Calling Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) the filmmaker’s most disturbing film is a pretty bold assertion, but I think it may well be true. It is certainly one of his most difficult films—possibly the most impenetrable film in his entire oeuvre and the most seemingly bizarre. From the moment the film begins—with the carbon arc lamp in a movie projector being struck—it’s obvious that Persona is no ordinary movie. This is then hammered home by a series of apparently unrelated flashing images: the projector shutter, film chattering through the machine, an erect penis, an upside down cartoon of a fat woman at the seaside, footage from a silent comedy in which “death” in a skeleton suit chases people for no apparent reason, a sheep being sheered and gutted, a nail being pounded into the hand of a man being crucified, glimpses of incomprehensible scenes that will later be encountered in the body of the film etc. All of this culminates in a strange scene of a singularly unattractive, slightly androgynous boy (Jörgen Lindström) trying to sleep on what appears to be a mortuary table, finally giving up to read a book before becoming transfixed on projections of blurry faces of two women that keep shifting. And this, mind you, only comprises the first seven minutes of the film.
When the ostensible plot gets underway, things only appear to become clearer. A nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), is assigned as caretaker of a famous actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman), who broke down (she “had the urge to laugh”) during a performance of Electra and then retreated into silence and apathy. Hints that things are not quite “right” are dropped. Alma talks about how she will one day get married and have children—something that doesn’t line up with the fact that she already wears a wedding band. Ostensibly, the film is about the complex relationship between Alma and Elisabet, especially the fact that silent Elisabet is a ready listener to Alma’s life story—even her most personal secrets.
But as the film progresses and the dynamic shifts, it becomes ever more difficult to tell who is the patient and who is the nurse, and then the tone changes and the question becomes whether or not the two women have changed roles. Then it becomes less and less certain that there even are two women. As the drama plays out, it seems more likely that Alma and Elisabet are two sides of the same person—that both are real, and that neither is real alone. In the end, it’s a work of many possible readings—any of which provide deeply disturbing looks into the psyche of the characters or character. It’s also a work in which nothing is arbitrary; everything means something—the projector, the erect penis, the silent comedy, the fact that the breakdown occurred during a performance of Electra etc., all relate to the meaning. In some ways, it’s the ultimate example of what Bergman fanatic Woody Allen said in a recent tribute article on Bergman, “I’ve heard people walk out after certain films of his saying, ‘I didn’t get exactly what I just saw but I was gripped on the edge of my seat every frame.’” That may be the case here for many viewers of this extraordinary film.