Persona (1966 film)
The original Swedish poster
|Directed by||Ingmar Bergman|
|Produced by||Ingmar Bergman|
|Written by||Ingmar Bergman|
|Music by||Lars Johan Werle|
|Edited by||Ulla Ryghe|
|Distributed by||AB Svensk Filmindustri (Sweden), Lopert Pictures (US), MGM (2004, DVD)|
|Box office||$250,000 (US)|
Persona is a 1966 Swedish psychological drama film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. Persona’s story revolves around a young nurse named Alma (Andersson) and her patient, a well-known stage actress named Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann), who has suddenly ceased to speak. The two move to a cottage, where Alma cares for and talks to Elisabet about intimate secrets, and becomes troubled distinguishing herself from her.
Bergman wrote the film with Ullmann and Andersson in mind for the lead parts, and some idea of exploring their identities, and shot the film in Stockholm and Fårö. Often categorized as a psychological horror, Persona deals with themes of duality, insanity, and personal identity.
In its release, the film was subject to cuts because of its controversial subject matter but received positive reviews. It won the award for Best Film at the 4th Guldbagge Awards and was Sweden's entry for consideration for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Many critics consider it one of the greatest films ever made, and it has been the subject of a vast amount of analysis, interpretation and debate. The film has influenced many later directors, such as Robert Altman and David Lynch.
After a series of images including a crucifixion, tarantula and the killing of a lamb, a boy wakes up in a hospital or morgue and pulls up to a large screen, which shows a blurred image of one or two women. One of these women is possibly Alma, a young nurse who is assigned by a doctor to see a patient, Elisabet Vogler. Elisabet is a stage actress who has suddenly fallen silent and still, although the doctors have determined it is not a result of physical illness or hysteria, but willpower. While at the hospital, Alma reads Elisabet a letter from her husband, which comes with a photo of their son that Elisabet tears. She also becomes distressed seeing TV footage of monk Thích Quảng Đức's self-immolation in the Vietnam War. The doctor decides Elisabet will recover better in a cottage by the sea, and sends Alma and Elisabet there.
While at the cottage, Alma talks to Elisabet, remarking no one has ever really listened to her before. She speaks about her first affair and her fiancé, Karl-Henrik. One night, she relates how, while in a relationship with Karl-Henrik, she was sunbathing in the nude with a woman she had just met named Katarina, when two young boys came along. Katarina initiated an orgy in which Alma became pregnant, and she had an abortion, feeling guilty about the matter.
Alma drives to town to deliver their letters, but sees Elisabet's is unsealed. She reads it, and finds Elisabet has written she is "studying" Alma and has told of Alma's orgy and abortion. Furious, Alma accuses Elisabet of using her, though she does not know for what purpose. In a resulting brawl, Alma attempts to scald Elisabet with boiling water, but stops when Elisabet cries for her to not to, the first time Alma knows she has spoken since they met. Alma tells her she knows she is a terrible person, and when Elisabet runs off, Alma chases after her and begs for her forgiveness. Elisabet also sees the Stroop Report photograph of Jews arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto.
One night, Alma hears a man outside calling for Elisabet, and finds it is the husband, Mr. Vogler. Mr. Vogler addresses Alma as Elisabet, despite her telling him he is mistaken, and the two have sex. Alma meets with Elisabet again, feeling a need to talk about why Elisabet tore the photo of her son. Alma reveals much of Elisabet's story, that she wanted the only thing she did not have, to be a mother, and became pregnant. Elisabet came to regret the decision, and attempted self-induced abortion, but gave birth to a boy she hates. However, the boy wants her love. Alma ends the story in distress, asserting her identity as Alma and denying being Elisabet. Later, Alma coaxes Elisabet to say the word "nothing." Alma finally leaves the cottage, while being recorded by a film crew.
- Bibi Andersson as Alma, the Nurse
- Liv Ullmann as Elisabet Vogler, the Actress
- Margaretha Krook as the Doctor
- Gunnar Björnstrand as Mr. Vogler
- Jörgen Lindström as the Boy, Elisabet's son
According to Bergman, the origins of Persona trace back to an accidental meeting on a Stockholm street corner where Bibi Andersson introduced him to Liv Ullmann. His mental association of the two women helped form the idea behind the film. He stated that its seminal image – of two women "wearing big hats and laying their hands alongside each other" – derived from the "uncanny resemblance" he noticed in a slide he was shown of Andersson and Ullmann sunbathing.
Bergman appealed to filmmaker Kenne Fant for funding for a project featuring Ullmann and Andersson. Fant was supportive and asked about the concept of the film, with Bergman sharing his vision of women comparing hands. Fant assumed the film would be inexpensive and agreed to offer funding.
