Winner of the Gerritt and Edith Schipper Undergraduate Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Paper at the 49th Annual Meeting of the Florida Philosophical Association
Dave Monroe, University of West Florida
Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is a film that defies easy analysis and description. One becomes quickly disoriented in a labyrinth of flash backs, dream sequences, and personality confusion that characterize the action of the film. Such challenges make it difficult for viewers to construct a coherent, clear picture of what is at issue within this classic motion picture. Given this obscurity there has been a dizzying variety of interpretations with respect to the ultimate meaning of the film’s content. It has been labeled variously as a psychological movie, a classic feminist picture, a reflexive view of filmmaking, or even as a commentary on the artistic process of creation. There are elements in the film that substantially support each of these interpretations.
However, some maintain that those seeking to discern a single, unified plot for Persona have gone awry. Their argument is that Bergman left the film purposely open to interpretation and that confining it to a solitary plot is tantamount to marginalizing its artistic value. Moreover, it has been suggested that the use of dictums based on meanings extrinsic to the film itself is arbitrary. At the very least, it seems that old standards of analyzing plots or narratives, such as those of Aristotle, are inapplicable to the film. Apparently, Persona transcends our ability to ground it in traditional formal analysis.
Or has it? Perhaps if we examine this film more closely we might identify the skeleton of a strong narrative structure. We may find that older ways of interpretation are still quite functional in spite of the postmodern feel of this beautifully artistic movie. Could it be that we have a standard for judging narratives, such as films, which resists changes of culture and the march of time?
It is the intent of this paper to defend such a view. Persona, like all film, is a narrative, although the clarity of the plot is deeply buried in the craftiness of the film’s construction. In order to defend this assertion, we must first examine some elements that might give rise to confusion, such as the use of symbolic imagery and oddly juxtaposed temporal shifts in the movie’s action.
This paper will demonstrate that this Twentieth Century work of narrative art is comparable to older forms, particularly that of classical mythology and drama. Finally, we’ll see that this film submits itself to analysis in terms of archetypal form; the Monomyth of Joseph Campbell shall light the way for us in this regard.
Into the Labyrinth
Bergman’s film is rife with symbolism. In fact, it is noteworthy that nearly every film image is purposely constructed to convey a symbolic meaning. This reflects the Swedish filmmaker’s artistic craftiness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening and closing montages.
As Persona begins, we are bombarded with a sequence of apparently disjointed and odd images; such as a cartoon vampire, a wrist being nailed to what is assumed to be a cross, a lengthy shot of a snow-covered mausoleum, and even a frame where the film appears to break down. Crucially, the audience is shown a brief scene involving a young boy. He appears to awaken from slumber and glance briefly at a book. Following that, he sees the faces of two women alternately fade into and out of focus on a screen. After a time, the faces appear to conjoin.
It turns out that these symbols directly relate to the upcoming action of the movie. As the film opens these images attune our awareness to forthcoming scenes. When a similar sequence of images is repeated at the film’s closing our understanding of what has transpired is effectively reinforced. For example, the image of the boy peering at the hazy image of the women relates to the cold relationship between Elisabeth—one of the principal characters—and her unloved son. As the film unfolds, the audience becomes aware of the symbolic meaning of this shot. Moreover, the blurring and conjoining faces of the women, whom we later know as Sister Alma and Elisabeth, reflects the tension and identity confusion that takes place between them. It is in this relationship between the women that we should look for our plot. This is suggested by the image of the boy, who is reading a book prior to seeing their images.
The use of symbols not only helps us to comprehend particular themes in the film; they also aid us in discerning the complex plot. Given the obscurity of the action within the film we require this aid. The use of symbolic images in this way suggests that there is a story going on.
However, this is not the only level of symbolism operating in Persona. A deeper, more salient use of symbol is apparent in the vampire scene; one that relies on older archetypes to render it the desired meaning. In this scene Alma confronts Elisabeth concerning their strained relationship. Alma had peered deeply into her personal abyss, due largely to her association with Elisabeth. The silent actress used Alma as a character study, and exploited her naive willingness to share her intimate self, in order to further her art. In the process, Alma lost the simple presuppositions of her constructed self and wrestled with her darker impulses. Thus, Elisabeth effectively drained the young nurse of her vitality.
Following the confrontation, when Alma wickedly rebukes Elisabeth for her cruelty, the young nurse inexplicably cuts her forearm with a fingernail. Subsequently, the actress puts her mouth to the wound, consuming the blood of the younger woman. After a moment Alma responds violently, repeatedly striking Elisabeth. This vampirism is symbolic on two levels. Primarily, it refers to the action of the film, thus operating as a plot clue. However, it also relies upon an ancient archetypal form, one which instantiates throughout literary, mythological, and religious tales. In this way it acts as a supporting symbol, one which refers to a theme extrinsic to the film itself.
