Readers Write In #183: That other kind of confusing: A psychological perspective on Bergman’s Persona (1966)

Posted on May 19, 2020


(by Piyush Pratik)

It’s sort of confusing when you are bamboozled by a Tarkovsky film – his obscurity is well-known anyway, and his imagist approach to filmmaking obliterates any attempt to make plain sense. It’s another kind of confusing when you see Sayat Nova – you have to have some background information in order to make any semblance of a connection between the poetic intertitles and the tableaux vivant. It’s yet another kind of confusing when you catch a Fellini film – the comedy, dark and sinister, earthy and sexual, grounds its fancy flights of dream and memory . However, once in a while, a familiar filmmaker, widely loved and renowned, slips out of his zone and churns out a wild, inscrutable montage that defies his own genre of films. And then, you discover there is yet another kind of confusing cinema.

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is one of the most widely written-about films, and yet it is also one of the least agreed upon. The film’s damning complexity arises from every possible department: the performances (framed in eerie close-ups, overlapping faces and body parts- at one point, Elisabet’s arm appears to be Alma’s), the screenplay, (with its equally abstract text. Sample: “[Her] face starts to move, assumes strange contours. The words become meaningless, running and jumping, finally vanishing altogether..), the editing (which most famously juxtaposes two halves of two different faces to produce a single visage), the lighting (opposite halves of Eli and Alma’s faces are lit in certain frames, as if suggesting they are made to be fit), and the performances (the look on Alma’s face when she discovers Eli’s letter is priceless. It goes beyond a shade of the usual disbelief – she gives a surprising sigh and goes numb, almost as if she had foreseen this).The scholarly explanations are equally confounding, varying from Peter Cowie’s paradoxical statement to Susan Sontag’s ‘doubling’ view (which is also why it’s fascinating to write about such films, right?). And in the vein of such critical engagement, bear with me as I attempt to put a meaning to this one and a half hour long parable of psyche.

The title of the film, Persona (Greek for Mask) brings to my mind one of the central tenets of Jungian psychology – Persona. According to Jung, Persona is the part of our personality that we present before the world, the polished, rule abiding, civilised face of ours .The persona and ego are in constant tussle – the struggle between who we are and who the society wants us to be. In the course of our growing up, this tussle ends with a compromise in most cases. However, as Murray Stein notes, the exceptions to this are creative artists like Beethoven and Picasso and Wagner- people whose persona is the same as their ego- they were forgiven for being themselves as they gave us so much in return. And this complex interplay of Ego and Persona leads us straight into the narrative of Bergman’s film. Eli falls into a stupor, a state of sudden lapse of speech and other faculties – in the middle of a performance. She stops speaking, her countenance constant with the same opaque expression. She literally becomes a..mask.

This concurs with Jungian philosophy, which contends that sometimes, people get caught up in their pretence, and their self becomes the persona. Like Eli, they forget their natural passions, thoughts, ideas. Everything they had been keeping suppressed simply vanishes. Like Eli, they get trapped in their public image.

Enter Alma (literally Soul; Persona, Anima, Ego are parts of Jung’s Map of the Soul). To Eli, Alma seems to be everything she is not- young, independent, happy, free-spirited. The film, thereafter, starts treating Alma as Eli’s true self – the part of her personality she has been too terrified to bring out. She finds her to be an excellent test case – she wants to send her out into her own world and see if she would survive. This explains the early letter by Eli which says that finds ‘studying’ Alma so fascinating. She is not looking at a chatterbox eagerly recounting her life. She is looking at herself.

Alma, therefore, starts appearing like the real Eli (more than Eli herself). She describes her sexcapade to Eli – Eli who is apparently loved and cared for by her husband (because he arrives at the remote cottage to inquire after her, and presumably pays for her treatment since she has stopped acting), Eli who would thus appear guilty (in her eyes) of wanting to enjoy more than one man’s love. This view is further strengthened by the fact that Alma has aborted her baby successfully – something Eli could not succeed at (the fact that Alma just knows about Eli’s pregnancy also promotes the view that she is, in fact, Eli). Also of note is the scene where Alma makes love to Eli’s husband – Eli leans down with voyeuristic curiosity, certainly wanting to know if her true self would ever accept her husband.

In one astonishing scene, Alma wakes up from her sleep and walks to the washroom. A few moments later, Eli comes into her room and mirrors the same movement. And then they stand before one another, and bend their necks, in opposite directions as if suggesting their roots in the same psyche -one cavalier, one regular. This image recalls an earlier scene where a boy (presumably Eli’s son), reaches out to an image of hers, which changes to that of Alma, and then keeps alternating between the both of them. Besides, the blood-drinking scene also brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, one entity donating its lifeblood so that the other may thrive. Eli, at one point, is shown hearing news of Vietnam War (perhaps suggesting the war raging in her consciousness), and at another point, she looks at the Warsaw Ghetto boy photo (perhaps underlining that, like the boy, Alma has been ‘pulled from the bunkers’). The war drags on till the end, where she ‘possesses’ Alma, thereby relinquishing her own persona.

All of this, however, is my own conjecture. As regards Bergman himself, he did acknowledge the validity of Jungian theories in readings of his work. Even so, with all this critical paraphernalia, it would serve us well to remember that the title (which I used as a take-off point) ‘Persona’ simply came about because of the ease of connect with the audience. A fitting analogy for the film itself, perhaps, which seems intensely complicated and heavily wrought, but might have been, in Bergman’s heart of hearts, a fleeting glimpse of cinema’s true face, underneath that unwieldy mask of glamour and glitter.