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TitleBarr - Unraveling of Character in Bergman's Persona - Lit Film Quarterly
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In the late fifties. lngmar Bergman assaulted and occasionally astonished our newly-
christened an houses-with The Se venth Seal , Wild Strawberries. The Magician, and
The virgin Spring , Ever since, he has attra cted the kind of stro ng. part isan responses
that few major directors provoke . He see med an artist with a singular style and set
of concern s, Some found these films philosophi cally invigorating , "probing." and
artisticaJly honest; to others they were theological fol-de- rol. pretentious , heavy-hand-
edly literary and tbeatn cat-ceven specio us, But to all he was a recogniza ble phenome-
non . one who could . for example , be tellin gly parodi ed in The Dove,

Gradually, other-equally distinct-"Bergmans" arrived . The beachhead es tab-
lished . a retrospecti ve searc h discove red the "is land" pictures . tales of slimmer lovers
mevitably forced to return, come autumn. to the grisly. inhibiting. dark city . Then
ca me the religious or chamber films. the tri logy that wonde red whether God was really
a spide r who descended from a helicopte r and refused to talk (verbosely); at least this
is how the unco nverted might well have rendered Through A Glass Darkly , Wimer
Light. and The Silence ,

After The Silence (1963). Bergman became the " Bergman" of psychoanalytic intro-
spection. His form . his style. his thrust all conspired to present the image (If a latter-day
Dostoev sky . a relentless pursuer of psych ic realitie s. For very good reaso n. Bergman
gai ned the reputation of being part icularly absorbed with the psychological recesses
and underpinnings of his characters . Ob viously, none of these "phases" was hermet-
ically isolated from its siblings; characters. motifs. settings, images, and even names
had a way of spi lling across per iods . But in such distinct and unequal films as flour
of the Wolf, Face to Face . Cries and Whispl'rs . Scenes From A Marriage. and even
in the recent (and declaredly " final") Fanny and Alexander, the common preva iling
concern is the perso nal psychol ogies and psycho logical interactions of the characters.
Sometimes the results are undistinguished and eas ily enough dismissed as a mixture
of histrionics and pop-Freud (Face to Face is . I think . bUI a poor player that struts
and frets in the shadow of its betters). Somet imes the tapestry is particularly well and
richly wrought: Scenes and Fanny . In the case of Persona, my especial inte rest here .
the result is a supreme contribution to the art of psychological observat ion, dissection.
and analysis (or implication ).

Persona , more completely than Cries ami Whispers and Scenes From A MllrriaKe-
and certainly more successfully than Face to Face . undertakes to explore and hope fully
to Fathom the nature of a person and even of human identity. Whereas Cries W ill
Whispers and Scenes, with exquisite care and subtlety. anatomize thei r protagon ists
and are satisfied to stop there. Persona ex tends its inquiry . creating sufficie nt momen-
tum to quest ion the inquiry itself. By the end of this felicitous hybrid of cinematic


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I 241Persona

magic and psychological leger-de-main, we are urged to give up as implausible our
struggles to decode the personalities or psychologies of either Elizabeth or Alma.
Bergman establishes an elaborate system of doubles that discredits any facile distinction
between the two women, one "her" and the other her:' We may at first seem to be
closing in on (understanding) one of them, but in fact we end up with a drama whose
focus is more general and theoretical . Persona docs not so much ferret out an individual
being as use two characters to call into question theexistence of discernible individual
human identities .

Persona can be entered as a work of an in a number of apparently diverse ways .
Literally from the first shots to the final ones it is concerned with itself as a film, or ,
as more than a few have commented, it is a film about filmmaking. This involves or
leads to another major subject: the role of art and artists in our society. Elizabeth
Vogler's profession , Alma 's reflections on it, and at least one important denotation
of the title occupy the center spots in such a discussion of the film .

Persona, likewise, could persuasively be viewed as a film where illness is a principal
issue-mental illness . The first realistic sections of the story take place in a hospital .
When Elizabeth and Alma move to the doctor's island home, Bergman cunningly and
wittily simulates the diode of psychoanalyst and analysand. Tbe touchy boundary
distinguishing dream or illusion from waking reality pervades the film. TIle images
rhernselves-cof personae, of doublings and reflections, of light and dark , of glass,
clothing. of city versus country and private versus social worlds, of seasons, and of
blood and pain are so developed that they also could provide a " full" study of Persona.

