Persona - The Perceptual Pines Of A Solipsistic Realist

Thoughts On: Persona

Looking after a voluntarily mute patient, Elisabet Volger, Alma, her nurse, is pulled into an existential maelstrom of conflicting identities, crushing pasts and moral dissonance.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most powerful, immersive, poignant, indelible--all the other adjectives--film experiences you can ever have. It's with Persona that I'm continuing an attempt to delve into the films that dare you to dive into them - films like Ordet or Un Chien Andalou - films that tower above the art form as daunting masterpieces that demand rewatch after rewatch after rewatch. Bergman has made many films of this calibre, pictures such as Cries and Whispers, The Seventh Seal, Fanny and Alexander and Wild Strawberries. But, Persona lacks the sombre, realist veneer of Fanny and Alexander or Cries and Whisper, and it pushes the surrealism, the nuanced expression of perception, found in The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries to explicit lengths like he does in no other film. Persona presents itself as something beyond a dream, something so deeply spiralled into the human complex that it passes the event horizon of the sub and unconscious, striving for incomprehensible singularity of the human condition. Few films implore this utterly confounding level of introspection. It's the Lynchian think-feels of something approaching Tarkovsky, something like Fellini's 8 1/2, Kubrick's 2001, Kurosawa's Rashomon, Herzog's Aguirre, Gilliam's Brazil, Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain and, as indirectly mentioned, something like Eraserhead, Mirror, Nostalghia or Stalker, that manage this. And it's with their respective themes that the masterpieces cited put you in that perpetually perplexed state, which ultimately allows Persona to shine though as one of the greatest films, possibly the greatest film, ever to face the question: who am I?

The question who am I? is one that has earned the status of a cliche to be dropped, is one that rings the pain of a break-neck recoil in almost all that have escaped the existential crisis of puberty. Who am I? is annoying, maybe cringe-worthy, because it's a stupid question. But, it's a special kind of stupid, the kind that isn't really stupid in essence, just the kind that makes you feel dumb. This is simply because asking someone, or even yourself, Who am I? is as good as walking up to an unsuspecting stranger and asking, How? with no context, no follow up, just How? That person is going to look at you like your nuts, but because we've all asked ourselves who we are, we get the insanity and call it stupidity. So, what's wrong with the question at hand is that we simply don't know what is being asked and we don't really have the tools to break down the interrogative. However, with Persona we see this question broken down into two fundamental human attributes: empathy and anxiety. This is because Persona is essentially a film in two parts. There's the build up of Alma and Elisabet's relationship, and then there's the break down. The build up is best defined by a form of reflection dependent on empathy, on seeing oneself in another. The breakdown is about reflection in the opposite direction, away from others, characterised by anxiety. And it's that which makes clear the poignancy of these images:

If we breakdown what these two images mean, we can essentially explain the crux of the narrative and the emotional journey the two characters go on. The top image follows the sequence of Alma's monologues that provide her back story. Having voiced her 'sin', her affair with a young boy, Alma feels incredibly close to Elisabet. This is expressed through this close moment playing out before the camera as if it were a mirror. Moreover, Eisabet wanted, maybe manufactured (at the least facilitated) this closeness. And in revealing so much of her character and actions of past, Alma opens her personage to her, essentially allowing Elisabeth to see herself in her. What's more, because of this unfathomable intimacy produced by her stark and honest transparency, Alma too sees herself in Elisabet. This is expressed explicitly in a conversation beforehand where Alma tells the story of seeing one of Elisabet's films and then feeling she could be her, just as Elisabet could take on herself. And what this creates is a projected and singular persona between their two minds. It's this that is the core conflict of their relationship, that is torn by the implimence of reaching out to others (the letter to the doctor and Elisabet's husband) and the breaking of trust. The singular persona is of course then translated through to the second image which follows Elisabet's back story and proceeds Alma's ultimate revelation - that they are not the same person. And it's with these two images that we see the arc of the relationship; the formation, peak and dissemination of a collective persona. Why this breaks down and the details of how it forms are where we find the utter profundity of this film.

