Persona: A Graveyard of Thoughts and an Examination of Hands


Bergman with Andersson and Ullmann on location

What follows is a collection of the many darlings I killed while writing about Persona. A Thought-Graveyard, if you will.

  • Alma’s horror following the momentary synthesis and her insistence that she is not like Elisabet (1:14.07) is simultaneously emblematic of the horror of being possessed by the other and of the simultaneous, paradoxical need of the other’s recognition for self-definition. When Alma does not receive the recognition from Elisabet she desires and she is suddenly joined with her, she begins to lose herself, necessitating her repetition of who she is and is not following the union.
  • The fact that Elisabeth writes a letter to her doctor describing the emergence of her soul’s “rightness” demonstrates that she seeks approval and recognition from others—also further invalidates the “authentic representation” of her silence.  What’s the point if she can express herself in performance for the other in a letter instead of speaking it?
  • Alma’s name, incidentally, connotes mother—nurturing. Her role as nurse is also a maternal one.
  • We cannot recognize ourselves without the recognition of the other. However the recognition of the other turns the self into an object, so then the self, in order to remain subjective, must recognize itself in the other, identifying with the other’s recognition of itself, and supersede the other.
  • Connection between Elisabet’s wanting the death of her own son and the Nazis wanting the death of that one boy. She is inhumane in her lack of loving motherhood. Connection also between her son, the boy in the photograph from the war, the boys Alma has sex with, the bookending boy. Sexualization of the maternal. The young boy suckling at Katerina’s breast a maternal image.
  • “and he looks at you” (1:09.40) The gaze, attempting to own, dominate the other. The power and violence of the gaze. In saying her son looked at Elisabet, Alma is getting at the violence Elisabet feels is inherent in his domineering gaze.
  • She finds him repulsive despite the fact that he is literally of her. She must distance herself from the other in order to establish herself.
  • “You had a guilty conscience” echoes the earlier scene after Alma’s own confession when she admitted to having a guilty conscience. Projection of her confession onto Elisabet.
  • Each time, one side of each woman’s face is in the dark. The opposite side for each. As we look at them, they quite literally appear to each be half a woman.
  • In the second version, we get Elisabet’s face in profile in front of Alma’s (1:11.40) Elisabet attempts to escape Alma’s gaze, but Alma traps her with it; holds her, exerting the power of the gaze, rendering her object of Alma’s gaze. Tone change into the bit about hoping baby will die—bc Alma cannot understand? Because she did have the abortion and some part of her wishes she hadn’t? progressively closer close ups on Alma, straight on on her face. the left side of her face increasingly being lost in shadow.
  • The doctor says that Elisabet wants someone to point out her inauthenticity to her. This is what Alma does. Is it what Elisabet wanted?
  • Alma’s accusations uncover a fear of inadequacy, more basic than the existential “bad faith” that the doctor gets at
  • Elisabet as a mother to Alma, comforting her after he confession
  • Getting us to think about why we crave the recognition of the other: why are we programmed to have a child and yet have such a fraught relationship with this symbol of our self-identification? Piece of ourself?
  • Patient becomes therapist, therapist/nurse patient (does all the talking)
  • The film’s insistence on us watching these people. Insisting on making us feel awkward about our voyeurism and yet our need to watch these others. We are complicit in this watching. We are Elisabet, silent and watching. Our fascination with the others on the screen. Alma’s need to perform and be recognized as the actress. Looking straight at us, breaking fourth wall, not normal cinema—all through the scenes of accusation.
  • Everything is performance. you can’t have a self without performance. We perform for the other and the other soaks it in. Alma as performing for Elisabet and Elisabet receiving the performance and being stimulated by it.
  • Film’s obsession with hands: crucifixion, young boy’s hand reaching to the woman’s face, comparison of hands on the beach, close up of the women’s hands together, hands behind Alma’s back, hands covering photograph, the Jewish boys hands up
  • Same with young boys: in the bookends, Elisabet’s son and his photograph, the young boys on the beach in Alma’s story, the Jewish boy in the photograph

And following my note on the film’s preoccupation with hands:


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