But pursuing any of these inviting avenues is likely to be frustrating andunsatisfying.
Concentrating, for example, on the clever way that Bergman replicates the classical
psychoanalytic situation unhappily ignores more than it illuminates. A modernist
disquisition of the setf-reflexivity of the film (as David Vierling orrerS I) slights the
rich drama of character. And so on. . . . The dangers of one -sided interpretations
are of course familiar; they distort and diminish that which they purport to illuminate.
What makes the issue and the warning pertinent here is that the separate facets of
Persona are particu larly seductive and the totality seems so hazardous to venture .

Let me offer as the most useful and encompassing view of PtrSOM tha t it is a film
about the enigma or "perplex" of human identity. Ostensibly setting out to unravel
an abnormal , "acting-out" individual , Persona soon enough questions our endeavors
to comprehend discrete identities. Many critics. John Simon most notably among the
film 's admirers, have asserted that it is a very difficult film ("indeed. it is probably
the most difficult film ever made"2). I suggest that surely this is a gross exaggeration,
that it is not really very difficult-neither in the sense that Finnegan's Wake is difficult
because of its intricate, dense texture nor that Don Quixote is troublesome because
of its equivocal tone . What males Persona seem difficult is the tenacious pursuing
of an inadequate perspective or the refusal to accept the film 's inextricable fusion of
the real and the fantastic or subjective. Finding. first, that its protagonist (either one )
is essentially unknowable in any ordinary or classical sense , and , subseq uently, that
the pursuit of an individual's personality (o r persona) makes suspect the very idea of
human identity as a distinct. fathomable quality , only compounds the sense ofdifficulty .
We habitually assume that Oedipus and even Hamlet are comprehensible, that they
(or that Othello and (ago) are distinguishable, and that the quest for such comprehension
is a meaningful and vital undertaking. That these verities might be questioned is not
difficult to grasp so much as it is irksome to accept . (Likewise. we customari ly assume
a real and determinable distinction between what is factual o r realistic and what is
subjec tively conceived or fantasy . Bergman's denying or ignoring this is not intellec-
tuall y difficult, just awkwardly disorienting.)

Persona can be usefully imagined as an artistic map or globe of separate blocks.
Each seems an in-tact entity or aspect (so much so that critical expositions can justifiably
unravel it); and the bridges between " islands" are obscure enough to discourage any

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Pers(I11ll '12Q

right for a story that is going to examine (he derailed psyche with unprecedented
penetration to employ as one of its major structures an analytic hour .

Agai n fine. except that it is the admitted patient who functions a, the doctor .
and--evcn gliding over this readjustment-c-Alma' s "treatment" is far more truncated
and unresolved even than that of Freud 's Dora . She is more fragmented md unknown
(by us and by hersel f) at the end than she wax at the beginning. and nOI just because
her superficia l images of hersel f have been exploded. More important. the focus or
thrust shifts just about the time w hen the film seems to bum and melt .

Alma is no more a patient to beanalyzed and understood than Elizabeth is-s-because
Bergman's real interest is to suggest/or a while how difficult it is to know someone
and then to imply that the whole venture may be an absurdity . The rest of the major
elements in Persona all function to suggest that we may be deluding ourselves in
thinking that knowable individual human identities exist. The boundaries between
people are illusory. as are the boundaries separa ting reality from fantasy.

The suspicion that symptoms do not make an illness nor admission ttl a hospital a
patient. the parodic deflat ion of that ultimate mode of psychological exploration. the
relationship between the film we are reminded we are watching and the story it unfolds,
the enigmatic and shifting relationship between the two women . the elaborate congeries
of doublingx. mirrors. and reflectors. of splits and fragmenting. the occasio nal glimpses
of external political realities (the Warsaw ghetto and Saigon). and the concern with
an . [heater , and literature all become more cohere nt and intelligible from this perspec·
tive, Each contributes to an essentially philosophical (certai nly "beyond psychology")
discussion of the nebulousness of the human quagmire. the questionable determinacy
of personal boundaries and individual identities.

Psychoanalysis , with its vas..t theory. leisurely pace. and safely insulated theater of
operatio n. is at least a useful image of the most exhaustive of psychotherapies. But
art . too. has its traditional place as a route 10 psychological unders tanding. (Crassly
simplified: you want to understand people. read Oedipus, Alma early tells Elizabeth
how tremendously important the theater is, "especially for people with problems.")
And among an forms, film is arguably the most wide-ranging and competent reflector
of the human figure. It has the persuasive concreteness and detail of photography.
plus the advantage of motion . It has the capability of literally showing us someone
from every conceivable angle. even of altering the time-forward or backward-e-at
will. Unlike the novelist. the filmmaker can smoothly incorpora te a variety of point"
of view into his film. alternately switching from one to another. (Here is how our
heroine saw herself a decade ago; here is how she looks to Elizabeth----or to us-c-now;
here is how she will look to omniscience.) What a seemingly remarkable vehicle for
displaying a character!

