Reverse-Engineering Persona

If you’ve ever had to write an essay about something seemingly meaningless, you probably know how this works. You pick a thought (the more unlikely the better), connect everything to it (the less obvious the connections the better), and make sure to overlook anything that goes against your “theory.” Does this projection of meaning onto chaos sound like what art critics do?

All is well until you start believing your own words. That is what happened to me, and I am open-sourcing some of them here, for the whole world to point and laugh and maybe even plagiarize. This story is about Bergman’s Persona and a certain Andalusian Dog, so if you haven’t seen those species yet, come back later.

Persona: the metafilm

An unwanted child, an insecure man, an arrogant genius, Ingmar Bergman directed what could very well be the most cryptic movie ever made. Persona is painted in two layers: a foreground that makes sense on a background that mystifies. The upper stratum is Alma’s story of self-acceptance, of coming to terms with her dark side. The backdrop is Bergman’s meditation on cinematography.

The background is visible in the beginning montage, the sequence where the film cracks and burns in the middle of the movie, and in the ending. The foreground occupies the screen the rest of the time. The layers differ in two important ways. First, meaning is accessible in the foreground, while the background stubbornly resists interpretation. Second, editing is done in a much more frantic manner in the background layer, often resorting to cuts of only two or three frames. In the foreground, many seconds pass before a cut is made.

The beginning montage jumps out at us, as if begging for an interpretation. But let us avoid this red herring and start with the intelligible foreground instead. With a movie as outlandish as Persona, we might as well go ahead and make a bold statement about the characters, and then analyze the movie through the window of that assumption. Let our starting axiom be that Elisabet is Alma’s disavowed dark side (cold, indifferent, incapable of love). The foreground layer follows Alma on the journey of accepting that ugly part of herself.

The upper layer starts with Alma opening the door and stepping into the doctor’s office. Bergman is efficient: within the first minute, we already know the names of the characters, and that Alma is supposed to care for Elisabet. The director also breaks the rules from the very beginning: there are no traditional shot/reverse-shots. As if it had a consciousness of its own, the camera studies the characters independently of their interactions. Bergman’s trademark closeups bring us uncomfortably close: we see their every strand of hair, every pore, every twitch.

As Alma introduces herself to Elisabet, we begin to glimpse that she relies on words to give herself confidence (“I’m 25 years old and engaged”). She admits to the doctor that the patient “shows great mental strength,” with which she “might not be able to cope.” Back in Elisabet’s room, Alma tunes the radio to a play. Elisabet turns it off and grabs Alma’s hand in a very possessive way — the dark side demands recognition.

When the nurse leaves the patient to fall asleep with classical music, we see Elisabet’s face for a very long time, until the light fades. Like us, Alma is forced to think about her. Unable to fall asleep, she summons words to remember how good her life is: “I’ll marry Karl-Henrik and have a couple of children, which I’ll have to raise… I have a job that I like and enjoy.” If all of that is predestined, why does her happiness seem so strained? To distract herself from her own existential quandaries, Alma focuses on Elisabet instead: “I wonder what’s really wrong with her.” Alma wants to believe that she is happy with her life; and her words are a shelter against her dark side.

But wanting to believe is not enough. The immense amount of energy Alma spends on making believe finds expression in the film’s unwaning tension. She cannot be happy because she is not complete; she is stifling a part of herself. Her unhappiness is artfully metamorphosed into the film’s emptiness and desolation. Another piece of evidence is found in the later scene where Elisabet’s husband visits the beach house. This is one of Alma’s dreams — an escape from her incompleteness.

After establishing her psychological situation, the film depicts Alma’s slow reconciliation with her dark side. The phases in which this gradual acceptance takes place are curiously parallel to the stages of grief in the Kübler-Ross model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance).

