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Bergman Centennial: Persona and the Problem of "Motherliness"

Team Experience will be celebrating one of the world's most acclaimed auteurs this week for the 100th anniversary of Ingmar Bergman's birth. Here's Lynn Lee

Persona has been called the Mount Everest of film critics, and no wonder.  For a film that clocks in at a lean 84 minutes and turns on a deceptively simple premise – a celebrated actress (Liv Ullmann) falls mysteriously silent and is consigned to the care of a chatty, insecure nurse (Bibi Andersson) – it contains multitudes.  In the 50-plus years since its debut, its potential meanings have been explored from almost every conceivable angle, be it existential, metaphysical, psychological, psychosexual, queer, feminist, the role of art and the artist, or just the film’s pure cinematic texture and experimental devices.  But Persona is a slippery beast: just when you think you have a theory as to what it’s “about,” it melts and reformulates into something else entirely.

By the same token, it’s also something of a cinematic Rorschach test that tends to ping back whatever personal predilections, fears, or obsessions a viewer brings to it.  Even one’s own focus can shift over the years, or over the course of a single watch or rewatch.  There was a time I might have argued that Persona was a meditation on the guilt of the artist who feeds, vampire-like, off the emotions of his subjects.  But after seeing it recently, I’ve been fixated on a different aspect altogether.  Two motifs in particular haunt me: on the one hand, the framing image of a young boy in a morgue-like space, stretching his hand towards a blurred picture of a woman (or is it two women?), and on the other, the concept of “motherliness."  They are of course inextricably intertwined.

Motherliness is a false idol in Persona, one that both Alma and Elisabet purport to desire but ultimately reject.  Everyone remembers Alma’s erotic reminiscence of her beachside orgy; not everyone may remember its more painful coda, capped by a lie and an abortion.  The obverse of that confessional comes later in Alma’s climactic indictment of Elisabet as a mother.  She accuses the actress of only playing at being a mother, of loathing her own son and wishing he’d died before birth.  What could be more horrific than that?  Many things; yet the majority of us are hard-wired to view an unloving mother as the most unnatural and irredeemable of monsters.  It’s a knee-jerk reaction I tend to question, perhaps because I myself don’t have or want children; but even I can’t control my impulse to recoil when it’s presented so nakedly – not once, but twice

To be sure, there are plenty of red flags to warn us away from raising our imaginary torches and pitchforks against this particular monster.  After all, Alma is an exceedingly unreliable narrator – at best, a cloudy prism through which we, like that lonely little boy, can only dimly discern another consciousness.  Who’s to say her inferences about Elisabet are correct?  Could she be projecting her own suppressed guilt on to the other woman?  And the obvious question underpinning Persona as a whole, are Alma and Elisabet just two sides of the same woman?  Regardless, there’s a sadistic cruelty to her speech and its repetition that’s echoed in the final image (another repetition) of the little boy reaching forlornly for the screen.  I can’t see that boy as anything other than the abandoned son and the film as his attempt to understand, punish, and/or capture his elusive mother. 

Perhaps it says something about me that that I instinctively bristle at the manipulativeness of this exercise.  Or perhaps it says just as much about Bergman, who by all accounts had complicated feelings about his own mother and whose filmography abounds with problematic mother figures (though also even more problematic father figures).  Still, an author’s autobiography is seldom the only or most important key to understanding why a work has the effect it does.  Fundamentally, Persona’s power rests with the viewer – that Rorschach quality again, that tends to press on whatever nerve’s most primed to be touched.  Whatever your deepest fear or desire, the film probably speaks to it at some level.  The vague disquiet it elicits is the sense that what you’re looking at isn’t a screen but a mirror.

More from The Film Experience's Bergman Centennial:
Sean Donovan on Winter Light
Daniel Walber's The Furniture on Fanny and Alexander

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Reader Comments (5)

This is definitely one of the best films ever made though I have a hard time on wondering which Bergman film is better as it could be this one or Cries & Whispers. Still, this film is just fucking intense as it definitely spawned a lot of other great films like 3 Women and Mulholland Drive.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

It's such a rich work of cinema one can watch it over and over again discovering something new

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Persona is one of my top 5 all-time favourite films. I've seen it numerous times over the years and absolutely agree with your statement that it eludes any single interpretation. Like you, I've responded in different ways at each viewing and been taken by surprise at how decidedly an angle that I'd never previously considered seems to be the dominant reading. It is truly the most fascinating prism.

July 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSally W

The Greatest Film Ever Made. That's all...

July 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAmandaBuffamonteezi

One of fav Bergman!

It alws seem ironic to me tt Ullmann is the one whose career took off. Maybe bcos she became Bergman's Muse fr Persona onwards??

She's v good but to me, Andersson is the revelation in this film! Tis pity tt she rarely'hardly work w Bergman after this.

July 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

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