Books and Movies Reviews

Faces of Deception in Ingmar Bergman's Persona

Persona is probably Ingmar Bergman's most famous film.Its notoriety goes beyond the sum of its controversial ingredients, however, which are many (the inclusion of footage of an erect penis in the pre-title sequence, graphic verbal descriptions of an orgy, etc.); rather, its enduring legacy has more to do with the fraught complications of the plot itself, which has proven to be nearly impossible for critics and audiences to unravel ever since its release in the year 1966.While I make no claims of being able to "solve" the mystery of Persona, in what follows, I intend to focus on one primary aspect of the film – the role that the human face plays throughout – in order to gain insight into what I believe to be one of Persona's central clues.
From the very beginning of the film – the famous pre-title sequence – the face plays a primary role.The pre-title sequence, of course, consists of a montage of different still images, but culminates in a young boy in bed touching the large, projected face of a woman on a screen.The boy is clearly meant to be the son of Elisabeth, and the projection of the face is Elisabeth herself.What is only hinted at here will become clear towards the end of the film – namely, Elisabeth's distant stance from her son, and the boy's desire to be closer to his mother – something that he can never do, owing to her lack of authenticity.
Indeed, the illness that Elisabeth (Liv Ullman), the actress, seems to be suffering from is a lack of authenticity.She feels that it is impossible for her to give an authentic reaction to tragic events, so in order to deal with this dilemma, which obviously affects her profoundly, she stops speaking.Her breakdown occurred when she was in the middle of playing the title role in Electra on stage.A young nurse, Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), is assigned to take care of her.As Alma is unable to effe…