Bergman wrote Persona during nine weeks while recovering from pneumonia. He writes in his book Images: "Today I feel that in Persona — and later in Cries and Whispers — I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover." He also said: "At some time or other, I said that Persona saved my life—that is no exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up. One significant point: for the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success..."
Persona had several working titles: Sonat för två kvinnor (Sonata for Two Women), Ett stycke kinematografi (A Piece of Cinematography), Opus 27, and Kinematografi. However, Fant suggested something more accessible and the title of the film was changed.
The film was shot on location on the island of Fårö and Råsunda Studios in Stockholm. Principal photography began on 19 July and was completed by 15 September 1965. The weather in Fårö was ideal during shooting, and the crew redid much of the footage taken in Stockholm, recreating the summerhouse that was portrayed on the Stockholm set and using a museum to host the hospital set.
Although the scene where Alma describes her orgy was in the screenplay, Bibi Andersson said in 1977 that Bergman had been counseled to remove it from the film, and it would not be filmed. Andersson insisted it be shot, volunteering to alter parts of the dialogue that she felt were too obviously written by a male. The scene took two hours to shoot, using close-ups of Ullmann and Andersson done in single takes. Andersson later stated that, while she thought some of her past performances in films such as Wild Strawberries were "corny", she was proud of her work in Persona.
For the scene in where Andersson and Ullmann meet in the bedroom at night, and their faces overlap, a great amount of smoke was used in the studio to make for a blurrier shot. Bergman used a mirror to compose his shots.
While on Fårö, Bergman conceived of a scene where Ullmann and Andersson's faces are merged. This was done by combining the lighted sides of shots of each actress' faces, and using what Bergman considered to be the unflattering side of each actress. The actresses were unaware of the effect until a screening in the Moviola. Neither actress recognized herself in the resulting scene, assuming the shot was of the other.
According to Ullmann, the scene where Alma describes Elisabet's motherhood had been filmed with two cameras, one pointed at each actress, and it was intended for shots of each to be mixed in the editing process. However, Bergman thought both shots communicated something important, and used both in their entirety.
Themes and interpretations
Persona has lent itself to a variety of interpretations, with Professor Thomas Elsaesser remarking it "has been for film critics and scholars what climbing Everest is for mountaineers: the ultimate professional challenge. Besides Citizen Kane, it is probably the most written-about film in the canon". Much of the focus has been on the resemblance of the characters, demonstrated in shots of overlapping faces, and the possibility that the two characters are one. If they are one person, there is a question if Alma is fantasizing about the actress she admires, or if Elisabet is examining her psyche, or if the boy is trying to understand who his mother is. In a question of duality, Alma represents soul while Elisabet represents a stern goddess. Susan Sontag suggests that Persona is constructed as a series of variations on a theme of "doubling". The subject of the film, Sontag proposes, is "violence of the spirit".
Lloyd Michaels sums up what he calls "the most widely held view" of Persona’s content. According to this view, Persona is "a kind of modernist horror movie". Elisabet’s condition, described by a doctor as "the hopeless dream to be", is "the shared condition of both life and film art". Bergman and Elisabet share the same dilemma: they cannot respond authentically to "large catastrophes," such as the Holocaust or the Vietnam War.
Frank Gado sees Persona as relying on a "double-threaded process of discovery involving motherhood". Elisabet's withdrawal into silence could be a way of rejecting the role of mother, the only role the actress could not slough off. The nurse realizes that she has done precisely what Elisabet tried and failed to do: erase a child from her life by means of abortion.
Marilyn Johns Blackwell highlights how Elisabet’s resistance to language can be interpreted as a resistance to her gender roles. By showing this tension as one experienced primarily by women, Bergman can be said to "problematize the position of woman as other" and that the roles society assigns to women are "essentially foreign to their subjecthood". She argues that the attraction between Elisabet and Alma and the absence of male sexuality cohere with their identification with each other and the permeability of boundaries between the self and the other, creating a doubling which reveals the "multiple, shifting, self-contradictory identity", a notion of identity that undermines male ideology. This theme of mergence and doubling surfaces early in the film in Alma’s statement that she went to see one of Elisabet’s films and was struck by the thought that they were so much alike. Blackwell also states that the original title suggests a possible key to the interpretation of the film's themes; A Piece of Cinematography could be an allusion to a concern with the nature of representation (the status of the image, of the word, of action, of the film medium itself).
The film also includes symbolism about vampires and cinema itself. The title Persona references the Greek word for mask and Carl Jung's theory of an external identity, separate from the soul ("alma"). The film has sometimes been categorized as a tragedy.
