by Joyce Klestzick
A cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory and treatment is the interpretation of dreams as a means of learning the repressed feelings and experiences of a patient. Freud’s famous summarization of this notion is that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious. Dreams are a narrative produced by the dreamer and are a communication to the dreamer and then to the analyst of the inner workings of one’s mind if it is brought into a therapy session. Art forms, in general are thought to have their roots in the unconscious of the artist. This includes the production of films and plays.
Persona is a film that particularly lends itself to a consideration of the internal workings of Ingmar Bergman’s mind and to be interpreted as one might interpret a dream. The general mood of the film is melancholic and gray. It has a dreamlike quality made more manifest by it having been shot in black and white. The characters and scenes blend into one another dispelling boundaries and merging minds and bodies effectively creating the amorphousness typical of dreams. In fact at times it is unclear in the film what is actually taking place and what may be dreamwork.
The fog-like and shapeless visual experience of Persona is essential to the theme of the film. On its most manifest level, which in itself is vague, it is the story of two women secluded in a beach house and the experience they have of each other, one talking, one silent. More deeply it depicts the profound pain and inevitable retreat of a woman who has found herself living a life that feels inauthentic and ludicrous and the impact her silence has on a younger woman who finds herself talking, talking, talking to fill the time and space left by the silence of her charge. In many ways this situation is a reiteration of a traditional psychoanalytic therapy session where the blankness of the therapist, that is, the silence of the therapist, enables and indeed encourages a patient to talk without self-censorship or fear of judgment as a means of knowing herself. Free association. Alma’s free association, if you will, uncovers fears and guilt and questions she has not spoken of, or even knew herself before this interlude with Elisabet. She begins to struggle with her own boundaries as she projects her self-doubt and need to merge with the idealized figure of Elisabet. Again, this mimics the development of a transference reaction in psychoanalytic terms where the experience of the other is based less on the here and now and more on the inner workings of the patient, Alma.
Persona is the production of Ingmar Bergman and as such it is his psyche that is uncovered here in the uncovering of Alma and the non-speaking, hiding Elisabet. Bergman was raised by an authoritarian father who by today’s standards would be considered abusive. His mother was experienced as more soft but still distant and unknowable. He describes his early life as a life with much to manage. His parents quarreled openly and at times fiercely, his brother tortured him and his punishments at the hands of his father were ritualistic and humiliating. He speaks frequently of learning early on not to intrude or disturb, a family code of behavior. He was aware that his parents outwardly played the expected role of a pastor’s family but that there was little to no foundation of authenticity. Bergman speaks without remorse or curiosity about the hate he always felt for his older brother though it is clear that this was a rage unable to be expressed belonging more appropriately towards his father. Bergman retreated early on into fantasy as a means of coping with the drama and trauma of his upbringing. Stories and imaginings filled his world and at times seemed more real to him than reality. However, he did ponder notions that he was a liar as opposed to a storyteller and often felt confused about what was him or not him, as though his life was composed of a variety of masks making it unclear which was the real person. Psychologically, the experience of life in this way is often caused by a need to protect and defend at all costs the deeply internal, sweet, insecure, immature though fully authentic true self that has been made to remain undercover for fear of damage or annihilation. In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman shares the questions he still yearns to be answered by his mother at the end of her life: “Who got mother’s love?”
...Love? I know we don’t use such terms in our family. Father talks about God’s love in church. But here at home? What was it like for us? How did we cope with that divided heart, that compressed hatred?
The flowers thrived. The creepers climbed, the new shoots were green. The flowers thrived, but us? Why did everything become so miserable? Was it Bergman paralysis, or was it something else?
Were we given masks instead of face? Were we given hysteria instead of feelings? Were we given shame and guilt instead of love and forgiveness?
Why did my brother become an invalid? Why was my sister crushed into a scream? Why did I live with a never-healing infected sore that went right through my body?...I just want to know why our misery became so terrible behind that brittle social prestige? Why was I incapable of normal human relationships for so long?
Why have we never used the intimate du to Mother or Father? Why did we have to speak to our parents in a distancing grammatical absurdity?
