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A Psychological Labyrinth

by Avinaba Chakraborty

The cottage by the sea

TLR Rating: 9 Reels.




First of all, I would like to express clearly to everyone that this movie is not made to please all the audience out there. This psychological drama, filled with abstractness and symbolism can disturb you badly from the inside and become your nightmare and seriously, it’s not an exaggeration. If you are not an addict of bizarre movies with psychological riddles, stay away from this one but on the other hand if you are an admirer of such movies and want to use your grey matter for a while to unravel some riddles, this one might just be the film you are looking for. Directed by the legendary Ingmar Bergman, this movie took the world by storm upon its release back in 1966. Now treated as a movie way ahead of its time, ‘Persona’ was completely neglected by the Academy and was not even nominated for the Best Foreign Language film, but then again, films like this don’t need awards or accolades to gain a cult status and ‘Persona’ is not an exception. Today it is considered as one of Bergman’s masterpieces which can be difficult and sometimes even frustrating for the audiences. It is impossible to explain it without spoilers, so better watch the movie before going through the article.

An Intimidating Introduction

The film begins with some strange, weird scenes which seem like completely out of context from the rest including some animation, a brutal killing of a lamb, some dead bodies, a nail driven into a hand and a tarantula. Then we see a boy in a hospital who looks hysterically towards a screen where there are the blurred faces of a two women changing continuously. The film follows the story of an actress named Elisabet Vogler and a nurse Alma who takes care of her after the actress has stopped speaking and fallen still, following the shooting of a scene from her film. After some days, on the doctor’s advice she along with Alma, moves to a cottage at the sea side in a hope for a speedy recovery. Alma speaks the whole day to Elisabet about her love life, her fiancé Karl-Henrik and her sexual experience while she only listens; this stillness makes us think that may be the actress represents just a soulless, cold or heartless entity who is always afraid of getting exposed and Alma is the our inner self, which is honest, lively and energetic. The word ‘alma’ means soul makes perfect sense for the verbose character. When we fuse these two attributes together, we get a complete human being; well we can’t say for sure though. One day while delivering a letter to the doctor, Alma finds out that the actress is actually studying her and starting from this very incident the film is changed. Slowly we witness how the relationship between these two ladies turns into a bitter one with ongoing days for the rest of the film. During this period, there are some events that add new dimensions in this intriguing movie, such as the appearance of Alma’s husband Mr. Vogler in the cottage but surprisingly he calls the nurse as Elisabet. After his departure, we see the breakdown of both of the characters after the nurse denies to be like Elisabet while confronting her about her failed abortion attempt. Before the ending, the actress appears abruptly just after finishing her shot in a studio and looks in a shock while Alma leaves the cottage. The film ends with the exact scenes like it’s beginning with the boy looking at a screen.

A reflection maybe?

Persona means the aspects of someone’s character perceived by some other. So was it the nurse who was the persona of the actress studying Alma to pull off a role neatly with perfection in her film? Or the actress was the persona of the nurse whom she used to admire? A huge credit goes to the cinematographer Sven Nykvist for representing everything in such a bizarre way. One will definitely get the vibes of ‘Mulholland Drive’ which was inspired from this movie. In psychological impacts, ‘Persona’ surpasses David Lync’s magnum opus.  The cinematography along with the haunting music and the uncanny silence can drive the audience towards insanity. Watching this film seems like wandering inside a cave filled with darkness and a mysterious atmosphere, where you know that something is wrong but you are unable to find that something. The film can be interpreted in both of Alma and Elisabet’s perspectives in different ways. The starting scene which is a series of weird sequences makes absolutely no sense in the beginning on multiple viewing things start taking shape and it looks like those sequences were the extract of the whole movie shown within a few seconds. The dead bodies and the animations may represent the stillness of Elisabet and the energetic nature of Alma respectively. The spider may symbolize the creepy nature of the whole movie but again one question comes to everyone’s mind, who is the boy? It may be Elisabet’s son who survived even after her attempts of self-abortion or it may also be the son of Alma whom she successfully aborted, who is captivated in limbo (death was one of Bergman’s favourite subjects). From the very beginning, the director tries to fool the audience and succeeds in doing so with the enigmatic aura of the film. The ending also baffles us just like the rest of the movie in an awkward fashion. Why the actress looks to be in a shock after her performance is over? And just after that Alma leaves and camera focuses at a statue beside the sea side cottage. Does this mean that after her performance the persona is gone for ever or for the whole time the nurse was talking with the statue which seems as mute as the actress? We will never know for sure.

Riddle Personified

Even after trying to explain this bizarre, elaborate psychological puzzle, I felt like it is way above any explanation. It is a movie filled with unanswered questions which should better be left unanswered. Instead, we should surrender ourselves to the genius of Bergman and feel helpless for a while, just like the child shown in both the beginning and at the end of the movie (another metaphor? May be). For the audiences, it is better to get captivated by its magnificence rather than trying to unravel its metaphors. Both Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann took the movie to a whole new level with their picture perfect acting performances. Ullmann speaks through her silence and makes her presence known throughout the film without uttering almost any word. ‘Mindfuck’ is a very common term used by movie buffs all over the world now a days to represent certain types of movies and this one perplexed the audiences even before the term ‘mindfuck’ was formed; in simple words, a nightmare for the critics. Love it or hate it, one thing is for sure that you can’t ignore it.

The author is an electrical engineer, a movie buff and a big fan of Satyajit Ray.

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