Persona

Released:  1966

Cast:  Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann

SUMMARY:  Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) is a famous Swedish stage actress, who during a performance one evening suddenly finds herself unable to talk for over a minute.  Following the performance, she stops speaking altogether.  She is taken to a hospital, but the doctors can find nothing physically or mentally wrong with her.  However, the head doctor believes that Elisabet is suffering a sort of identity crisis, and volunteers her own beach cottage as a retreat.  This same doctor asks Alma (Bibi Andersson), a young nurse at the hospital, to accompany Elisabet to the cottage and care for her.  A few nights before they leave, Elisabet sees a Vietnamese Buddhist monk set himself on fire (self-immolation, or sacrifice), and though she does not make any sound, reacts with extreme horror; she also laughs silently at a radio soap opera.  Alma also reads Elisabet a letter from her husband, which includes a picture of their son.  Though Elisabet initially allows Alma to read the letter, she soon stops her, and rips the picture of her son in half.  When the two get to the cottage, Alma talks constantly to Elisabet, who does begin to relax.  Alma’s conversation turns from inane matters to those more personal, and she eventually begins to reveal personal secrets to Elisabet (who still does not talk).  Most importantly, she reveals that she cheated on her fiancée with an underage boy, and later having an abortion to get rid of the resulting pregnancy.  After revealing this, Alma hears Elisabet tell her to go to sleep before she falls asleep at the table, and later sees Elisabet come into her room.  However, when questioned the next morning, Elisabet denies doing both of these things.

The next day, Elisabet has letters that need to be mailed, and Alma volunteers to take them into town to post them.  On the way, curiosity overwhelms Alma, and she opens the letter Elisabet gave her.  In the letter, Elisabet details Alma’s habits and personality, and admits to studying her; she also talks about Alma’s cheating and abortion.  Alma is incredibly upset at finding this out, and when she breaks a glass later in the day (back at the cottage), she leaves a shard of it in front of the door so that Elisabet will step on it.  When Elisabet cuts her foot, she looks directly at Alma; after this, the formerly close relationship between the women seems to splinter (as does Alma’s psyche).  Alma eventually tells Elisabet that she read the letter, and was very hurt by what Elisabet wrote.  She begs Elisabet to speak to her, and when Elisabet doesn’t, Alma attacks her.  Elisabet fights her off, but Alma grabs a pot of boiling water from the stove and prepares to throw it at Elisabet.  Finally, Elisabet breaks her silence, and screams, “No!”  Although Elisabet has finally spoken, Alma’s behavior does not improve.  She begins to tell Elisabet that she isn’t speaking because she’s an awful person, but later seems to regret this, and apologizes.  Before going to bed that night, Elizabeth finds a famous Holocaust picture in the book she is reading.  During the night, Alma sneaks into Elisabet’s room and looks at her closely, examining the small details of her face.  She then hears a male voice outside, and finds that it is Elisabet’s husband.  Mr. Vogler seems to think that Alma is his wife; though Alma initially protests her real identity, she soon begins to act as though she is Elisabet, telling Mr. Vogler that she loves him and their child.  As this is happening, Elisabet seems to be standing next to Alma.  The next morning, Alma finds Elisabet in the kitchen with the picture of her son that she ripped up.  Alma informs Elisabet that she knows what happened to her:  that she had been told she lacked motherly instincts, so she got pregnant.  However, during the pregnancy she grew increasingly worried about herself and the baby, particularly the idea that the child would force her to leave the stage.  As a result, she made numerous attempts to abort the baby; when this failed, she prayed that it would be stillborn.  When the child is born healthy, she prays for it to die, and hates the child.  Unfortunately, this boy desperately and repeatedly seeks the love of his mother, which she cannot give.  After finishing this narration, during which only Elisabet’s face is shown, the camera switches to Alma’s face as she repeats the entire story.  During this telling, half of Alma’s face is replaced with Elisabet’s.  Alma then screamingly insists that she is not Elisabet, and is nothing like her.  Not long after these events, Elisabet seems to have regressed, and Alma’s behavior continues to be strange:  she cuts open her own arm, forces Elisabet’s mouth to the bleeding wound, then attacks her again.  Alma then packs and leaves the cottage alone.

MY TAKE:  I was completely fascinated by this movie, even though I had no idea what the hell was going on.  In that respect, it’s disappointing, because nothing gets resolved.  You keep waiting for some great climactic moment, and it never comes:  the questions raised by the film are not answered either.  It’s pretty clear that the real mental patient should have been Alma, because she totally flips her lid after reading Elisabet’s letter.  I can understand feeling betrayed by this, since someone you thought of as a friend is just analyzing and dissecting your behavior, but she jumps right to crazy town.  She actually reminded me of the Kathy Bates character in Misery, which would have made for a good storyline.  However, I wasn’t able to discern whether any of the subsequent abuse was actually happening, or if it was just in Alma’s head (or Elisabet’s, for that matter).  I thought there was going to be some deep-dark-secret reveal after the Holocaust picture showed up — like Alma had been in a concentration camp, which is when she lost touch with reality or something, but this didn’t happen.  I was still enthralled by watching the behavior of the women, but it was frustrating to not be able to figure out what’s really going on.  It’s a very curious feeling:  confused but still interested.

RATING:  Weird.

 

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