Susan Sontag

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1769

[The difficulty in understanding Persona is] that Bergman withholds the kind of clear signals for sorting out fantasies from reality offered, for example, by Buñuel in Belle de Jour. Buñuel puts in the clues; he wants the viewer to be able to decipher his film. The insufficiency of the clues Bergman has planted must be taken to indicate that he intends the film to remain partly encoded. The viewer can only move toward, but never achieve, certainty about the action…. One prime bit of evidence for this thesis is a sequence occurring soon after the two women arrive at the seaside. It's the sequence in which, after we have seen Elizabeth enter Alma's room and stand beside her and stroke her hair, we see Alma, pale, troubled, asking Elizabeth the next morning, "Did you come to my room last night?" and Elizabeth, slightly quizzical, anxious, shaking her head no. Now there seems no reason to doubt Elizabeth's answer. The viewer isn't given any evidence of a malevolent plan on Elizabeth's part to undermine Alma's confidence in her own sanity; nor any evidence for doubting Elizabeth's memory or sanity in the ordinary sense. But if that is the case, two important points have been established early in the film. One is that Alma is hallucinating—and, presumably, will continue doing so. The other is that hallucinations or visions will appear on the screen with the same rhythms, the same look of objective reality as something "real." (pp. 129-30)

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Persona is constructed according to a form that resists being reduced to a story—say, the story about the relation (however ambiguous and abstract) between two women named Elizabeth and Alma, a patient and a nurse, a star and an ingenue, alma (soul) and persona (mask). Such reduction to a story means, in the end, a reduction of Bergman's film to the single dimension of psychology. Not that the psychological dimension isn't there. It is. But to understand Persona, the viewer must go beyond the psychological point of view. (p. 130)

This seems clear from the fact that Bergman allows the audience to interpret Elizabeth's mute condition in several ways—as involuntary mental breakdown, and as voluntary moral decision leading either towards self-purification or suicide. But whatever the background of her condition, it is much more in the sheer fact of it than in its causes that Bergman wishes to involve the viewer. In Persona, muteness is first of all a fact with a certain psychic and moral weight, a fact which initiates its own kind of casuality upon an 'other'.

Persona makes a remarkable modification of the structure of The Silence. In the earlier film, the love-hate relationship between the two sisters projected an unmistakable sexual energy—particularly the feelings of the older sister…. In Persona, Bergman has achieved a more interesting situation by delicately excising or transcending the possible sexual implications of the tie between the two women. It is a remarkable feat of moral and psychological poise. While maintaining the indeterminacy of the situation (from a psychological point of view), Bergman does not give the impression of evading the issue, and he presents nothing that is psychologically improbable.

The advantages of keeping the psychological aspects of Persona indeterminate (while internally credible) are that Bergman can do many other things besides tell a story. Instead of a full-blown story, he presents something that is, in one sense, cruder and, in another, more abstract: a body of material, a subject. (p. 132)

In a work constituted along these principles, the action would appear intermittent, porous, shot through intimations of absence, of what could not be univocally said. This doesn't mean that the narration has forfeited "sense." But it does mean that sense isn't necessarily tied to a determinate plot. Alternatively, there is the possibility of an extended narration composed of events which are not (wholly) explicated but are, nevertheless, possible and may even have taken place. (pp. 132-33)

[One] of the salient features of new narratives is a deliberate, calculated frustration of the desire to know. Did anything happen last year at Marienbad? What did become of the girl in L'Avventura? Where is Alma going when she boards a bus toward the close of Persona? (p. 133)

The avowal of agnosticism on the artist's part may look like frivolity or contempt for the audience. Antonioni enraged many people by saying that he didn't know himself what happened to the missing girl in L'Avventura—whether she had, for instance, committed suicide or run away. But this attitude should be taken with the utmost seriousness. When the artist declares that he "knows" no more than the audience does, he is saying that all the meaning resides in the work itself, that there is "nothing behind" it. (p. 134)

[The] construction of Persona is best described in terms of this variation-on-a-theme form. The theme is that of doubling; unity and fission, the variations are those that follow from the leading possibilities of that theme (on both a formal and a psychological level) such as duplication, inversion, reciprocal exchange, and repetition. The action cannot be univocally paraphrased. It's correct to speak of Persona in terms of the fortunes of two characters named Elizabeth and Alma who are engaged in a desperate duel of identities. But it is equally pertinent to treat Persona as relating the duel between two mythical parts of a single self: the corrupted person who acts (Elizabeth) and the ingenuous soul (Alma) who founders in contact with corruption. (pp. 135-36)