So, the best place to start is nearer the beginning with The Doctor's monologue explaining why she is sending Elisabet to the beach house:

Don't you think I understand? The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming, but being. In every waking moment aware, alert. The tug of war... what you are with others and who you really are. A feeling of vertigo and a constant hunger to be finally exposed. To be seen through, cut down... even obliterated. Every tone of voice a lie. Every gesture false. Every smile a grimace. Commit suicide? That's unthinkable. You don't do things like that. But you can refuse to move and be silent. Then, at least, you're not lying. You can shut yourself in, shut out the world. Then you don't have to play any roles, show any faces, make false gestures. You'd think so... but reality is diabolical. Your hiding-place isn't watertight. Life trickles in everywhere. You're forced to react. Nobody asks if it's real or not, if you're honest or a liar. That's only important at the theater, perhaps not even there. Elisabet, I understand why you're silent, why you don't move. Your lifelessness has become a fantastic part. I understand and I admire you. I think you should play this part until it's done... until it's no longer interesting. Then you can leave it, as you leave all your roles.

To understand what the doctor is saying to Elisabet you merely have to hold onto the idea that she is an actress and, as we find out much later, she cannot love her son as he loves her. The reasoning behind Elisabet's silence is in a hope that she will no longer have to act out the part of a mother, wife, such and so on. For it's when she performs on stage that human actions, reactions, her words, gestures, expressions are understood to have reason, but reason not attached to herself, instead to her projected character. In other words, as she acts Elisabet can portray and feel emotions without consequence, she can live in a constructed reality and pretend. We can infer this pretending to be Elisabet's only way of feeling certain emotions. And her playing the role of Electra could allow us to further infer that her simulation of emotions connected to parental issues (as is the crux of the play) may reflect an abusive past. However, this is a detail I'm not too confident in as its connected to one of the most ambiguous scenes in the film and this image:

This is a picture that Elisabet pulls from her book just before the dream sequence where Alma interacts with her husband on her behalf. There is focus on the many faces in the picture, the boy, the soldiers, fear across faces of children and women. The link here is thematically dichotomous, possibly being connected to both the theme of motherhood and of violence with the reference to Vietnamese monks setting themselves on fire. The link to the latter is through war, is through those who suffer at the hands of those wielding guns, bombs, such and so on. Elisabet's deep reflection with this image before her possibly implies that we see a personal image, something from her childhood, maybe connected to her mother - or at least is a triggering picture of such ideas. This speaks to the former images of a monk setting himself on fire not just through a theme of war, but by recognising the film as somewhat biographical of Bergman's past, we can see it as portrayal of needless self-sacrifice. Bergman has spoken out on his childhood being cold and unaffectionate due to his mother. The juxtaposition of the voluntarily mute Elisabet with the monk setting himself on fire may imply some kind of self-immolation in Elisabet's silence. And this implication has resultantly granted Bergman critique due to the relevancy and severity of the Vietnam war at the times and then his use of that to talk about himself. But, given the thread between two wars through one experience, we may see some kind of reasoning behind why Elisabet is so unloving, so unemotional - just as her mother may have been, just as her son, consequentially, may be too. Such details cannot be confirmed by pulling apart the film though, so it's probably best to leave them in the air.