Yet. Bergman still finds it lacking. The introduction effectively announces that a
film is being made and shown. (The center portion will define the psychological
content of that film.) But the going is awkward and jerky. barely cohering. The
controlling artist is both aided and stymied by the experience he brings to this endeavor.
The pre-credit sequence includes shots from ear lier Bergman films ar d alludes to
familiar themes and even obsessions (the pains and dislocations of existence): previ-
ously met char-deters (the boy) slip into the new work-as will o ld names re-echo. This
is pan of the accumulated baggage the artist must control and give unlet to. besides .
of course, mastering the techniques of his medium (a the ~hOI of Bergman and Nykvist
at the camera playfully reminds us). The prospects are dizzyingly difficult . By mid-film
it is as if neither the mind of Alma nor the frames of Bergman's making can contain
what I!' being acted out . They split. melt. fragment-with Alma on screen end Bergman
behind the screen simultaneously straining to regruup and return things to a focused
view. When . at the end. the reel runs off of the sprocket and the carbo n arcs darken.
the medium itself seems to be confessing its incapacity. The subject, despite all the
urtist can bring to hear (his experiences. his expertise . his conce rns). is too difficult

Page 8


and co mplex to besuccessfully put in the ca n. The camera-no mo re than the ana lyst -
ca n present us with a clear and tidy view of Alma: (I ass ume. by th is lime. Alma is
(he more likel y patient or subject).

But this. in p~.111 . is ((I o utstridc Illy qu arry . It is largely throu gh his imagery that
Bergman first tries to dra w his figures out and then co ncedes the fut ility of the venture.

Th e title co ntains, of co urse. the image tha t introduces the li lm . Pressured by Svensk
Filmindustris disapproval, Bergm an reco nsidered his o riginal title. Film, and se ttled
upon Persona, ·,It has become customary to include. in each new analysis of Persona,
a d iscussion of the tit le. The cus tom should he hon"red .··I~ "Persona' originally meant
(or means) the role. part , or mas k o ne assumes-usually in a dramatic context: Elizabeth
was impersonating Electra whe n she called a hah to her "normalcy." It also denotes
the charac ter behind the mask , which immediate ly flO~s the issue of whether the role
a charac ter plays is the sa me as o r ant ithe tica l to the player. Arc we, as an Existentialist
line of thought might ask, the roles we perform? Do we become them? To thiv Latin
construing or the term . obvio us ly cognate with o ur "person," Carl Jung add ed a seco nd
meaning . " Persona" was. fur him, an outer mask . worn whe n amo ng others and
reflect ing the role soc iety imposed on us. II is kin to the personali ty we construct. (he
face we prepare " to meet the faces that we meet." Like any mack. it serves 10 impress
and to conceal .

Elizabeth . as an actress, i:-. of co urse a co llection of professional personae. She
readil y assumes and sheds iden tities. Her profc ..sio n is a metaphor for the ro les each
of Us plays. deceptive ly and defe nsively camouflaging his or her "rear' self'. Her
..ilencc. then , amounts to J refusal to continue the deception: (Alma asks. desperately,
if it is so impo rtant not [0 lie ). Th is strategy to act wi th integrity. tho ugh , is judged
ineffe ctual. Th e doc tor sees her maneuver as just another pan , o ne that she sho uld
play out-like the other~unt i l she loses interest in it. I f. accordina to Jun g. "A
co mplete udandonmenr of our persona wo uld . . . lead to a state (If mute unconsciou s-
ness : ' Ic ,l\ '1I1 g a human bei ng 10 "s tand face to face with his nak ed se lf (a nd with the
absolutd : ' 1.l for Bergman such ,I stripping away amo unts to an imposs ible delu sion :
there an: only person ae .

Th e do ubles and reflectors in Persona arc another way or saying thai we arc. at
base , unint egrared frag ments . l have . with ..uspcct glibness . scu led on Alma as the
effective focus of the film . She is the image of the analysand be ing treated: we learn
a num ber of details about her past: she evidently cracks up, and-as Sontag righ tfully
argues-many of the surreal goings-on arc bes t seen as occurring in Alma's mind
(E lizabeth's nocturnal visit 10 her. the episode with Mr. Vogler) . B UI this was proffered
tent ati vely and with reservations .