The film depicts the denial phase in more than one way. Elisabet is Alma’s externalized darkness, which she refuses to accept as part of herself. She takes her voice away, trying to deny the dark side’s very existence. Expressions of denial range from straightforward (“I’m not like you!”) to subtle — Alma’s condescending attitude towards her patient. In the hospital, she opens and reads a letter for Elisabet, thus assuming without question the right to invade her privacy. (In the same scene, Elisabet tears a photograph of her son, confirming that she is “the dark side” in the first place.) Later at the beach house, Alma reveals her deepest secrets, denying even the possibility that Elisabet could hurt her. But breaking into tears, she begins to see that her denial mechanism no longer works (“none of it fits together”). Elisabet escapes Alma’s imagined reins with the letter she types to the doctor. Personifying the dark side’s power to wound, that compromised letter marks the end of the denial stage. Alma can no longer ignore what she knows. “You’re forced to react,” the doctor says earlier.

Anger and bargaining are merged in Persona. The bargaining stage is symbolized by Alma’s attempts to cure Elisabet and make her talk (“you could be me, just like that”). The anger, ignited by the fatal letter, finds expression in Alma’s violence towards her patient. After reading the letter, Alma deliberately puts a piece of glass on the ground for Elisabet to step on. In her anger, she does not realize that she is sapping her own strength.

The film cracks and burns, and after a short glimpse onto the lower layer, Alma is again bargaining with Elisabet. Asking her to talk is hypocritical, because Alma does not want to hear the ugly things her dark side has to say. Failing to get any words from her, Alma falls back to anger, physically attacking her patient. But when she threatens to scald Elisabet with boiling water, Alma’s own self-preservation instinct screams “no, don’t do it!” Anger and bargaining continue to go hand in hand, as Alma calls Elisabet “rotten” and then runs after her to apologize. The balance of power in these negotiations is clearly seen in the opposition between Elisabet’s graceful gait and Alma’s clumsy stumbling.

The onset of depression is marked by Alma’s hallucination, in which Elisabet’s husband visits the beach house. In this new stage, Alma interacts with the man as if she were Elisabet — she literally becomes her dark side (“I’m cold and rotten and indifferent. It’s all lies and imitation.”) Alma is still in the depression stage in the scene with the repeated monologue. The women are sitting face to face, and Alma is giving voice to Elisabet’s story. She might as well stand in front of a mirror and talk. The fact that Alma knows about Elisabet’s son proves that she has stopped repressing her dark side; but her tone indicates that she still very much hates it. In a last attempt to reject her, Alma says[1], “I’ll never be like you.” But the composite face of the two women foretells the inevitability of their reunion. In the climax of her depression, after thrashing her hands on the table and muttering senseless words, Alma cuts her vein and offers her blood for Elisabet to drink. This is her ultimate submission.

She then enters Elisabet’s room at the hospital, and helps her sit up in bed. At Alma’s request, the patient finally mutters “nothing.” This is not Elisabet’s surrender, but Alma’s. The nurse has finally allowed her dark side to speak, given her flesh and blood and a voice, and accepted her as a part of herself. The shot where Elisabet strokes Alma’s hair in front of the mirror is repeated (it was a premonition). The rest of the movie watches the gradual decomposition of the upper layer, through which we begin to see the unintelligible substrate again.

When Alma leaves the beach house, she is a whole person again. She has accepted her dark side and stopped deceiving herself that her life is all good. It does not immediately result that she is happy, but thanks to her new understanding of herself, happiness is at least a possibility. This is the story Bergman is telling us in the foreground: that darkness and ugliness have a place, that no life has a road map, and that everything is improvisation. The many discontinuities in the upper layer suggest that the battle is fought in Alma’s mind, not in the real world.

The foreground tells an understandable and self-sufficient story. Then why does Bergman not stop here? What do the beginning montage and the interruptions at the middle and end have to do with any of this? Here Bergman crosses the barrier from mere film into self-reflexive metafilm. Behind the readable layer of the story, there lies another stratum, eminently strange and utterly incomprehensible.

The lower layer makes its most lengthy appearance in the pre-title sequence. After shots of various parts of a projector, we go through an upside down countdown, the image of an erect penis[2], more shots of a projector and film, and what appears to be an overexposed screen. Zooming in on the screen, we realize that it is in fact film running through the projector, upside down. The film shows a hand-drawn cartoon of a woman washing her hands and face in the river, then pressing her breasts. After a shot of film uncoiling from the projector, we see a child’s hands waving around, then the sound of film spinning stops. We see a fragment of a silent black and white comedy[3], in which a man is haunted by a skeleton and a vampire/devil. A spider moving its legs fades from white and into white; then we see the blood pouring out of a lamb’s neck. The camera pans to the lamb’s eye, which a human hand is about to close. After some more shots of meat cutting and internal organs, we see a right hand holding a left hand, into which a nail is hammered. A still shot of barren trees in winter fades from a gray texture; then we see two shots of a fence around a brick building.

