When the ostensible plot of Persona 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 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.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Persona Friday, July 31 at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com