Monday, September 21, 2015

Ingmar Bergman | Persona

whatever happened to elisabet vogler?
by Douglas Messerli

Ingmar Bergman (writer and director) Persona / 1966

In Ingmar Bergman’s profoundly beautiful film, Persona, a great theater actor Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) suddenly falls mute in a production of Electra, and cannot continue the performance. Even though she is found to have no physical—or, we are told, mental disabilities (I’ll return to this later)—she remains silent, refusing to speak and is institutionalized. The head of the institution (Margaretha Krook) apparently believes it is just a temporary break-down of sorts, a psychological refusal of identity, and assigns a cheerful young nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), to the actress, the nurse even admitting to her own inexperience, particularly in relationship to this well-seasoned woman of “masks” (the original meaning of persona). In short, Alma (the soul) is now linked up with an interchange with a willful being, a woman of mind. The situation grows far more intense as the two, patient and nurse, retreat to a beach home loaned to them by the head of the clinic.
     If, at first, this encounter between the two seems fairly pleasant and uneventful, with the thoughtful Elisabet quietly listening to the chattering woman who reveals her youthful and rather conventional values, we sense, even early on, a tension between the two. The younger magpie is herself embarrassed by her chatter, but with the elder’s seeming encouragement (a presumption, surely, since she says absolutely nothing, refusing to respond to Alma’s questions), Alma—who, as a nurse, has clearly generally performed the role of the patient listener—begins to open up and free herself from secrets she has held even from herself.
     At first these seem only to involve a few criticisms from her boyfriend, Karl-Henrik, who accuses her of lack of ambition. Although she’s a bit unsure of what he means, we cannot help but perceive, in her desire to serve both her career like the elderly retired nurses who live on site and her future husband, that she clearly has no deep aspirations. It’s only gradually, particularly in her long recounting of a sexual incident with another woman and two adolescent boys who have strayed from home to watch the women bathing in the nude upon the beach, that we begin to perceive that she is perhaps a far more complex being. She reveals that the sexual incident was the most fulfilling sexual encounter that she has ever had, and that the foursome with the two young boys resulted in her becoming pregnant, ending in an abortion, performed by a friend of Karl-Hendrik’s. Suddenly, perhaps for the first time, she regrets both her lying to her fiancée and the fact of the abortion.

      Other similar revelations Alma makes to the silent actress, revelations of the soul it its brain, provide her with a sense of great freedom, a release of sorts which often happens when the mind truly does listen to the heart. And a love between the two develops, the two women acting out the relationship with images that suggest a kind of lesbian love, but more truly present the fulfillment of a fully functioning emotional whole. Many critics have attempted to argue that most of the somewhat confusing interchanges of the film must be perceived as a long dream of Alma’s. But that seems to me to demand a kind of narrative logic for a film that weaves its “reality,” however we define that, with psychologically-conceived dream-like encounters. And the mind portrayed in this great work of art is not truly normal. 
      First of all, no matter how normal the mind appears to be, the soul can never be fulfilled by its sometimes cruel analysis and pretense. If the soul is totally honest, but mind is forever evaluating and judging what it perceives. After writing a letter to the doctor, which Elisabet forgets (perhaps purposefully) to seal, Alma cannot resist opening it on her way to the post, finding that the actress is “studying” her as if she might be the subject for a latter enactment of life.

       Terribly hurt and feeling betrayed, Alma returns, determined to act out her anger, at first leaving a piece of broken glass on the back patio, upon which Elisabet steps, immediately recognizing that the “accident” has been intended. A violent encounter between the two ensues, which the director reiterates in the process of the film itself by suggesting a break in the reel, a spooling out of the cinema tape—symbolizing, obviously, the breakdown of its two human “actors,” with Alma insisting that the real horror is that Elisabet is just pretending to be normal, while underneath she is truly cruel and mad.  Suddenly we must return to the original problem: what did happen to Elisabet Vogler? Why have the interrelationships between her verbal skills and her internal perceptions suddenly become severed.
     Bergman, the director, proffers all the usual explanations: she has been traumatized by past history, represented by a photograph of a young boy and his family being arrested by the Nazis in World War II; she is suffering from the shock of the new inhumane treatments of humans in the Viet Nam War, which is symbolized by the self-immolation of a Buddhist Monk on her television set; she has become disgusted by her “acting” out life as opposed to actually living and experiencing it. 
      Given her own guilt over having successfully “erased” her own would-be child, Alma projects (played out in the script twice, the first with the camera tracing the reactions of the accused, the second focusing on the accuser) a scenario that argues Elisabet, told by a friend that she was missing the qualities of a good mother, determines to become pregnant, only to be immediately terrified by everything that comes with it: the changes the body, the fear of pain, and the possibilities of death, not to say anything about how it might change her independently active life. In Alma’s telling, Elisabet grows to hate her son even before he is born, and turns the new baby over to her husband and nanny for its upbringing. Much as in Bergman’s later film, Autumn Sonata, the lonely child only grows to love and idealize his mother further in her absence, the fact of which only further fuels Elisabet’s hate. For Alma, the final self-imposed silence is an attempt to block out all those who might love and wish to communicate with the great diva.

      This scenario leads to a quite obvious dream sequence, wherein Elisabet’s husband, Vogler, visits the seaside cottage, mistaking Alma for his wife, and pleading with her to return and help fill the emptiness the two, father and son, and demanding she have sex with him. Alma goes along with the ruse seemingly unable to recognize that she has, in fact, become one with Elisabet—who now suddenly packs up and disappears, presumably to return to her family; while, after cleaning up and airing all beds and sheets, also leaves to face, we can presume, a very different life from the one she had imagined. 
      The intelligent viewer recognizes, perhaps, that the young nurse who imagined herself as able to “become” Elisabeth, is perhaps a version of Elisabet’s earlier self, and that their encounter in a time out of time, has allowed the tortured actress to restore some of her own past.
       If we never discover precisely what actually happened to Elisabet Vogler, we can certainly imagine it through Bergman’s complex depiction of the slings and arrows, large and small, that gradually destroy the heart, that lead to the hateful revenge of an Electra who can no longer abide the beating of the human heart. Whatever happened to Elisabet Vogler, we can hope has finally been resolved by the film’s last frame, which takes the finally unburdened soul into its future possibilities.

Los Angles, September 21, 2015

1 comment:

  1. "First of all, no matter how normal the mind appears to be, the soul can never be fulfilled by its sometimes cruel analysis and pretense. If the soul is totally honest, but mind is forever evaluating and judging what it perceives."

    Wonderful, profound thoughts, Doug. Great critique of Bergman's experimental masterpiece.