Interspersed between shots of what appear to be dead people (a man and a woman) in a morgue, we see a young boy under white sheets, lying on his back with his hands on his sides. This is a very unnatural sleeping position — we are lead to believe he is dead too. The boy is eventually woken up by the sound of a telephone ringing, after a disturbing shot of the dead woman’s open eyes. Unable to fall back to sleep, the boy opens Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time,[4] but a blurred image on a huge screen in the room catches his attention. As he reaches out to touch the screen, the image comes slowly into focus, morphing back and forth between the faces of Alma and Elisabet. The film’s opening credits follow, divided by very short shots of a monk burning in Vietnam, someone’s lips, water, stones, trees, another few frames from the old comedy, and the faces of the boy, Alma, and Elisabet. After this demoralizingly obscure beginning, we plunge into the relatively understandable world of the upper layer.

So what does this all mean? It is dangerously easy to assume that the boy is Elisabet’s son. A less obvious way to connect him to the story is to say that he is the film’s audience. He exists in the lower layer, and the entire upper layer is what he sees on screen. The bracket opened by the beginning montage is closed in the final sequence, when the boy’s screen turns white and the film in the projector comes to an end.

Midway through the movie, after Elisabet hurts her foot on the shard of glass, the film seems to crack and burn, allowing for another glimpse of the lower layer. We hear some words in reverse (they are the doctor’s words: “Sister Alma, what’s your first impression?”). After some very short shots of the devil and the skeleton from the same old film, we see the nail being hammered into the hand again, this time accompanied by a howl of pain. Through an extreme closeup of a human eye (another device symbolizing the film’s audience), the upper layer takes over again. But after this interference from the unintelligible, the foreground story is corrupted and starts making less and less sense.

Through its strangeness, the lower layer is a tribute to surrealism. Bergman weaves random images together in the same way the dreaming brain does, completely free of the burden of causality. The beginning montage is reminiscent of the 1928 surrealist film An Andalusian Dog[5], in which the only rule was that “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.”[ref2] Bergman’s first rule is to be entertaining[ref3], and what better entertainment is there than putting our mind to work on an unsolvable puzzle?

Persona is not just a film. It is a canvas containing the film, its audience, and Bergman’s meditation on the film and the audience. This was the director’s ambition from the start — he even wanted to call the film Cinematography. Alma’s story of self-acceptance (the upper layer) is not just being shown, but watched and analyzed by the boy (on the lower layer). Persona is thus a metafilm, a film that contains and discusses itself, a kind of ars poetica[6].

Can we claim that by dividing the film into layers, we have unearthed its enigma? Only after an objective look at our starting axioms. Is Elisabet really Alma’s dark side? Is the boy really the audience of the film? All we know is that these two assumptions have led to a meaningful interpretation. But given the infinite unexplored pathways of the human mind, a different starting point could lead to an equally viable solution. Herein lies Bergman’s genius in its utmost splendor — he has created a labyrinth with more than one exit.


[1] At this point in the movie, the characters change locations and clothes randomly. This lack of continuity indicates that the upper layer is cracking, and the unintelligible lower one is seeping through.

[2] This is one of Bergman’s clever inside jokes. In the countdown, this picture replaces the number between 7 and 5. In Swedish, the word sex stands for both the noun sex and the numeral six.

[3] These are shots from one of Bergman’s earliest movies, Fängelse (1949), known under the translated titles of Prison and Devil’s Wanton.[ref1]

[4] A novel on the theme of not fitting into society.

[5] There are, in fact, at least four hints suggesting that the opening sequence in Persona quotes An Andalusian Dog. Both Bergman and the writers of Andalusian (Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí) took inspiration from dreams. The cutting of the lamb’s throat in Persona parallels the slashing of a woman’s eyelid in Andalusian. In both movies, a woman’s breasts are being pressed/stroked through her clothes. In Persona, a nail is hammered through the center of a palm; in Andalusian, ants emerge from a hole in the center of a palm.