It is more helpful to view Alma and Elizabeth as doubles. :IS co mplementary aspects
o f consciousness: the outwa rd mask or facade (persona) and the inner so ul (A lma),
the si lent. see mingly uncom mun icat ive figure and the talk ative guileless one. the
healthy therapi st and the infirm patient (whichever hap pen s to he which). o f-in
Sonta g' s tenus-c-hiding (muteness) and showing forth , and or co nscio us exis tence
(realistic. tangible ) and subconscious (fa ntasied I exis tence . Such a view leads In ;10
appreciation of Bergman' s imagery. It also reinforces the notion tha t a person, one
and indivisible . is an illusion.

Bergm an has at limes traced the origins of Persona to his de tecting a similarity
between Liv Ullman (in a Norwegian film) and Bibi Anderson . Vernon Young finds
the pattern much more profoundly etched in his art .

From the moment Bergman ~I foot in the theatre. the dopplrgtlnxe,.., the twin. the
fraternal emblem. Inc complemen t and the rival. the porsnnar Imash or person..),
the mutually hos ttle or infatuate ge nders had con-utu tcd hi.. world ... [fnun hi..carl)'
plays th rough Tilt' Srventh Seal and The Ntll..t'd Night tn nil ' Sifl"lICt'). Hihl and Liv
is a LOlll i l1~t" I1l'Y in u Ii rc - Illn~ subject ion to the und islcxlgcahlc illl il~l' . . . or duality.
dua litv . dualit v! 1.J

Page 13

" ('(.\( 1111/1 IJ)

Bergman ' s literary references infer the same- conclusion . At the end of The Silence,
Joh an carri es onto the train with him A Hera of Our Time, The begi nning and end of
Persona find the same yo ung acto r, Jorgen Lindstrom. again read ing Lerm ontov'v
novel. Thi s 1840 Russian fiction. so co nsc iously influ enced hy the F-rench and by
Byron (thro ugh French transl ations) provid es an ironic comment on Hergruun'v drama .
Implic it in Lerm on tov's story. its sources (the world -weary figure" of Byr on }. hi"
title . and even in his narra tive stru cture: (with its mult iple narrator s .md disrupted
chronology) is the question of whether and how heroic action is possible . To the ex tent
that Pechorin, thehero , is cast larger Ihan Iife-and certainly larger than the inadeq uate
world he was doomed to traverse-s-the issue seems to bejoined sincerely and srraightfor-
wardly. Romance and broad strokes. a maunderin g self-concern. and a de vil-may-care
posture are apparently end orsed . To the extent, however, that Pechorin in fac t doe s
nothing estimable and just fade s away at the end . presumably to Persi a tar, inconclusive
e nd , at tha t) . the hero and his ostensible searc h are ironically prese nted .

Elizabeth is also strongly connec ted with a he roic role . She renou nced speech and
action while bein g filmed playing the part of Electra. Twice we sec shor-, o f her in
costume. The choice of this rebell ious Greek seems part icularly fitting The horrors
of her life made Elec tra "awarel Of murders and adulteries ," She is . a~ aconsequence.
distingu ished by her unwillingness to get alon g. How can she (Elec tra berates her
co mpliant sister Chryso themix) not act. that is, reac t. in such a world. Ethica l principle
must prevail ove r conv enience. self-in teres t, and secu rity . and over being con vention-
ally accepting and acce ptable . She finds no alterna tive for one who ...ees the: cvil
growi ng, as she does , no choice bUI to stand apa rt in the hope of exucung n j ust
reve nge . As the possibi lity of her being able to act successfully diminishes. Electra
envisions withdrawing from the world . Persona, a" Robert Boyer" hus ind icated.

ha.. a great dC;111non with Hrctru, The actrc ..... in " I' r .\f " 11l ha ... dclrbcrately alienated
herself from the 01;1..... of he r fellow human ht.-ing.. . .. Like Elec tra. the ,ll'trc"s is
be ...c t by thme who wo uld have her adj u..l . .. And like Electra . ..he in... iMs on her
illnc....... on her sorrow. her differe nce . her 'wound.' a.. it wcrc .!''

A IIn o of Unr Times. Electro . ..uul Persona all question the possi bil ity of heroic
act ion. Ou r time" arc hei rs to the lazi blitz and the Warsaw ghe tto und they have
carried that heritage into Vie tnam. Elizabeth has , by her re fusal to spea k or act . denied
the Ieuvibili ty of a heroic or eve n of :111 adequate indivi dual respon se . The sacr ifice
o f the bon ze may be hero ic . hut it is of another wor ld anti dubio usly er-e ctive .

