Amongst the canon movie classics like Citizen Kane, Casablanca and Psycho lies a particularly odd gem: Ingmar Bergman’s female-oriented film Persona. Released in 1966, an era when women were finding a new platform to raise their voices in the U.S., Bergman’s film explores the relationship between two women. The psychological screenplay continues to plague analysts today.
Persona centers around Alma, a nurse, and her patient, Elisabeth (an actress who suddenly loses her voice). When Alma begins to take care of Elisabeth, she grows increasingly uneasy, as it becomes difficult to distinguish herself from Elisabeth. There are scenes in which the viewer can hardly tell if the person on screen is Alma or Elisabeth, due to their similar facial features. The two form a peculiar bond and even behave violently toward each other when Alma discovers Elisabeth was not who she claimed to be.
Underneath this complex plot, the film carries the heavy weight of themes like personality, duality and self-discovery. These themes are enshrouded in the ambience of Bergman’s close-up focus on faces, in addition to a few disturbing shots of symbolic stock footage he intersperses throughout (such as a shot of a nail hammered into someone’s palm).
Since the film has such themes, it is certainly unconventional that two women were cast as the central figures of the film, as most Western philosophy on attaining consciousness involves only men and disregards females completely. For example, we have likely read about Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which a man escapes a cave and undergoes a revelation about the real world. There is no mention of women in the theory.
The absence of a female voice in abstract concepts and philosophy dominates the majority of history, until the women’s liberation movement began in the 1960s, when women truly upturned their roles in society. They could embrace their sexualities, fight against the status quo and talk about things like abortion. During this time, prominent French philosopher Monique Wittig emerged as one of the few women who questioned gender and gender roles, writing an infamous essay entitled, “One is Not Born a Woman.”
Bergman’s film reflects all this and more. He gives women the ability to explore their existence and their genders without necessarily being dependent on a male character. Both Alma and Elisabeth fight against the roles society attributes to them; the former literally refuses to speak, while the latter gains an underlying sexual attraction toward the former, empowering her from her dependence on men.
Especially during a time when movements like Time’s Up and #MeToo trickle into the media and the need for empowering women becomes front and center in the world of entertainment, Persona is worth revisiting. It is definitely not a film to shy away from.