Persona was released on 31 August 1966, while the promotional premiere took place on 18 October 1966 at the Spegeln cinema in Stockholm. The film opened in the U.S. on 6 March 1967. In Brazil, the film was released under the title Quando as mulheres pecam (Where Women Sin) to emphasize its sexuality. In the United Kingdom, the film was released in 1967, and used subtitles at a time when many foreign language films were still dubbed.
Two scenes censored from U.S. and U.K. versions of the film were a brief shot at the beginning depicting an erect penis, and some of the translation of Alma’s night-time monologue about her ménage à quatre, oral sex and abortion. MGM archivist John Kirk restored the censored material, based on four translations, and translated between 30 and 40% more of Alma's dialogue in the censored scene. Kirk's version was released in the Film Forum in New York City and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2001. Much of the censored material was included in Region 1 in the MGM DVD, released in 2004, and on The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray 2K restoration in 2014.
Persona was released to favorable reviews in both the Swedish and American presses. In one of his first reviews, Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, calling it "a difficult, frustrating film", and said it and Elisabet "stubbornly refuse to be conventional and to respond as we expect". Bosley Crowther, writing for The New York Times, called it a "lovely, moody film which, for all its intense emotionalism, makes some tough intellectual demands". Crowther wrote that "interpretation is tough", and "Miss Ullmann and Miss Andersson just about carry the film—and exquisitely, too". Variety staff remarked that "There is no denying the absorbing theme and the perfection in direction, acting, editing and lensing", and called Andersson's performance a "tour-de-force", concluding "Bergman has come up with probably one of his most masterful films technically and in conception, but also one of his most difficult ones". Time magazine's review stated the film "fuses two of Bergman's familiar obsessions: personal loneliness and the particular anguish of contemporary woman". In the 1972 British Film Institute Sight & Sound poll, Persona was ranked the fifth greatest film of all time, the highest placement for any Swedish film.
Persona is now considered one of the major artistic works of the 20th century by essayists and critics, who have referred to it as Bergman's masterpiece. Ebert added it to his Great Movies list in 2001, calling it "a film we return to over the years, for the beauty of its images and because we hope to understand its mysteries". Persona was included in The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael wrote the end result was a "pity", but the scene where Alma describes her orgy is "one of the rare truly erotic sequences in movie history". In 2010 it was also ranked #71 in Empire magazines "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema". In his 2013 Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin gave the film three and a half stars, calling it "Haunting, poetic, for discerning viewers". In the 2012 Sight & Sound polls, Persona was ranked the 17th greatest film ever made in the critics' poll, tied with Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, and 13th in the directors' poll. It currently holds a 88% "Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 43 reviews.
The film won the award for Best Film at the 4th Guldbagge Awards. The film was selected as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 39th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.
|Award||Date of ceremony||Category||Recipient(s)||Result||Ref(s)|
|BAFTA Awards||1968||Best Foreign Actress||Bibi Andersson||Nominated|||
|Guldbagge Awards||9 October 1967||Best Film||Persona||Won|||
|Best Actress||Bibi Andersson||Won|
|National Board of Review||31 December 1967||Top Foreign Films||Persona||Won|||
|National Society of Film Critics||January 1968||Best Film||Persona||Won|||
|Best Director||Ingmar Bergman||Won|
|Best Screenplay||Ingmar Bergman||2nd Place|
|Best Actress||Bibi Andersson||Won|
|Best Cinematography||Sven Nykvist||3rd Place|
Some of Bergman's later films, such as Shame (1968) and The Passion of Anna (1969) follow similar themes such as "artist as fugitive", guilt and self-hatred. Robert Altman’s impressionist 1977 film 3 Women is influenced by Persona as Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek begin to shift roles and identities. Birgitta Steene reports that a spoof of Persona appeared on the Canadian television program SCTV in the late 1970s. Woody Allen's films Love and Death (1975) and Stardust Memories (1980) contain references.
David Lynch's 2001 film Mulholland Drive deals with similar themes of identity and features two female characters whose identities appear to merge. As well as thematically, the film's "mysterious dream-like quality" is further evidence of Bergman's, particularly Persona's, influence on Mulholland Drive. David Fincher's Fight Club references the subliminal erect penis shown in Persona. Parrallels in "two (usually isolated) women in an intense relationship slowly blending and morphing into one another" can also be seen in the competing ballerinas in Black Swan (2010) by Darren Aronofsky and the sisters in Melancholia (2011) by Lars von Trier.
- List of submissions to the 39th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film
- List of Swedish submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
- Cahiers du Cinema No. 189 (April, 1967, p. 51)
- Balio 1987, p. 231.
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- "New Ingmar Bergman Film Set for Fall of '66 Premiere". New York Times. 17 July 1965. p. 14.
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- Fleisher, Frederic (11 November 1966). "A bit of cinematography". Christian Science Monitor: 8.
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