Tradi tionally. figu res such a~ Oedipus and Od ysseus di scovered that a substantia l
part of the ir identit ies (and of thei r ab ility to demonstrate those identities! was the ir
hero ism. In the world of Elizabeth and Alma . because hero ic action j" not possible ,
the "pe rson as hero " is not posviblc either. That Elizabeth ex isted. in fact thri ved . by
portraying he roines i" ironic. makin g it all the more pressing for her III determi ne the
validity and pertinence-if any--of those roles. Her reac tion to playing Electra . the
ho} ' " readi ng (If Lermontov. and the evening new" are at one .... ith the main hllt.1~ of
Persona .

Bergman has , then. packa ged for us in Prrs ona a taunt ingly rich confla rion of
images . modes . perspec tives. and even theme s . The wra pping s ug.gC~h a sparkling
mod ernist wor k. a" it teases out of us thought s of se lf-reflex ivity. The subject seem"
modern in a very dif ferent sense. in the "en...e of the fiction vince George Eliot that
moved the ccuon "in ... ide" and devoted itself to the psyc hological dnncnsions of
characte r. The images are startli ng but for the most part trad ition ally used-cexccpt .
of course, for those that break the surface of the narrative . hops cotchingfy referring
to the medium itself und even 10 the auteur , Al the center of t h i ~ cs thcic packa ge .
though. i ~ a sublimely tradit iona l con undrum: what. if anythin g, del inea te" the indi-
vidual person? Even Bergman' s skeptica l (I hes itate to ...ay pc...simistic l depi ction is
vtccped in precedent . It reca ll". for example. the co nclusion Hume argued two centuries
ea rlier in AI' f ;ntl il iry Co nct'rning fl lIm"" U" dn .\ftll/t/i"g : to a~"cn that "the "e lf'

Page 14

Alan P. Barr
Indiana University. Northwest


meant something identifiable, logical . and consistent was intellectually insupportable
folly .


I David L. vierting, " Bergman' s Persona: The Metaphysics of Meta-Cinema." Diacritics,
IV (19741. 48·51.

2 John Simon, tngmar Bergman Oir(','15 (N .Y .. 1972). p. 215 .

J Susan Sonrag , "Bergman's Persona, in Styles of Radical Will (N .Y., 1970J, p. 136.

4 Vernon Young. Cinema Bon'ulis: tngma r Hagman IIlId the SWf!diJh Ethus IN . Y,. 19721,
Lloyd Michaels . in an article Ihal uninrcrestingly uemizcs the ways in which Persona points 10
itself as a film. more simply decides: "On at least one point. however. there seem .. 10 be general
agreement: me self-reflexivity of the film . Surely , we are safe in saying that whatever else il
may be, Persona is a film about film:' in "The Imaginary Signifier in Bergman's Persona;"
Film Criticism. II (I97H). 72 .

Simon, pp. Vo-39.

Simon. pp. 230-) I.

7 John Simon. "Persona: An Invitation 10 Excellence ," in Film: J967~, Richard Schickel
and John Simon, cd-•. (N . Y., 1968). p. 19-'.

Sontag, p. US .

9 Sontag, p . 130.

10 Son tag. p. 129.



Sontag. pp. 135-36

Paisley Livingston. Ingmar Bl'rgman and the Rituals af An (Ithaca, I~X2). p. 192.

Young , Pl' . 225-26 .

13 Carl Jung , quoted l1y Maria Bcrgom-Larsson. Ingmar Bugman and S(II{:it't)· (London.
197.). p. 87 .


15 N:I1lC)' Scholar, "Anai!'! Nin's House uf incest and Ingmar Bergman 's Persona: Two
Variations on a Theme:' Li/ntJlundFilm Quarlt'rly, VII 09791, 50.

16 Fritz R. Sauuncm- Frankencgg. " Learning 'A Few Words in the Foreig n Language ' :
Ingmar Bergman's "Secre t Message' in the Imagery of Hand and Face." Scandinavian Studies,
49 (1977), JOI.

17 Bergman un Bergman : lntrrviews (London. 1970). p. 196 .

18 Simon. tngmar Bu/:man Uirects , p. 296 .

19 Robert Boyers. " Bergman 's Persona: An E.....a) 'on Tragedy." Salmagundi . II (19681,7.

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