Persona (1966) | Criterion

Very early in Persona’s lyrical six-minute opening montage, there’s a close-up of an animation, framed by the film stock’s perforations and halted mid-feed. Before this, a push in on the projector—the explosive incandescence of which tends, for many critics, to dominate the sequence, signaling a self-reflexive study of cinematic spectatorship. Here, the suspended cartoon is inverted and unadjusted: a bare optical illusion. Right side up, the stark lines over white background show a woman in a black swimsuit and shower cap bathing outdoors, bent in a body of water bordered by rocks. Left upside down, she’s caught midair like an abortive cannonball. Water is sky. Her legs are severed at the knee. For six seconds, she isn’t washing her face, but hiding it in her hands.

Acknowledging the illusions at the heart of filmmaking and projection, Bergman felt himself a conjurer. “If I see a film which has a running time of one hour, I sit through 27 minutes of complete darkness—the blankness between frames. When I show a film I am guilty of deceit.” Deception thus construed is the trick an audience expects. Bergman reminds us how everyday illusions like optical inversion and legible movement involve common but radical acts of simultaneity: things appear one way, and exist another. A regular diet of darkness enables the persistence of light.

Persona is powered by such functional illusions. A nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), accompanies a mute actress, Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), on a therapeutic sojourn to a seaside summer home, where what begins as a chummy respite for caretaker and patient devolves into a volatile, one-sided power play. The women wear coordinating black turtlenecks, sun hats, anoraks; they drink and smoke and sun on the rocky shore. Alma fills the silence first with cheerful rambling, then with increasingly personal disclosure, culminating in a late night white-knuckle account of the time she and a strange woman had sex in various combinations with two boys on a beach. The confession counterpoises pleasure and trauma: fucking her husband later that night, she never came so hard (before or since), nor has she recovered from the guilt and grief of her subsequent abortion.

Nothing raises the twin flares of sentiment and umbrage like intimacy between women. Alma lurches toward this intimacy, searching Elisabet’s face for silent accord; looking, as in a mirror, for a confirming vision of herself. Throughout Persona, Alma mistakes silence for listening. More precisely, she supposes listening is a neutral or benevolent activity, free from even the well-intentioned interventions of interpretation. She’s emboldened by proximity, by perceived resemblance, going so far in her tipsy, teasing murmur as to remark to Elisabet on their physical likeness, saying, “I think I could turn into you if I really tried.” Alma interrogates her mirror. She gets drunk with it, says too much. Dreams of Elisabet’s hands on her shoulders, steering her toward the camera-as-mirror, smoothing her hair from her forehead as their heads move at equally languorous dream-speeds in opposing directions.

In a film replete with iconic imagery, the dream’s dual portrait stands apart—even more than the composite close-up we get much later, about which Bergman helpfully explains, “In most people, one side of the face is more attractive than the other, their so called good side. The half-illuminated images of Liv’s and Bibi’s faces that we combined into one showed their respective bad sides.” Aptly, it’s a narrative rather than facial encounter with Alma’s “bad side” that decisively turns the film. Elisabet gives Alma a letter to mail, and Alma pulls over in the woods to read it. In a series of close-ups of typewritten passages, backed by the ominous drip, drip of the opening montage, we read with Alma. Having perhaps imagined herself offering Elisabet heretofore unexperienced depths of fast friendship, Alma finds herself described basically as we see her: doting but a bit desperate, erratic, and more or less self-obsessed. The scene ends with a wide shot of Alma staring at the edge of a small pond, ominously doubled in the glassy water.

Following this violation of trust, Alma’s torn. She loves and resents Elisabet in equal, mutually escalating measures. So too Persona is fundamentally conflicted: largely confined to the vacation home, the film’s grammar is nonetheless indifferent to spatial continuity, cutting between angles and across distances to underline the fundamental instability of the frame’s orientation toward its figures. We get naturalism and staginess, visual restraint and high style, a pixie cut and a ponytail, silence and chaos, radical oversharing and stubborn withholding. One way to resolve these forces is to subordinate some voices to others, as have writers who’ve latched onto the film’s expression of [X], where X equals clinical pathology, female duality, 1960s art cinema, etc. Another is to embrace the polyphony, as Lloyd Michaels appears to in the introduction to his edited volume on the film: “…Persona, for all its ambiguities, may seem easy to talk about (interpret) precisely because it is difficult to understand (comprehend).”