[6] Poetry about the art of poetry.


[ref1] Michaels, Lloyd (2000). Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521656982.

[ref2] Buñuel, Luis (1983). My Last Sigh, Abigail Israel (trans.), New York: Knopf. ISBN 0394528549.

[ref3] Bergman, Ingmar (1981). Film & Dreams, Petrić Vlada (contrib.), Redgrave Pub. Co., ISBN 0913178616.

I wrote the above text for my English class one year ago. The images I added today. I had first seen Persona when I was in high school, and the only things I got out of it then were a certain bodily reaction around minute 29, and a big “WTF?” by the end. So writing a paper about it turned out to be interesting.

I took the DVD from the library and looked very closely at the opening montage. In 1966, there was no way to pause or rewind. You went to “the movies,” sat in a dark room, and waited for the noisy projector to click into life. If you wanted to see a scene again, you had to wait until the next showing. And yet, Persona‘s opening begs to be watched frame by frame.

Another point of interest is the reversed sound in the scene where the film cracks and burns. Re-reversing the sound with an audio editing application, we hear the same words the doctor says near the film’s beginning: “Sister Alma, what’s your first impression?”

More insights emerged when I later read the screenplay of Persona. This early version of Bergman’s ideas differs substantially from the final movie.
The scene where Elisabet’s husband visits the summer house and interacts with Alma — is it a dream or not? Here is what the screenplay has to say:

After a few hours of heavy sleep, she [Alma] is awakened by a feeling of paralysis — a stiffness seeking its way in towards her lungs and groping at her heart. The fog rolls in through the open window and the room floats in a grey half-light.
She succeeds in raising her hand to the bedside lamp — but no light comes.

This seems to support the dream hypothesis, since flipping a light switch in a dream often leaves the lighting unchanged. (The dreaming brain creates its own optimum lighting conditions.)

There are other interesting moments in the screenplay that didn’t make the final cut. During her husband’s visit, Elisabet turns to the spectators “speaking with a rough, almost raucous voice”:

Words like emptiness, loneliness, strangeness, pain and helplessness have lost their meaning.

Actors are taught never to look directly at the camera, because that creates a very unsettling feeling. When the invisible protective barrier of the screen breaks, we are no longer detached observers. In John Lahr’s profile of Bergman in The New Yorker, the director describes anxiety as “my life’s most faithful companion … placed in the very center of my identity — my demon and my friend spurring me on.” No wonder he wants to give us some of that.

About the film breaking incident, Bergman says:

At this point the projector should stop. The film, happily, would break, or someone lower the curtain by mistake; or perhaps there could be a short circuit, so that all the lights in the cinema went out. Only this is not how it is. I think the shadows would continue their game, even if some happy interruption cut short our discomfort. Perhaps they no longer need the assistance of the apparatus, the projector, the film, or the sound track. They reach out towards our senses, deep inside the retina, or into the finest recesses of the ear. Is this the case? Or do I simply imagine these shadows possess a power, that their rage survives without the help of the picture frames, this abominably accurate march of twenty-four pictures a second, twenty-seven metres a minute.

On the same note, the director writes:

The shadows run over the white wall. Magic, of course. But unusually sober and merciless magic. Nothing can be changed, undone. It all thunders forth again and again, always with the same cold, immutable willingness. Put a red glass in front of a lens, the shadows turn red — but what does it help? Load the film upside-down or back-to-front, the result will not be very different.
There is only one radical change. Turn off the switch, extinguish the hissing arc, rewind the film, put it back in its case and forget it.

Before we do that though: Did you notice how collage makes films like Persona and Amélie interesting? Also, do you know what it is that Elisabet tears from the book at 50:10?

One Response to Reverse-Engineering Persona

  1. “There are two men within me – one lives in the full sense of the word, the other reflects and judges him. In an hour’s time the first may be leaving you and the world for ever, and the second? … the second? …” — A Hero of Our Time.

    Two men. Or two women, Just like in the movie. Just like in Tystnaden (The Silence), where the same book appears.

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