The scene begins with a closeup of hands concealing something from the audience by Elisabet Vogler played by Liv Ullman (one of the key protagonists in the film who was an actress and has been silent for three months after a particular performance, who is now being looked after by Nurse Alma at a holiday home by the sea) and Nurse Alma played by Bibi Anderson reveals the young boy’s photograph that was being concealed after which follows a long dialogue which in fact is like a monologue by Nurse Alma to Elisabet her patient(as Elizabeth does not speak) about the story behind the photograph. We have the scene repeated twice with the same dialogue. Only in one version we see Elizabeth for almost the full duration and in the other version we see Alma for almost the entire duration.
“The idea for Persona, ..came from a picture. One day I suddenly saw in front of me two women sitting next to each other and comparing hands with one another. I thought to myself that one of them is mute and the other one speaks. This little thought returned time and again and I wondered: why did it return, why did it repeat itself? It was as if it returned so that I would start to work on it.” – Ingmar Bergman
I instinctively selected this scene as being representative of the film and then on further research realized that even the hands with which the scene begins are so powerful and infact a major source for the inspiration for the film itself. Ofcourse every scene in this film is representative of the film like every drop of the ocean has the essence of the ocean in itself but I found a special choreography to this scene and felt like sharing it or rather highlighting it with a detail shot breakdown of the scene(including dialogues).
This is a significant scene and at one level can be representative of the theme of the film itself. The Patient and Nurse relationship is not a simple one. At one level they are two very real different individuals in dramatic conflict and at another level they are two faces of the same person and expose the different masks we wear.
I would like to draw your attention to every acting beat in the scene which is highlighted by a gesture, movement by the actress and seems like a dance of emotions. The first version of the scene has us experience the scene seeing the face of Elisabet Vogler, the patient who is mute and is being spoken about by Nurse Alma. The scene starts with a closeup of hands, to then include a beautiful closeup of two faces followed by the separation of one face from the frame leaving a single face that continues the journey forward for the viewer. Nurse Alma speaks about Elizabeth and accuses her of being cold and indifferent and Elizabeth has no dialogues for defense or expressiveness (which for many actors is like a crutch, you take away dialogues and they are lost) but simple movements of the head – right, left, down and straight, towards the camera combined with the depth of truth in the facial expressions that make the scene poetic. The next version of the same scene is played out keeping Elizabeth in profile and we see Nurse Alma’s face speaking the dialogues. As in the earlier version the camera slightly magnifies the closeup of the character but this is the dramatic point of this version where it ends at a jumbo closeup of Alma but then transforms into not one but two personas – one side of the face is Alma and the other side of the face is Elisabet. At this point a relatively real story enters into another realm of exploration.
The opening value of the scene is revealing something that is concealed (a young boy’s photograph followed by the story) –
The scene emotionally peaks with Nurse Alma accusing Elizabeth of being indifferent to her loving child who she hates and then the scene climaxes with a glimpse of the two faces/identities merging and returns to a closeup of Alma with a cry of help and I quote
No I am not like you. I don’t feel like you. I’m sister Alma, I am just here to help you. I am not Elisabet Vogler, you are Elizabeth Vogler. I would like to have… I love..
And the closing value or the scene ends with a final merger and superimposition of both the faces/identities with the words ‘I haven’t …’ which indicates a merger of these two identities. Or makes us question that is this a real story are these two separate individuals or is this an internal drama of the mind and soul.
So the film starts with these two very different individuals and ends with a complete merger/fusion of the two. It begins at the plane of reality and ends with being in a suspended plane of existence between the real and unreal.
“Persona” is the Latin name for facemasks worn by actors in antiquity. Its an amusing title, good name, an apt name. The film will be about people’s masks and attitudes.” – Ingmar Bergman
Bergman in this film like all films exposes bare the turmoil of the human mind and soul. He does not accept love, god as normal individuals would but looks at the darker side of human nature where he explores themes of hypocrisy – and revealing the muck inside the formality of relationships and normal existence. Like a stone thrown into the water and its serene pretentious stillness and purity is opened to the mud and muck hidden at its core which show up and break the serenity at its surface.
The scene is structured in close-ups and the ‘face’ plays a very powerful role in the scene like many other films of Bergman. To quote Bergman himself “What the eyes can yield is for me the essential of all filmed art”. So with the landscape of the face, dramatic one key lighting on the canvas of black and white this master artist sets into motion an explosion of emotions on the screen, gripping you tight, not letting you escape the ugly revelations of a tormented human mind and soul.
I want to end this analysis by leading you into the next scene which after a few shots takes the film at certain points to pure abstraction like a true artist – two faces in a white void whispering to each other and that scene ends with Elisabet drawing blood from Nurse Alma to which Alma violently protests. There is a repulsiveness that emerges slowly but overshadowed by the beauty of cinematic treatment and depth. There are many more beautiful cinematic moments in the film including ofcourse the haunting mirror/ dream image of the two women in close contact and ofcourse the soundtrack helps to make you experience the internal and external atmosphere more truthfully.