Vampirism is a metaphorical representation of life, death and rebirth, which is founded on the archaic view of life as a cycle. Moreover, transference of essence from one party to another is characteristic of this pattern. Stories containing elements of this form go back at least as far as Hesiod’s Theogony. The archetype of this symbol consists of three stages: sporagmos (a ritualized tearing asunder), omophagia (devouring of the torn), and rebirth. An example of this, summoned from ancient literature, is the castration of Uranus.
The tale of Uranus is told by Hesiod in the Theogony. Uranus, while making love to his wife, suffers castration (tearing asunder) by the hand of his son, Cronos. Subsequently, the severed phallus is cast into the sea (devoured). The essence of Uranus’ member then gives birth to Aphrodite (rebirth).
How does Bergman’s vampire incident fit this pattern? This scene involves each element of the archetypal pattern. Alma cuts her arm (the tearing asunder), followed by Elisabeth devouring her essence (omophagia). After the transfer of precious blood, Alma reacts violently, as if her rejection of Elizabeth actualizes her own rebirth. Alma emerges from the vampirism of the actress and shortly returns to her life.
Persona admits of comparison to ancient forms in this way. Our recognition of a symbolic archetype invites us to delve deeper in search of similarities. There are other ways in which this film relates to classic literature and drama. For example, there is reflexive activity within Persona that calls attention to the fact that the film comments on filmmaking. As I noted earlier, the movie is framed by symbolic sequences, much the same way a movie takes place within a certain frame. Moreover, there is a shot of the director and a cameraman in the act of filming contained in the movie. These, among other images, suggest reflexivity. Paul Newell Campbell explicates this point nicely in his article, “The Reflexive Function of Bergman’s Persona”. This directly relates to a theatrical technique employed by ancient playwrights, called metadrama. Like Bergman, the classic artists of ancient Greece often included in their plays an aside; the characters would comment on the action of the narrative as drama. There is a parallel here.
But what about subject matter? If we are drawing comparisons to ancient literature, surely we must say something about the themes contained within the narrative itself. It is a function of narratives, both dramatic and literary, to comment on the nature of human life. In the film, the existentialist themes of Sartre are unmistakable. The dialogue attributed to the characters is rich with language regarding the absurdity of life, despair at nothingness, and other existentialist notions contemporary to the film. One aspect of Bergman’s work is that the principal characters realize their inauthenticity and attempt to withdraw from being-for-others.
In this regard it is similar to other narrative forms, including classical myth and drama. Both deal largely with matters of morality and the nature of human life. Of course, Greek literature presents a portrait of the human condition that is drastically different than that of a 20th century existentialist, but thematically, the idea is similar. One cue that may lead to this comparison is that Elizabeth suffers her breakdown on stage while portraying Electra!
However, despite our recognition of parallels to other narrative forms, we’ve done little to answer specific ambiguities that rise in the actual experience of Persona. Often, the scenes presented to the audience are of questionable reality. One is at times uncertain whether one is watching a dream sequence or actual interaction between characters. This confusion is particularly evident in the scenes taking place at the seaside cottage. Moreover, the temporal feeling of the movie is similarly disorderly; Susan Sontag notes that parts of the film seem realistically chronological, while others seem to have been washed of their temporal character. Bergman uses a technique of doubling, or repeating scenes, to establish this atemporal effect. It appears that traditional plot evaluations can’t hold where there is a lack of linear progression. This is to say that narrative forms rely on a conception of time that relates events in a specific succession. If they do not proceed in this fashion they lose their efficacy. However, film by nature requires a level of this progression, in so far as it involves the audiences’ awareness of transpiring events. In this way, Persona is no different.
The important thing to note is a presupposed necessity within this notion of time. We are meant to think that a plot can only operate when it moves in a clearly linear way between isolated events—scenes, in the case of film—connecting them all in a necessary order. It must be granted that this is of tentrue; we can recognize this form in many films and literary works. But this need not be the case.
For example, we can eliminate the necessity of linear progression on a scene-by-scene basis if we position the characters and their respective transformations as the legitimate events of succession. Persona is a deeply psychological movie; it makes perfect sense to track the action of the film in terms of apparent mental states and personality changes in the characters. By following the development of the characters themselves we are freed from the necessity of justifying the location of scenes in relation to one another. Rather, we need only relate the continuous transformations of the principal parties. As such, our notion of plot progression is one that reflects a process of evolution rather than mere linear sequence. Thereby, we salvage the possibility of a plot.
How do we follow the progress of the respective characters through a maelstrom of images and confusing ontological shifts? We may do so again by drawing comparison to an archetypal form, which was elucidated by the great classicist and mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell.
In his seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell painstakingly elaborates a symbolic equivalence between principal characters and thematic developments of stories that appears universal. In so doing, he reduced the developmental aspect of characters, heroes, into a form of journey. As a result, he derived a form by which we can understand character narratives.
According to Campbell, the hero’s journey is constituted by three fundamental components, which may manifest in various forms in a given tale. First, the heroes experience a call to adventure, to which they must surrender the everydayness of their lived world, and embark into the unknown. In the second stage, that of initiation and trial, they are transformed and forged into who they are to become. Finally, the heroes must return to the original lived world, bringing back to their mundane experience the transformed element.
