I first heard about Ingmar Bergman‘s Persona in David Scott Diffrient’s essay about the shock cut, a technique mostly used in horror films. I assumed he was just talking about one of the film’s opening images – a hand pinned down by a large nail. Persona isn’t a horror film per se, but with that image of the hand comes more jarring images in its opening sequence – a phallus, an androgynous child lying down in a gurney, that child slowly coming back to life.
Sven Nyqvist’s cinematography, Bergman’s camera and editing throughout the film somehow evokes the horror psyche whole giving their audience one of the best shot films ever made. Its minimalist hospital walls where nurse Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) meets her patient, actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), thin bare trees standing on beaches where she chases Elisabet, close-ups that would change angles for every accusation she airs towards Elisabet. Amazing.
The second thing I heard about Persona before watching it Sarah Boslaugh’s write-up of Andersson, including the latter in an essential performance list. We’ll go back to the child in the gurney who wakes up and reaches for a blurry picture of Elisabet, and in a way that’s what Andersson as Alma is trying to do. Like most of Bergman’s finer works, one person reaching for another seems like an impossible journey.
It’s a misguided way for Alma to think that her catharsis might break Elisabet’s silence, but instead she just ends up doing everything for Elisabet. She finds herself wanting to become what Elisabet has been before her silence. Andersson does great work, carrying the film, going through every imaginable emotion with both vulnerability and control, amazingly handling Bergman’s analytical script. Ullmann as Elisabet only blurts a few words when Alma tries to burn her face. Yes, Andersson’s the prettier one, but Ullmann’s her stoic reactions are captivating and her internal struggles are so enigmatic that the latter can almost steal the show by just being there.
Some images in the film include a close-up of a face, half Elisabet and half Anna, or of Elisabet holding Alma, both facing the camera as if it’s a mirror, both ethereal beauties, she becoming the sister and doppelgänger that Alma has always wanted. Looking at them, it’s easy to assume their closeness, or that they’re the same person all along.