When I saw Persona for the first time, I dug my nails into the meat of my thighs. After the film finished, I paced. I wanted to watch it again. I wanted to throw it away. I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was garbage.
Persona is about two women: an actor who mysteriously goes mute, and the nurse who looks after her. I couldn’t shake the unease I’d had the entire time watching—which makes sense; Persona is an uneasy film, both in presentation and plot. There’s unease in the way that the two women examine each other, circle each other, and eventually come to know of each other in ways unexpected and unexplained.
I went to the bathroom, just to do something, and I washed my hands. After scrubbing with soap, I looked at myself in the mirror. Here you are, Ross—a boy of 22, shaken by a film made over 50 years ago, in a language you do not speak. Pull yourself together.
I only watched the full film twice more over the next six years. Few moments stuck with me, except one: the sequence where the nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), sits opposite the actor, Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), and narrates, to her face, Elisabet’s experience with motherhood.
By today’s standards, the scene isn’t fancy. There are no extended takes, there’s no balletic choreography. The camerawork is simple and direct: Bergman’s camera stares at Ullmann, pushing in closer and closer. We hear the details of Elisabet’s determination to become a mother, ignited by a partygoer’s cruel words, and how this desire transforms into repulsion and fear once the baby is born and grows. We watch Elisabet look away, off into the distance, and, finally, down the lens at us. Alma’s voice rises as she finishes describing Elisabet’s fear. A sound effect plays.
Then the monologue begins again. This time, we gaze at Alma’s face, her determined expression and intent gaze. Her voice is placid and matter-of-fact. We meet the confronter head-on. Of course, we relax. Or, at least, I relaxed. If something happens again and proceeds just like it did the last time, you expect nothing more to happen, don’t you?
When I saw the silent flash of half of Elisabet’s face superimposed upon half of Alma’s, unease skated across my spine. This was new. This was a different ending to the same monologue. My expectations weren’t playing out.
“No!” Alma protests. “I’m not like you. I don’t feel like you.” She tries to separate herself from Elisabet Vogler. Resistance is futile. Elisabet’s face overlays upon Alma’s again. The sound effect that accompanies the shot punctuates the overlay. The sound effect this time is lower, it echoes, it’s like a foghorn cutting through deep night. The sound effect is the final note in this strange moment. The sound effect sears the image of these two faces together into my mind.
The two halves of the faces together—making a whole face—is strange and disquieting to me. I looked in the mirror right after I finished watching the film for the first time, and I saw the ways that my face had flattened. I forced myself to drop my shoulders and my face relaxed, too. Your mask of conformity and how you discarded it years ago is not too far from the idea of performance and identity in this film, I told myself.
You grow up a good Christian boy, soft and uncertain and too eager to please. You’re too aware, as a deaf person trying to formulate their Deaf identity, how different you are from others around you. When you enter adolescence, you grapple with hormones as your parents insist that you attend church every Sunday.
You find a community, a Deaf Christian youth group, and you throw yourself into the social events and the summer camps. You throw yourself in the pool of signing people so many times you think you want to drown. You want to stay with this community, above all else. Seeing everyone signing is like oxygen to you. The friends you make during those events sustain you through weeks and weeks of loneliness.
But, as you grow, you become aware of your attraction to men. You bite your tongue when an attractive male classmate rubs your shoulders. You don’t respond when someone teases you about looking at beauty magazines. You’re scared to be rejected. You fear losing the only community you think you’ll find.
You lose it anyway.
When you’re 16, a Deaf Christian woman tricks you. Her name is J—. She invites you to coffee; just the two of you, she says. She lies to you: she tells you in the car, much too eagerly, that she’s driving you to coffee with you, her, and an ex-gay.
Your only response is a kind of denial, a weak response: “I didn’t know ex-gays existed.”
You meet the ex-gay, someone who apparently exists, at a Starbucks. Of course you meet him at a Starbucks. It’s Seattle in the late 2000s, before the resistance to corporate coffee burst into the public’s consciousness.
He’s sitting at a table in the back, and you vaguely recognize him. He’s tall, dark, and handsome. He has a snaggletooth, exposed in a nervous smile. He’s married to an acquaintance of yours, another Deaf Christian woman.
The ex-gay buys you coffee, even when you say you’ve got it. He wants to do this for you. He’s glad you came out here, he’s glad you volunteered to do this. You don’t tell him that you had no choice.
You find it hard to look at him directly. His face is cast in shadow. He smiles at you but you’re not sure if it’s a leer or a smirk, or another sort of mask. He scares you. He scares you because he’s a walking representative of leaving your identity behind. He shows you that identity can be discarded, something to sidestep rather than delve into.
