A nurse (Bibi Andersson) and an actress who refuses to speak (Liv Ullmann) seem to fuse identities in Ingmar Bergman’s disturbing, formally experimental psychological drama.
“Persona is a remarkable incarnation of one of the darkest, most desperate aspects of the 1960s culture. The very nature of art as communication is subverted.”
Marc Gervais, Ingmar Bergman: Magician and Prophet, 1999
The horrors of modern existence, exemplified by TV footage we see of a monk setting fire to himself in protest against the Vietnam War, weigh heavily on Ingmar Bergman’s intense chamber drama. Stage actress Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann) suddenly refuses to speak and goes to convalesce by the sea with nurse Alma (Andersson), where a fraught battle of wills and identities begins as Elisabet’s maddening silence seems to exacerbate the cracks in Alma’s own fragile persona.
Close-up shots of the overlapping faces of the two women suggest their personalities gradually merging, as if Elisabet is feeding vampiristically on her attendant. One of Bergman’s most stylistically radical works, the film itself seems to catch fire at one point, before the ‘projection’ recommences.
Robert Altman’s Three Women (1977) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) are two films to have borrowed the theme of merging female identities.