times, through a few weird sequences, that this is only a movie.
  • Parental Neglect: One of the reasons for Elisabet's condition, recounted by Alma in the film's climax, is having a son she didn't want and who she can't bring herself to love. It's said the son lives with relatives and Elisabet only sees him sporadically and unwillingly.
  • Pet the Dog: It's a minor thing, but Elisabet gives Alma something to drink after their short fight caused by Alma revealing she knows what Elisabet said about her in her letter.
  • Proscenium Reveal: Does this a couple of times, most notably at the very end when the camera pans away from the actors to show the crew who have been there all along, filming what's supposed to be two women isolated on an island.
  • "Psycho" Strings: You could almost mistake this for a horror movie at certain points (the montage of strange, sometimes disturbing images at the beginning may well remind you of The Ring), and the music reinforces this.
  • Repeat Cut: Does this with an entire scene: first, we see a monologue with the camera looking at who the speaker is talking to, and then we see the exact same monologue again, this time with the camera focusing on the speaker. Bonus points: this isn't a simple shot-reverse shot, this is an entire sequence, with each shot being a perfect mirror of the opposite angle for each corresponding shot.
  • Scare Chord: Used a few times for disturbing imagery, like when half of Alma's face is put together with half of Elisabet's face to form one face.
  • Shout-Out: In the strange interlude after Alma hurts Elisabet with a piece of glass, a scream from Tystnaden can be heard.
  • Spiteful Spit: When Alma confronts Elisabet over her letters, they struggle for a bit and Elisabet slaps her. Alma responds by spitting at her.
  • Suddenly Speaking: Elisabet, who spends most of the film in silence, speaks in three instances, though it may not have happened. It's interesting to note that the camera avoids showing Elisabet's mouth moving in the first two instances.
    Alma: Elisabet? Did you speak to me last night?
    (Elisabet shakes her head.)
  • Wham Line: A rare example that's shown in print instead of spoken. In Elisabet's letter, "Det är för övrigt mycket roligt att studera henne" ("In any case, it's a lot of fun studying her"), which reveals to Alma that Elisabet is messing with her for her own amusement.

Alternative Title(s): Persona