So, coming back to Elisabet as a mother and actress, with the doctor's monologue at hand, we see her as a person who feels like she is both perpetually projecting a fake image, and cannot find a means of portraying truth, thus raising the question, Who am I? These initial questions of Elisabet's deep personage proceed the second act as it sets up a philosophy of self. The main bulk of Persona is about... well, personas--but two merging and conflicting into one confusing entity. This happens because of the vacuous perceptions of self set up by the first act. Elisabet's profound emotional disconnect from what we find out to be her son has her perceive the world through a solipsistic looking glass. She sees her self as the only one she can know exists, which results in her attributing other people's perception of her to completely different entities. In other words, she sees herself not as a mother, she sees herself as Elisabet, a weird vessel of blood, flesh, bones and imagination that she's been consciously confined for the entirety of her existence. It's her son alone that sees her as mother, that sees her with loving eyes - a perception she cannot understand, nor empathise with. So, the only way to be the other woman her son sees, she must act, she must put on a performance, portraying Mum as she would do Electra. However, as the doctor says, 'life is diabolical', it plots against us which ultimately leaves the question of reality? not something interpreted, but given, put up with, lived in. This is what the doctor means by 'Your hiding-place isn't watertight. Life trickles in everywhere'. Elisabet may be a good actress, but she cannot construct her own reality, she cannot fool herself into being happier, into being the mother she feels she has to be. This plight contains the fundamental idea of Persona. It implies that there is a huge disconnect between people, that we may all be actors playing roles, but that there's nonetheless an irrevocable connection between us through this thing called reality. This 'reality' is why the theme of motherhood is so important to Persona. Motherhood represents a biological urge, one refereed to early on by Alma as she talks about her being a mother, getting married, having a couple of kids as it's all 'predestined'. Reality is an internal structure in all people. Reality is ultimately the recognition of biological and physical laws we cannot change, implying some metaphysical predestiny, theological will or cosmic determinism. This somewhat agreed idea of reality in all of us fuels society in respect to how we treat each other, it fuels an idea of personal safety, of love, of trust, such and so on. In other words, because we are born with biological incentives to procreate, we have love, because we are born with biological incentives to stay alive, to have food, safety, warmth, security, we have law, communities, such and so on.

In the opening act of Persona we see this symbiotic relationship of reality and solipsism expressed as an imperfect means of perceiving. People don't always conform to a shared idea of reality, giving reason why we all don't believe the same things or treat each other as we'd like to be treated. There is, however, a universal recognition that what we perceive isn't necessarily what others perceive, that what we see or feel isn't what the next person sees or feels. This is essentially the crux of Elisabet's initial character work. She is in crisis, facing a question of Who am I? because her idea of reality, of a biological incentive, of love, isn't expressing itself, and is ultimately out of balance with her recognised solipsism. She feels alone more than she does apart of something, and when you feel alone in a crowd of people, you're identity essentially withers under light of introspection. To counteract this, Elisabet says nothing, she tries to embody the nothing that she sees herself as. However, because there is still a smidgen of reality in her and she is not entirely insane, 'life trickles in' and she is left playing a apart again. She now plays the part of a patient, a woman with a problem, a mother who cannot love her son, a person going through an existential crisis. This crushing cycle of trying to escape being seen as something, someone, but ultimately being labeled nonetheless leaves a gaping gash in Elisabet's sense of self, one that she takes with her to the summer house with Alma.

Here is where things get surreal, where we work towards the blending of two personas. As said, Elisabet carries with her a solipsistic open wound. Alma, under the pretenses of 'celebrity', looks up to Elisabet in revered light. This sets up the beginnings of a disastrous relationship. To get into this, we need to pick up our themes of empathy and anxiety again. It's empathy on Alma's behalf that exposes her sense of self to calamity. This encompasses what is basically everything up to Alma reading Elisabet's letter. What is interesting about this build up of the couple's relationship is the idea of Alma talking about herself somehow leading to her seeing herself in Elisabet. Recognising that Alma knows the whole way through the film about Elisabet's issues of motherhood, her revealing the story of her affair and abortion becomes so much more poignant. This is a subject that Alma, subconsciously or not, knows will strike a chord with Elisabeth, maybe prove to her that they are in some way alike. For this is certainly what she feels happens. She projects her own past onto Elisabet which fools her into thinking they are the same person. The confounding aspect of this is in Alma assuming Elisabet asked her to say these things. I directly quote her with: 'You asked me to talk about myself'. This line comes as self-defence when Alma confronts Elisabet over the letter. But, Elisabet is supposed to be mute. That's why she stays at the house with her. And we never see Elisabet speak, let alone utter a question, until she's threatened with the boiling water. What we're left questioning is if Elisabet wanted Alma to reveal her back story, or if Alma put those questions in her mouth as an excuse to bond with her. This is what the moments before this scene demonstrate:

Off-screen we hear Elisabet say, 'Go to bed, otherwise you'll fall asleep at the table', to which Alma raises her head, saying, 'I have to go to bed now or I'll fall asleep at the table'. This awkward piece of dialogue suggest to me that Elisabet did not say anything, that, like The Narrator with Tyler in Fight Club, she repeats what she wants to hear as to indirectly fulfil some underlying intentions.