You’re 16 years old. You’ve been tricked. You do not want to be here, but you know that if you say anything, they won’t listen to you. They’ll insist that you listen to them, first. Your anger spills out in the resulting conversation, at this back table in this corporate coffee shop.
“We’re not the only species on Earth who have homosexual pairings. Monkeys are gay. Penguins are gay. It’s a natural thing.” All of your arguments are delivered with every bit of bluster and false bravado you can manage. You try to hide your anger with an aggressive willingness to get down to business, to the topic at hand.
But even in the heat of anger, there’s still curiosity. There’s still compassion. You sit immobile as the ex-gay tells you his life story. You learn about him, and you find yourself connecting with him more and more. You find yourself softening against your will. He was adopted. He grew up in a conservative Christian home. He often felt out of place wherever he went, and he wanted a space to belong.
Your anger dissipates, replaced by a festering resentment, a flash of compassion. You often feel out of place, as the only deaf person in your family. You can empathize with him, but you and him are not the same. Still, he frightens you. You can see yourself in him, and this frightens you.
He represents the idea that you can kill yourself. You can push down and separate yourself from a part of you that needs love and light to grow. You can be cruel to yourself. You can injure parts of yourself to make yourself more palatable and accommodating for a world that does not care about anything except what it can get from you.
I define myself today as a queer person. I’m confident and comfortable saying that I’m queer. And I separated myself from yourself. Yourself was the version of me at 16, a person who shook when overwhelmed and questioned everything about who they were.
The version of me that was constantly scared is not one I want to acknowledge as part of me, most days. I separate that version of me through suppression, through avoidance, through language. The version of me becomes not me—only referred to by you, by another pronoun. You are a version of me, a version I often ignore and try to shove firmly into my closet because I want to know nothing but pride. But you cannot cut out your past, the uncertain days and nights, the people who approached you and told you that you were wrong.
You looked upon the ex-gay and you knew him. You saw yourself in him. You understood his shame because you had felt it yourself. He and you both wanted so desperately to fit in and to be part of a society that chafed against a fundamental core of your being.
What scares me about Persona is the relationship between the two women. They are, at first, diametrically opposed to each other. Their boundaries are clear, and their sense of selves—save for Elisabet’s identity crisis and her resulting muteness—firm. Then, they go and take a stretch of time together, with only each other, at a lonely seaside cottage. Boundaries start to dissolve. The conflict becomes a question of who’s dependent on who, the nurse on the patient or the patient on the nurse? Soon, we start to wonder who needs help at all.
When I watched half of Elisabet’s face overlay upon Alma’s for the first time, I saw a moment where two people had lost themselves in each other. They’d started out as polar opposites, cagey and conflicted about the other’s intentions. But, with Alma’s openness about having sex and her knowledge about Elisabet’s feelings towards motherhood, the film veers towards the idea that you can, in fact, know someone intimately. Bergman shows that our secrets and our shame are not so different from each other’s. Elisabet only has to listen to Alma and her past to know how she craves stability and a sense of forward momentum after an orgy and a traumatic abortion. Through reading Elisabet’s mail, Alma sees how Elisabet studies Alma and drinks in her stories to—hopefully—move past muteness into something more.
Both women try to use each other to move forward in their own lives. But, both women are caught up in their own lives and crave what the other has, not seeing how the other is impacted on a granular level. Both women are so entrenched in their own loneliness that they can’t recognize the other’s predicament.
When the faces merged, I saw two people bound by loneliness and shame to the point where they no longer understood who was who. I saw two completely different people and disparate identities become one. And when their faces became one face, they knew each other’s secrets and knew the shame the other must be feeling.
In a homophobic society, it’s easy to feel ashamed for being queer. Pride has to be performed before it truly grows. You must put on a brave face before you know what you can do.
Past the false bravado, you were curious about the ex-gay and how he’d come here to this moment in the coffee shop. You saw him battling himself. You saw him trying to conform and wondered if he was truly happy.
Persona scares me even today because it shows me that there’s no easy resolution for knowing another’s shame. There’s no way to separate yourself from your past and shame, and therefore, you cannot help but feel like you know the person sitting across from you, telling you the story of their life. They’re really telling the story of your own life back to you. You cannot escape it. Once you know someone and you understand the similarities between them and you, they reflect parts of you right back to you. These parts of you and how they’re mirrored back at you become, in time, its own haunting. You’re reminded of how the choices you make dictate the path you take.