By not just telling a "story" about the psychic ordeal of two women, Bergman is using that ordeal as a constituent element of his main theme. And that theme of doubling appears to be no less a formal idea than a psychological one. As I have already stressed, Bergman has withheld enough information about the story of the two women to make it impossible to determine clearly the main outlines, much less all, of what passes between them. Further, he has introduced a number of reflections about the nature of representation (the status of the image, of the word, of action, of the film medium itself). Persona is not just a representation of transactions between the two characters, Alma and Elizabeth, but a meditation on the film which is "about" them.

The most explicit parts of this meditation is the opening and closing sequences, in which Bergman tries to create the film as an object: a finite object, a made object, a fragile, perishable object, and therefore something existing in space as well as time.

Persona begins with darkness. Then two points of light gradually gain in brightness, until we see that they're the two carbons of the arc lamp; after this, a portion of the leader flashes by. Then follows a suite of rapid images, some barely identifiable…. (pp. 136-37)

[At the close of the film] there is a complementary montage of fragmented images, ending with the child again reaching caressingly toward the huge blurry blow-up of a woman's face. Then Bergman cuts to the shot of the incandescent arc lamp, showing the reverse of the phenomenon which opens the film. The carbons begin to fade; slowly the light goes out. The film dies, as it were, before our eyes. It dies as an object or a thing does, declaring itself to be used up, and thus virtually independent of the volition of the maker.

Any account which leaves out or dismisses as incidental how Persona begins and ends hasn't been talking about the film that Bergman made. Far from being extraneous or pretentious, as many reviewers found it, the so-called frame of Persona is, it seems to me, a central statement of the motif of aesthetic self-reflexiveness that runs through the entire film. The element of self-reflexiveness in Persona is anything but an arbitrary concern, one superadded to the dramatic action. (p. 138)

[In Alma's monologue about Elizabeth's relationship to her son, which is filmed once showing Alma's face and once showing Elizabeth's face and ends with a composite face, half Elizabeth's and half Alma's,] Bergman is pointing up the paradoxical promise of film—namely, that it always gives the illusion of a voyeuristic access to an untampered reality, a neutral view of things as they are. What is filmed is always, in some sense, a "document." But what contemporary film-makers more and more often show is the process of seeing itself, giving grounds or evidence for several different ways of seeing the same thing, which the viewer may entertain concurrently or successively.

Bergman's use of this idea in Persona is strikingly original, but the larger intention is a familiar one. In the ways that Bergman made his film self-reflexive, self-regarding, ultimately self-engorging, we should recognize not a private whim but the expression of a well-established tendency. For it is precisely the energy for this sort of "formalist" concern with the nature and paradoxes of the medium itself which was unleashed when the nineteenth-century formal structures of plot and characters (with their presumption of a much less complex reality than that envisaged by the contemporary consciousness) were demoted. What is commonly patronized as an overexquisite self-consciousness in contemporary art, leading to a species of auto-cannibalism, can be seen—less pejoratively—as the liberation of new energies of thought and sensibility.

This, for me, is the promise behind the familiar thesis that locates the difference between traditional and new cinema in the altered status of the camera. In the aesthetic of traditional films, the camera tried to remain unperceived, to efface itself before the spectacle it was rendering. In contrast, what counts as new cinema can be recognized, as Pasolini has remarked, by the "felt presence of the camera."… But Bergman goes beyond Pasolini's criterion, inserting into the viewer's consciousness the felt present of the film as an object. (pp. 139-40)

If the maintenance of personality requires safeguarding the integrity of masks, and the truth about a person always means his unmasking, cracking the mask, then the truth about life as a whole is the shattering of the whole facade—behind which lies an absolute cruelty….

The subject of Persona is the violence of the spirit. If the two women violate each other, each can be said to have at least as profoundly violated herself. In the final parallel to this theme, the film itself seems to be violated—to emerge out of and descend back into the chaos of "cinema" and film-as-object. (pp. 141-42)

Susan Sontag, "Bergman's 'Persona'" (1967), in her Styles of Radical Will (reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1967 by Susan Sontag), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969, pp. 123-45.

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