In other words, Alma's yearning to bond with Elisabet distorts her perception of reality meaning she constructs what becomes a singular persona between them. This empathy on Alma's behalf later translates to anxiety, but that is something we'll get to in a moment. First, it's important to recognise that Alma isn't solely responsible for the creation of the one persona between the two. To see Elisabet's role in this, we have to delve again into her lack of identity, this time with a new quote:

"The anxiety we carry with us, all our broken dreams, the inexplicable cruelty, the fear of death, the painful insight into our earthly condition have worn out our hope of a divine salvation. The cries of our faith and doubt against the darkness and the silence are terrible proof of our loneliness and fear."

Alma reads this out from her book, asking if life is like this, to which Elisabet replies, no (shakes her head). This quote makes a call to the idea of 'reality' we touched on before. 'Broken dreams' are the 'anxiety' produced from physical and biological inevitabilities of 'death' and our 'earthly condition'. This marks the disconnect between what we personally and solipsistically want in life, and what we get. Divine salvation is of personal reality, is a matter of belief, not of physical truth. For Elisabet to see salvation as an idea worn out by reality, but formed by doubt and fear, makes clear her almost nihilist view of herself in respect to the world. She becomes the 'darkness and the silence' because she holds so much 'loneliness and fear'. What this makes clear is her motivations for attachment. She needs to be close to Alma as some kind of distraction. What's more, Alma not believing in this idea of hopelessness fueling disbelief is what Elisabet wants to latch onto. If we fast forward to this scene:

We see Elisabet using Alma to look at her past (this is a reference to the letter from Mr. Volger about the talk in the forest) and take her place as an entity of introspection. In short, Elisabet needs Alma because she has a more practical reaction to existential phenomena such as loneliness, disconnect and fear. Alma becomes Elisabet's means of introspection, her safe vessel of reflection - again, much like Tyler is to The Narrator in Fight Club. This is why her sending the letter to her doctor is such a catastrophic even for Alma. She recognises that she's being used, she sees herself as a thing an actress is studying as to emulate someday as some means of finding happiness. And it's exactly this that sums up Alma's initial anxiety. But, what makes the scene above more than a simple dream sequence is that Alma's anxiety evolves with her already having identified something of her own in the vacuous depths of Elisabet. In other words, we have a singular persona between them now because, by putting out so much about herself and wanting to bond with Elisabet, she provided opportunity for a tug of war. Elisabet wants to be Alma more than Alma can handle - she essentially wants herself back. The dream sequence is then two subconscious entities interacting. Alma having Elisabet want to be her, begins to see herself in the worst aspects of Elisabet. She feels that she too may not be able to love, that she too is empty inside just as Elisabet is (because of her abortion) and as Alma grows older these parts of her that she sees in Elisabet may flourish. This counteracts Alma's underlying belief system as expressed with the discussion over this quote:

"The anxiety we carry with us, all our broken dreams, the inexplicable cruelty, the fear of death, the painful insight into our earthly condition have worn out our hope of a divine salvation. The cries of our faith and doubt against the darkness and the silence are terrible proof of our loneliness and fear."

Alma sees herself as capable of loving, she sees her 'sins' of the past as redeemable, salvation a possibility. Furthermore, Alma disregards the inference that doubt stemming from fear means that God or salvation doesn't exist. Just because she fears that she is a bad person and is doomed in eternity (maybe just in her future with her boyfriend) that doesn't mean she will be. Anxieties do not equate to reality, so despite the quote making sense, Alma refuses to take it to heart like Elisabet does - who lets the idea consume her.