The overlaying of faces in Persona is this same kind of haunting. Even as Alma’s path diverges from Elisabet’s, Bergman shows us through this overlaying that Alma’s path isn’t so far removed from Elisabet’s. If their shame can be shared and felt by each other, then their futures are not too far apart. Their paths are not too removed from the other’s. Even if Alma insists that she wants children, Bergman also shows that her hating children is also a possibility. Bergman insists that there’s a future where her shame and uncertainty could rule her. After all, Bergman doesn’t let Alma finish her protest before Elisabet’s face springs up again.
The true horror of Persona, to me, is the idea that Alma could easily lose herself in Elisabet. The identity that she’s constructed as a nurse could fall apart entirely, and she would be ruled by her shame instead of only being haunted by it.
I’m haunted by the ex-gay today because it could have been easy to let my disgust about being tricked become disgust towards myself. I could have let my shame and uncertainty about my own identity consume me. Instead of being openly queer, I could have followed the ex-gay. After all, the ex-gay had felt the same intense loneliness that I’d felt growing up, the same uncertainty of what to do with yourself when you’re an adolescent and still lurching through mistake after mistake. In the coffee shop, the ex-gay said that they’d walked towards a solution for their loneliness; you’d been grasping at straws, young and scared. The ex-gay had changed themselves and now they weren’t so clumsy and lonely anymore.
You could see yourself at 16 as a man who walked away from a part of himself in favor of community. This path is all too easy a venture, and it wouldn’t take much for you to journey down it. After all, to be in the Deaf community outside a metropolis is not a sustained, consistent event. When you’re in the thick of the Deaf community, you greedily drink in gulps, hoping for the overflow to sustain you through times of drought. You’re the only Deaf person in your family. You’re the only Deaf person in your school. You’re the only Deaf person most anywhere you go.
You could make it less complicated for yourself.
The ex-gay hugs you as you get up to leave. The hug stretches on for longer than you’re comfortable with. Behind him, J— laughs at the look on your face. On the way home, you find yourself wondering about what he was trying to communicate with that last embrace.
I wonder many things about the ex-gay, even today. Even as the separation from you happens, as I grow into my queer identity, the ex-gay is someone who follows me around in my memory.
Finding comfort and confidence in my identity as a Deaf queer person had to come with the acceptance that there were people in the Deaf community, people I knew, who didn’t want me to be queer. I have to live with the fact that people from the Deaf community have told me, “I don’t love you as you are.”
Identity is a way for you to define yourself. Identity is a way to find community. But what happens when one community wants you to exorcize a part of something from another community? Do you turn your back on that person? What happens to the unease that lingers? Do you turn your back on that community entirely? To grow, I had to protect myself.
Whenever I watch the two different faces overlap in Persona, the effect chiefly reminds me of the different identities and communities we can be a part of. They can choose to coexist or not. People can choose to accept all of me, or not. My identities as a Deaf queer person still exist, overlaid upon each other, adding nuance to my experiences. They’re different ways of seeing and existing in this world. With Alma and Elisabet, their ways of being first chafe against each other, then open up to each other, and then find a way to coexist, for a moment.
After the first flash of that overlaid face, Alma whispers, “No, I’m not like you.” She rejects it, only for Bergman’s idea and the illusion to press down on her moments later, and insist that the two women in the film are not so different.
The ex-gay couldn’t accept his own queerness. He had to take on another mask, the idea of the reformed straight Christian man. I could have followed him down the same path.
“Animals don’t have souls,” he told me at one point, in response to one of my many aggressive challenges. “We’re the only ones in God’s creation who have souls.”
I could have been like him and killed a part of myself. My soul was at stake. After all, that was what this meeting was about. He was suggesting his logic and I could choose to take it or reject it.
In Persona, after the overlaying of two faces, Alma cuts herself. Alma offers herself, a part of herself, to Elisabet. Elisabet watches her cut herself and then she swoops in to feed on Alma’s blood.
There’s a moment where Elisabet drinks as Alma curls her fingers into Elisabet’s hair. Then Alma pulls her away and slaps her again and again, her eyes bright with liberation.
Alma rejects Elisabet’s path, her way of living. Alma goes back to herself. I rejected the ex-gay’s logic and his words about following the straight and true—but that doesn’t mean he didn’t haunt me as I left the coffee shop and made my way home. I had to make a choice.
To make an identity is to reject paths, from moment to moment, as they’re offered to you. As Alma learns more and more about Elisabet, she also learns, again and again, how to separate Elisabet from herself. But you cannot reject trauma. You cannot forget events where the path of your life is shown to you. I couldn’t think back and not think, occasionally, about the ways that my life could have been different.
Before leaving the cottage and making her way home, Alma gazes in the mirror and fixes her hair. There comes another overlay, an image of Elisabet pressing her hand down on Alma’s hair. It gives Alma, in the moment, pause. She stops to consider where she’s been, what she’s done.
To this day, so do I.