The first discrete image is a man’s penis, its appearance underscored by the score. Then we launch into five minutes of non sequitur imagery, scenes of bloody gore interspersed with slapstick comedy. If there’s any theme that links these snippets together, its that all of the “actors” are aware, to various degrees, of the camera watching their actions.
Finally we settle on a boy, rising from sleep in a completely barren room. His white blanket over the white mattress against white walls. He rubs his eyes and then looks right at us, right through the camera. Now we see the title card and enter the narrative of Persona.
In a flashback we see the moment of Elizabet’s breakdown. On stage during a command performance, she turns her back to the crowd, but toward the camera. Her eyes dart from corner to corner of the frame, tracing the boundaries of the screen… Her first sequence establishing her as at least somewhat aware that she’s a character in a film.
As if in defiance from this discovery, Elizabet remains mute throughout the remainder of the film. So stubborn is her silence that at one point Bergman inserts an artificial overdub to speak on her behalf to spur on the plot. The machinations of the plot try to cure Elizabet by placing her in the care of the young nurse, Alma.
Alma is only a wisp of a character. Her environments are so spartan as to only reinforce her actions. For instance her bedroom consists of a bed and a plain grey wall. Her hospital too is made of up of flat walls and square rooms. Alma has but one anecdote and one name of a distant lover that comprises the whole of her past. It’s the kind of story, involving a tryst and subsequent abortion, that actors imbue their characters to give them depth but never affect the plot.
Alma divulges this willingly, reading Elizabet’s silence as acceptance and kinship. Elizabet never tips her true feelings, except in a letter to the hospital doctor where Alma’s personal story is reduced to a curt paragraph.
Real life savagery intrudes on the narrative portion of Persona. Clips from Vietnam, panicked crowds and the self immolation through fire carried out by the monks, and a snapshot of Nazis corralling defeated civilians. Once again, the subjects are fully aware of the cameras filming them. They make eye contact with the lens as they run about.
Is there a good occasion to watch Persona? Certainly not when you’re too happy, nor when you’re melancholy. It’s not a movie to watch with friends or a loved one. It’s not a morning movie, or a midnight film.
Director Bergman was intent on exploding the very concept of cinema. The obvious comparison is “Pickpocket”. There director Bresson took a similarly surgical approach to cinema, breaking the ordinary signifiers of western cinema into pieces and then rearranging them into a contradictory whole. But Pickpocket’s method fit its character study, Persona exists as a pure film. Elizabet and Alma and their world, which only occasionally resembles reality, could only exist through cinema physics. Elizabet exists as the focal point in the plot, but she never surrenders any aspect of her character. Instead she is a canvas for Alma’s projections, and Alma is hardly objective. Her depictions are invented entirely to influence Elizabet.
Whether acting as a sycophant or a harasser, Alma’s words carry the film. Through dominating the speaking, Persona gravitates to Alma as the star of the film. As she settles into this role, her appearance and demeanor changes. Alma becomes a diva, dressing like a Fellini character, more fashionable than Elizabet even. The camera and characters begin to confuse her with Elizabet in ways both subtle and blatant. Elizabet never becomes Alma, but willingly dissolves into the background, content to watch Alma wrestle with the character of fame.
This a world constructed entirely for film. Bergman’s camera is as much a character in the film, it’s lens within breathing distance of the actors, you can imagine them dodging the giant machine. Characters align themselves in such way that only makes sense as posing for cameras.