If it can be demonstrated that the characters of Persona follow such a pattern, then our cause is significantly furthered. Let us now examine where and how, in the unfolding of Persona, we can identify Campbell’s ideas.
The call to adventure is easily identified and related to Alma and Elisabeth. For the former, it is simply the charge given to her by the psychiatrist. Alma is called upon by her superior to work with Elisabeth, a mentally tough woman who chooses to remain silent, but exhibits no other signs of mental instability. The young nurse realizes that she may not have the fortitude for the undertaking and subsequently voices her concerns. Nevertheless, she answers the call and embarks on the road of trials. Elisabeth, on the other hand, experiences her call to adventure in a way that is more veiled. Her challenge rises on stage, when she realizes the duplicity of role-playing. Upon apprehending that the world of her construction is false she seeks to withdraw from it. This is her calling to the transformative path.
The initiation/road of trials that Elisabeth treads consists of maintaining her silence and seeking to abandon the pretenses and lies of her previous life. She confronts the horrors of existence, represented by the images of the burning monk and the photograph of a child in the concentration camp. Her expressions of recoil illustrate this point. Moreover, Elisabeth is forced to consider her poisonous relationship with her husband and son. However, learning to accept and even embrace her own cruelty, Elisabeth becomes herself a trial for the young Alma.
Alma, on the other hand, is lured by the seductive silence of Elisabeth into uncovering her own inauthentic life. Alma is forced to peer deeply into the abyssal darkness that lies within her as well. In spite of her desperate clinging to the familiar and acceptable—her roles as good fiancé, nurse, etc.—Alma examines her own duplicity and inconsistencies. Her investigation of her sexuality is a case in point. Early on, she tells Elisabeth that she would never be unfaithful to her fiancé. Shortly after, she admits that she had; having already participated in an orgy with strangers. Thus, as she opens to Elisabeth, Alma examines herself, but with increasing revulsion as her false persona slips away.
At length, the road of trials reaches a climax when Alma confronts Elisabeth in the vampire scene. The true dynamic of the relationship reveals itself, and the exploration and initiation ceases. Alma and Elisabeth part company, although to different ends.
Thus begins the return stage of the journey. Following the confrontation, Elisabeth hastily departs the seaside cottage. Our last image of her is a flash of her face; she wears the make-up of her costume as Elektra. The actress has returned to her familiar world. However, her expression is one of shock or dread. Elisabeth has returned to her roles, but her face betrays her transformative experience.
Sister Alma also quickly returns to her mundane world. After Elisabeth’s departure, Alma puts the cottage in order, dons her uniform, and boards a bus that will take her back to normal life. The viewer is aware, however, that the young nurse returns with new insight. Another visual clue is helpful here; Alma stops to look in a mirror as she prepares to leave the cottage. As the young nurse gazes into the glass an image of Elisabeth appears behind her. This hints that Alma is reflecting on her own experience. Both characters, then, have made their return.
Thus, we see that the characters of Persona follow this narrative pattern. At bottom the motion picture is a character story regarding the development of two women and their confrontations; both with their deeper selves, and with each other. An interesting side note highlights this process. Bergman changes the settings wherein the action takes place according to the stages in which the characters evolve. The movie begins in the hospital, while the transformative road of trials unfolds at the beach house. The final images of the respective women, one boarding a bus and the other on stage, demonstrate the return. I believe that such movement is intentional, and corresponds purposefully to the transformation of the principal parties.
So it seems that we have grounds upon which to evaluate the merit of Persona as a story. When we draw comparisons to other narrative forms, even those of ancient culture, we find similarities. Moreover, we’ve seen that the sequential nature of a story need not be linear. Most importantly, it can be shown that Persona corresponds to narrative form along lines of character development, like the heroic journey of Joseph Campbell. I do not believe that such similarities are meaningless. Reducing Persona to fit a narrative structure shouldn’t limit one’s enjoyment of the film as a work of art. Clearly, there are other levels to the cinematic experience that can, and should, be enjoyed for their own sake. It simply means that we are able evaluate it in terms of its complex and involved plot.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books. 1949.
Campbell, Paul Newell. “The Reflexive Function of Bergman’s Persona.” Cinema Journal 1 (1979): 72- 85.
Dayton, Eric., ed. Art and Interpretation: An Anthology of Readings in Aesthetics and The Philosophy of Art. Peterborough: Broadview Press. 1998.
Harris, Stephen J. and Gloria Platzner. Classical Mythology, Images and Insights. 3rd ed. Mountain View: Mayfield. 2001.
Jones, Christopher J. Bergman’s Persona and the Artistic Dilemma of the Modern Narrative. Literature/Film Quarterly 5.1 (Winter 1977): 75-88.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Art of Literature. Trans. T. Bailey Saunders. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P. 1960.
Solomon, Robert. Existentialism. New York: Random House. 1974.
Sontag, Susan. “Persona: The Film in Depth.” Styles of Radical Will. New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1966.