Thomas Elsaesser’s pronouncement on Persona’s appeal and resistance to interpretation borrows from the film’s own fatal brand of melodrama: “Persona has been for films critics and scholars what climbing Everest is for mountaineers: the ultimate professional challenge.” My own critical approach is more Bob Ross than Apa Sherpa; to that end, a different moment in Elsaesser’s essay on the film (reprinted for the Criterion release) leaps forward. He cites a paper given at a Bergman conference involving research on mirror neurons, bringing their mimetic firing to bear on the film’s fixation on hands touching faces. “From a neurological perspective, the motif confirms that few gestures elicit as much empathetic mimicry as a hand touching a face.”

From a cinematic perspective, the hand held in close-up is already itself mimetic, revealing or performing its own “faceness.” For close-up theorist Bela Bálàzs, the onscreen life of individual features was perhaps the most profound optical illusion of all: “…nostrils, ear lobes and neck all have their own face. And displayed in isolation, they reveal a hidden coarseness, stupidity barely masked. The ‘general impression’ fails to obscure what is betrayed by the detail.” Famously inspired by the uncanny resemblance between actresses Andersson and Ullman, Persona fixates on the face, on hands and faces touching themselves and each other, conspiring with the story (Elisabet initially breaks down while performing onstage) to evoke roles and masks, but diffusing the notions of performance and disguise to apply to the comportment of both women—or, simply, to women.

On The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, Bergman sat beside a smiling Bibi Andersson and tried to articulate his ethos of working with women. “I am passionately interested in human beings, human face, human soul.” He likened audience perspective and the camera’s intervening eye to a mirror, which women can regard without embarrassment. Women are, “by education,” less ashamed to look at themselves—and, by extension, at each other.

The education (though I prefer “training”) to which Bergman refers is more complex than readings of this quote tend to presume, and absolutely the province of Persona—invested as it is in Alma’s enactment of women’s socially reinforced tendency, even now lamented by inspirational Instagrams, to make comparison their first/primary mode of encounter. This is a self-consciousness light years more interesting than that of the film toward itself as a film: Alma’s shameful awareness of her anger; her visible, futile longing to be less petty, even as she leaves a shard of glass where Elisabet’s bare foot will find it.

The scene opens with Alma emerging from the house in a chic black bathing suit. The moment’s demands seem modest enough—to sit in the sun with a glass of water—but after the revelations of Elisabet’s letter, everything in the world is off. Her sunglasses are too severe for the film’s measured expression of natural light. The wind repeatedly nudges her hat askew. She knocks her water over and does a terrible job at cleaning up the mess, finally retreating to the porch step to smoke. Having experienced herself as strange through the mediation of Elisabet’s letter, Alma sparks like a faulty wire, suddenly incompatible with the outside world.

In the background, Elisabet moves through the house before walking outside. Twice, from different angles, the camera swerves from Elisabet’s feet just missing the broken glass back to Alma’s watchful face, forcing us to feel the heat of her desire for the other woman to be hurt. Alma heads inside and peers past the curtain when Elisabet finally yelps offscreen. In the reverse shot of Elisabet looking up from the path, recognition and injury slacken her face. The image then recurs with a filtered effect, cutting to a refrain of footage from the opening montage: ruined film, a white screen, the punctured hand, blood vessels streaking a lit eyelid, and finally Elisabet, out of focus, in Alma’s place, parting the kitchen curtain.

The sequence is as formally innovative as its ingredients are familiar, thanks to Persona’s stature as a progenitor of what Miriam Bale coins “persona swap films:” a subgenre in which two female friends enact a “magical merge,” where “distinctive personality is a performative act.” Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth and Sophia Takal’s Always Shine are just two recent entries in a catalog of works, spanning buddy musicals to erotic thrillers, that mine Persona’s base components: two women; a secluded retreat; and the seductive, competitive, cruel properties particular to female friendship.

But what Persona produces, onscreen and in its critics, is more than the sum of its narrative parts. Amid its formal weirdness and leading citations is a forceful double vision, a dual insistence on the close-up and the monologue as potent, parallel forms: Expressive yet withholding, and as collapsible under the burden of interpretation as Alma, crushed by Elisabet’s speech and her silence, sobbing facedown on the rocks.