Feature Screengem

Screengem: The Human Mask in Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

As dense and uncategorisable as Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) is, the filmmaker’s career-spanning fascination with the human face remains abundantly clear. In one of his most startling images, he combines his female lead’s facial features to demonstrate how one’s identity cannot exist in total isolation but is always influenced and moulded by others.

Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) is tired of acting, both on and off the stage. In the beginning of the film, she stops mid-sentence while performing in a play, perhaps realising that her rehearsed actions are no different than her real-life ‘performances’ with friends, family, and colleagues. Soon after, she stops talking altogether, and it is through this self-imposed isolation that she tries to grasp her true nature.

“You can cut yourself off, close yourself in,” warns her doctor, perhaps the only reasonable character in the story. “Then you needn’t play any roles, wear any masks, make any false gestures. So you might think… [but] your hiding place isn’t watertight enough. Life oozes in from all sides. You’re forced to react.”

In this case, the life oozing in is that of Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse assigned to watch over Elisabet at a secluded, beachfront home. Despite the latter’s efforts, she and Alma become inextricably linked, their personalities merging to the extent that their individual selves (initially conveyed through a number of extreme closeups, seen below) evaporate.

The characters’ merging of identities is exemplified through the aforementioned combination of their faces. This visual trick has an unnerving effect on the viewer; by amalgamating features from both women, Bergman transforms their faces into a single, nonhuman mask.

The above image points to a maddening paradox. While Bergman seems to suggest that a human persona cannot exist in a vacuum and inevitably contains fragments of outside forces, the mask suggests that these combined fragments create something almost alien in nature.

Therefore, neither approach to understanding identity satisfies completely: a fitting ‘solution’ to the story’s central enigma. In this beguiling cinematic experiment, the human visage becomes an artificial object, a thing; as such, it only conceals the unknowable truth behind it.

By Thomas M. Puhr

Thomas M. Puhr lives in Chicago and is a regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal and Film International. He is also an editor for The Big Picture. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.

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