However, reclaiming and truly believing in this idea takes a lot on Alma's behalf. She lets fear consume her, the fear that she will become Elisabet, but has to break from it. She lets her take what she wants from her, explaining this moment...

... and moves on. Though this is a very hyperbolic scene with Alma drawing blood, Elisabet sucking it from her veins and then Alma just... slapping the fuck out of her (excuse me) this is her break through. Alma recognises where the line can be drawn between the two, recognises that Elisabet is essentially a leech, lets her go to work, but then breaks things off. This drawing of blood may also be a call back to imagery of Jesus, divine saviours as well as self-sacrifice and suffering in war. But, these are themes I'll leave to you to explore. Instead, having reach this final moment, we can begin to wrap up what this film means in respect to the question, Who am I?

Having tracked the existential journeys of conflicting and merging selves of these two women, we cannot summarise and we cannot understand this narrative without the implimence of this image:

With the insane opening we have images of torture, fear, death and then what we can assume to be Elisabet's son. (It's this image that solidifies the biographical side of this movie). Nonetheless, there is something much more crucial about the opening and that is the reference to film. The juxtaposition of film stock and Elisabet's son proceeding the jump into the actual narrative (as well as the later breaks of the fourth wall with the effects of the film stock burning or malfunctioning) we have the huge implimence that this film is intrinsically bound to this image: to the son's yearning for his mother. What this ultimately transforms the narrative of Persona into is Elisabet questioning who she is seen as by her son, it reflects that all her problems and attempt to overcome them are for and by him. What is much more important is how this affects the fundamental question of this film. It doesn't really ask, Who am I? it asks, Who am I for?

There is an acceptance of solipsism, of empathy, of others throughout the film with the attempts to overcome an identity complex. But, what Elisabet learns from Alma, what she sucks out of her, is not a means to an end, is not a solution, is not really an answer. Elisabet's emotional issues are left unresolved because her pessimism is so deep-seated that she may never change. (Giving reason to why we see her being filmed and on stage in the end whilst Alma leaves on a bus). The only light at the end of this film is that Elisabet makes clear that we live to find reasoning, we're not given it, and this is what Alma takes from her. Who we are is not a question we should ask ourselves. We are our names. Nothing more. We are our names because that sound we recognise as us is attached to a life of experiences, a life of conscious recognition, a recognition of what we are internally. We ask Who am I? because we struggle to articulate the depth of our name to others. And this is what leaves that question unanswerable. You are what you know yourself to be, and because you have all the insider's information (literally) you are what you see yourself to be. People who do not have all that information (everyone else) who never will, can never truly understand you. Sure, they can come close, they can have insights into your urges and impulses - maybe better than you do - but only because they understand them as something of themselves. With us stuck as minds inside heads, as irrevocably disconnected consciousnesses, who we are to others is a mere extension of ourselves. We are to our friends, their friend - we are their idea of us (that which ultimately has very little to do with us). So, for those we feel hold the power of consequence over us, those we use to judge ourselves - our family, those we love - we must not ask who they see us as, but who they make us see ourselves as. We must ask: Who do I want to be? How do I want to feel? Who allows this if not me?

The truth is, to be happy, you must fulfill your own goals as a human as given to us by our life experiences. That means, to know who we are, we must know where we come from and how to tap into that source, to change so that we can contextually be happier. Who am I? is an abysmal question I believe we all kind of know the answer to. We know we are the product of genes and of the world conditioning us. This only demonstrates how little control we have in life. And as answer/control seeking beings, we need that illusion. And that illusion comes from asking which you makes us happy, and how can we skew or change our perception to see ourselves just as that - a better person. With Persona we have an example of how to do just that, an example of the torturous journey we can be taken on once the boat of identity has been rocked. But, it's once the boat has been rocked and we survive having remembered that we can't swim in this (forgive the cliche) ocean of life, that we learn to respect the waters around us, learn to appreciate and better sail the precarious vessel keeping us from drowning.

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