The scene opens with a wide shot Liv Ulman’s Elizabeth Vogler pacing back and forth in front of her hospital bed, a TV glowing in the middle of the room, casting her long shadow against the back wall but the TV is ignored by her. There is a lonely tension to the scene, a feeling of distress and indecision but with no tangible object or situation to be distressed about. Then a roar as the television screen lights up with images of the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk that has set himself on fire in protest of the persecution for the South Vietnamese (the same image that is well known from Rage Against the Machine’s eponymous album). We cut from the TV to shots of Ulman’s face, looking on in fright, as she backs herself into the corner of the room, intercutting the whole time with the video of the monk on fire. It is a devastating scene, as the self-immolation plays out for longer and longer periods, forcing the viewer into the same sort of facial contortions as Ulman, in shock but also unable to look away. It shows something of the depths of violence in humanity, even as the monk has done this to himself in a grizzly, but beautiful form of protest. The sound cuts out, we are back to the wide shot of Ulman in her room, cowering against the wall, the TV’s light flickering as we are left to confront the unshakable feeling that we are all, like Ulman, forced to confront this sort of darkness in the world within ourselves. In silence. In solitude.
Persona is a film about an actress (Ulman as Vogler) who has suddenly lost the ability to speak, in some sort of deep ennui that has left her cold, unmotivated, and oddly silent. Bibi Andersson (as Alma) comes in to be Ulman’s nurse, and they go on a beach-side retreat together to see if that will help Ulman. Persona becomes a film about identity and how we relate to ourselves on one level. On another level Persona is about film in general, or at least the artifice of film, and how this artifice can speak sometimes even more deeply to our personal problems than pretending the artifice isn’t there at all. On an even deeper level, the film is about depression, and the strange blankness (or silence) that depression can make up in one’s life.
Around the midpoint of the movie, there is a scene where relations between Alma and Elisabet have reached a low. It has gone as far as Alma maliciously not cleaning a piece of broken glass, expecting Elisabet to cut her foot on it. Not outright, a more passive violence that leaves her satisfied but not necessarily culpable. As Alma stares on after Elisabet cuts herself, Elisabet seeming to stare back at her accusingly, the film begins to break, cutting in half, the audience still watching Alma. But right before the film cuts out completely, you see Alma’s eye slowly move up to look directly into the camera. Cut to white…It is a chilling moment, as we have been watching this melodrama unfold, to be suddenly taken out in such a violent manner and with such an overt nod to the audience that shatters the 4’th wall. It leaves the films internal logic in shambles as we are treated to disparate images from vaudevillian type comedies, involving ghouls and people running around, before we cut back to what looks like Elisabet, obscured through an out of focus lens, as she walks around the room, sometimes in stutters and starts, as if the film is jamming in the projector.
The artifice works two ways. One, it shows the audience the fake nature of film, the inherent hollowness that is truly behind the melodrama. But on a deeper level, the artifice represents Elisabet’s depression in a way that conventional narrative can’t reach. There is a certain plasticity to the world when you’re depressed. Everything feels second-hand, just beyond grasp, as if the world were putting on some strange act that you strive to understand, but none of it makes sense. Much like when you feel sick and you superimpose that sickness onto everyone else, wondering how they can walk about, fully functional. In the same way, it is hard to ascribe even the faintest of passion that everyone around you brings to life, while you can only feel this hollowness of self in the depths of your person. Everything begins to feel like an act, like something everyone else is in on, all talking between themselves behind your back. It creates a certain paranoia, intentions can’t be trusted, people can’t be taken at face value. It is with this eye that Alma looks deep into the camera, ostensibly breaking the 4’th wall, but also making herself complicit, demonstrating the deception that Elisabet can surely feel underlying every action, no matter how small.
There is one more part I would like to talk about, which is when Elisabet’s husband shows up and begins speaking to Alma as if she were Elisabet, Elisabet encouraging her to do so. This is at a part of the film where truth becomes temperamental, ephemeral even, as reality seems to morph around the whims of the characters. Alma and Elisabet’s identities begin to blend together, along with cinematic tricks to make the matter even more confusing. There is no ‘real’, there is only what is felt in these scenes. But when Elisabet leaves Alma to be her for her own husband (which the husband seems to notice no difference), it speaks to the distancing, dissociative effect that depression can have. That you can never quite fully feel like yourself, and even when you are interacting on some sort of normal level, it is like you are performing, acting through someone else who are themselves just pretending to be you. It serves as a way to distance yourself from the world that you feel equally distant toward, but leaving some room to pretend at being a human, at understanding how the whole social interaction works, as foreign and absurd as it may seem in the moment. In depression, we are all actors, because it can just be too much to have to inhabit ourselves.
After going through a recent bout of depression, watching Persona for the first time was illuminating. The high melodrama that slowly blends into an existential nightmare says more about the clinical nature of depression than any words can really do justice. When the world feels so horribly far away, everything becomes like a movie, as engrossed as you may get, there is always the sinking knowledge that just behind the curtain it’s all hollow and scripted, with nothing of the beauty that you found in the image. At these times it’s better to become a part of the film rather than succumb to the dread that the curtain will remain open, exposing something artificial where you used to see yourself reflected.