Life and its dimensions. The mind and Its questions. We exist in one place and one time, yet how many of us do exist there? Cinema and its dimensions. Its assertions. We exist as form, replicated on the screen, replicated in infinity and for an infinite number of times. When do we show face? What is the face we show only to ourselves? Does life, as it flows forward, cause us to lose our grip on the masks we wear and the face underneath, the personas we inhabit and the one that truly inhabits us? Do we pose? appeal? How can we be sure? For Bergman, the answers lie at the heart of his ultimate work, Persona. The answers are woven into the celluloid itself, they are between each frame and around each corner, they are on the tip of his characters' tongues and linger just out of view in the back of their mind, and their collective mind, just outside of their field of vision. When Bibi Andersson's Sister Alma chooses to take on care for Liv Ullmann's Elisabet Vogler, she first acknowledges that a battle of wits is about to take place. She fears, in this early sequence. that she may not have the mental strength necessary to withstand Elisabet's sharpened intellect, the life force that exists inside an artist of great genius and great feeling. From this moment onward, how are we to interpret Alma's actions? Are they the genuine actions of a young, and slightly naive, nurse whose openness and impressionability causes her to become helpless, enamored with a patient that she herself proclaims as a brilliant artist? Or are they calculated performances to coax her patient out of her hiding place, the shell that Elisabet has placed around herself, the cocoon of silence that is now her world? Could it be that the difference between the two shifts at such a rapid rate inside of ourselves, every minute to every other minute, that we lose track of it all? We can scarcely say who we are, or what we've intended with our actions. Can we truly say where they came from, or from whom?
Bergman opens Persona with the ignition of a film projector lamp, the celluloid moves, the reels turn. This happens every time you screen a film in a theater, this happens behind the scenes, part of the show you're not meant to see. The film counts down and Bergman splices in a frame of a closeup on a penis. The film jitters and jumps, we cut in an out of various elements, a lamb slaughtered, a closeup of a hand during a crucifixion, what appears to be a dead body until she opens her eyes. Our director's medium is having a breakdown, perhaps the projector itself is remembering its own past. As we go through our own psychological breakdowns, we can dive back into our past through memory, or split our own psyche into fragmented personalities. The young boy, perhaps the son who is oft mentioned throughout the film, reaches out to touch the face of his mother, but he cannot discern if it is Alma or Elisabet. Neither can we. The human mind can experience life in a myriad of sensitivities, mindsets, moods and perspectives. We can be vulnerable, open, a quality usually aligned with youth and naïveté and yet, through our own mental breaking down and building up, the young mind can return to us at moments throughout life when we least expect it. The mind is not like the body, it does not age in a linear progression, although it responds in synchronicity to the body's state of being. When we are strong, we operate from the place in the mind that is willful, forthright, calm and in command; a quality associated with age and maturity is that of a "think skin", a kind of numbness or shield against becoming affected by life's hardships too greatly. It can be seen that perhaps the mind of the actor or actress, with the constant mental strain put upon the psyche by method acting, using the painful memories of the past (or the pain of others) and feeding off of it to inform ones' work, cracks under the weight of the craft easier than most minds would. It's as if the actress builds herself to break. Alma, as nurse, builds herself to heal. The caretaker persona, whose every action is to nurse the wounded spirit back to full strength again. We administer care to ourselves in our time of need, when we are weakest and most vulnerable. Therein lies the game at play in Persona and the endless questions surrounding when our players are on and off the field, and are they on and off at the same time? Perhaps one of them is silently playing without the other noticing in a time of vulnerability. In a dose of some of Bergman's best writing of his career, Alma monologues about a deep secret, an orgy with "young boys" who are themselves sexually vulnerable to the more experienced women in the tale, naive and sensitive. Elisabet takes it all in, perhaps she is aloof to it, perhaps comforted, or perhaps she is still in work-mode, feeding off of her young nurse's experiences, her deep emotions and pain to inform her own work. Is Elisabet Vogler the actress or Elisabet Vogler the human being present in these rooms? Is there a difference? Alma begins her introduction to Elisabet by praising her and her craft, professing her admiration for artists. Is this genuine? Does Alma feel these things or is this a trick of the trade for nurses? An attempt to set up a good relation and bedside manner with her patient? Perhaps.
By the film's third act, Bergman opens up the field of vision on what was previously an enclosed chamber piece. As their time in the house goes on, the women begin to haunt one another. As spirits in celluloid they drift about the screen, never revealing their true intent to one another or to the audience. Does Elisabet enter Alma's room at night and caress her? Or was this just a figment? When questioned she shakes her head, just as Alma would never reveal her intentional leaving of the broken glass for Elisabet to cut her foot. We don't reveal such deep, dark things, and even when we do, we regret it. Alma feels used when she realizes her revelation of the orgy is received callously. The third act reveals the apparatus yet again as the film reel begins its breakdown, eventually screening another monologue by Alma relating to us, not her own past and interior thoughts, but Elisabet's. The angles shot for the sequence are not revealed in shot-reverse-shot cutting, but in separate presentations, once seeing Elisabet's reaction shots and again seeing Alma's delivery. It serves to further break down the film to its essential pieces, revealing the scene's construction to us in one sense, but overall serves a larger thematic purpose as well. The monologue is cold and harsh and deals with hatred of one's own offspring, the statements are sharp and hurtful, difficult to hear, at least the first time. When we, the audience, are vulnerable to their piercing hostility the first time we hear it, it can be difficult, even painful, to listen to. When we hear it a second time, however, we are immune. We've heard it before, we're prepared for it, it has little effect. Bergman has sent us through our own transformation of vulnerability and callousness. The film concludes in the reverse of the way it began, the light of a projector dying out. Have we witnessed a dream that the projector is having? Bergman reveals to us the dimensions of human identity, the masks we inhabit, even toward ourselves. As Alma looks into the mirror, showing face to herself, she has a deja vu of Elisabet's hand caressing her hair. At the same time Elisabet is snapped out of a trance on the set of her film. Bergman has crafted the most pure expression of the medium that we have. These two cinematic entities, haunting one another's thoughts, for as long as the projector stays illumed, and then suddenly, they are no more.