There is no answer forthcoming from his mother. She feels accused and tired. He ends his autobiography with the questions unanswered by her and an entry he found in her diary that she wrote soon after his birth:
Our son was born on Sunday morning on 14 July. He immediately contracted a high temperature and severe diarrhea. He looks like a tiny skeleton with a big fiery red nose. He stubbornly refuses to open his eyes. I had no milk after a few days because of my illness... I lie here helpless and miserable. Sometimes when I am alone, I cry. If the boy dies, Ma says... I am to take up my profession again... I pray to God with no confidence. One will probably have to manage alone as best one can.
In his autobiography it is evident that Ingmar Bergman was plagued by the unresolved vicissitudes of his early life. He was lonely and felt unloved and certainly unknown. His relationships with male peers were typically compromised and his many marriages suggest a fear of intimacy and an unfinished search for something to fill the void that remained unsatisfied from his early life.
The beginning of Persona shows a young boy reaching out to touch the enlarged photo of a beautiful woman. He seems not quite able to touch her and she seems not to respond to his outstretched arm. In an ideal way, it might suggest the closeness and intimacy of the mother’s face for a nursing infant. But this is not the sense one gets in watching the scene. Rather, it portends something not quite right in the mother/child dyad, which is a precursor of the events in the film as well as a likely interpretation of Bergman’s fantasy of the not quite present mother. Alma’s explanation later in the film of Elisabet’s negatively charged maternal experience speaks directly to Bergman’s sense of his mother’s psychic abandonment throughout his life. Alma’s dogged and unrealized demand that Elisabet speak to her so as to soothe her growing distress over her revelations and projections parallels Bergman’s ongoing internal conflict about how to love his mother while hating her for her human failings. Throughout his life he found himself seeking means to soothe his overwrought persona which reiterates the task of his beleaguered true self to self soothe because it was not sufficiently modeled by a mother or father or family system.
When a child is born it is the primary caregiver’s role to fill all the infant’s needs. As the baby emerges from the sleepy orbit of her mother’s womb, the infant becomes aware of the mother but not distinct from her. This ability to distinguish self from mother is a developmental task that when achieved enables the baby to begin to separate as an individual. If this task is compromised because the child feels unsafe to stand on its own due to insufficient parenting, separation becomes a struggle marked by efforts to remain merged and symbiotic in a less than optimal way. This situation is described by Alma about Elisabet’s smitten son and his unsuccessful attempts to gain his mother’s love. Here again we see a reiteration of Bergman’s unsuccessful efforts to be closer to his mother.
Alma too represents Bergman in Persona. She is young and immature and about to settle into a life that she seems not to have thought through yet finds inevitable. She has some sense that there is more to Elisabet than meets the eye on their first meeting and is unsettled enough to question whether she is the appropriate caregiver. As their time together unfolds Alma unravels as she shares more and hears herself expressing thoughts and feelings that were previously unformed. Her recounting of the sexual interlude on the beach unnerves her for she feels it is an act of infidelity. The sexual sharing of men with another woman and the power and pleasure she felt surprised and frightened her. She had never felt that before. Why does she share this with Elisabet? It creates an erotic gestalt in the scene and is followed by Alma imagining that she hears Elisabet tell her gently to go to bed. That night she experiences Elisabet in her room and as they look in the mirror together they seem intertwined. Alma, like Bergman is searching for something to fill the void in her psyche and Elisabet’s silence enables Alma to merge with her in that effort. The rage unleashed in Alma when she reads the letter Elisabet wrote can be understood as a glaring, un welcomed and premature announcement that she and Elisabet are, in fact, two separate people. The unconscious fantasy of oneness is prematurely dashed. I wonder how many of Bergman’s relationships ended because he or they were not able to tolerate the reality of individuality after the glow of courtship and newness wears off a love relationship. Similarly, the scene with Alma and Elisabet’s non-seeing husband while Elisabet looks on may be understood as another expression of Alma’s merging in a sexualized way. She is Elisabet, Elisabet is her.
The ultimate scene in Persona when the faces of Alma and Elisabet do merge we are met with a sense of surrealism. Who is who? What is real? Is Alma a figment of Elisabet’s imagination or Elisabet a musing of Alma’s self-knowing? Did the merging serve a function? Is it dangerous? How far can we lose ourselves in another? How do we get back to ourselves? How do we embrace individuality? Does it have to be frightening? Why and how do we become who we are? How and where do we meet the needs of our childhood that evade us? How does the search for these needs inform our lives? Who are we and who are we not? These are the enduring questions of Bergman’s life and art. Persona encapsulates them but does not answer them and this I do not believe was an accident.