Double Masking

THE CONCEPT OF THE MASK, of concealing, is made explicit in the title of Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s superlative film of 1966. Yet ever since its release, many critics and viewers have sought to uncover the “meaning” of this enigmatic work, which centers on the relationship between two women: Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who stops speaking, and Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse tasked with overseeing Elisabet’s convalescence. Bergman cautioned against the urge to demystify, remarking to a Swedish TV journalist in 1966, “Each person should experience it the way they feel.” Ullmann, in 2013, was even blunter, insisting that Persona is “not to be explained.” Tellingly, Susan Sontag begins her 1967 magisterial essay on Persona with a declaration that suggests her own words aren’t even necessary: “One impulse is to take Bergman’s masterpiece for granted.”

Sontag’s piece, which was first published in the Autumn ’67 issue of Sight & Sound and later anthologized in her 1969 essay collection Styles of Radical Will, remains one of the most lucid on Persona, presenting a cogent argument that the film is “strewn with signs that cancel each other” and thus ill-served by any attempt to make narrative sense of it. “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,” she writes.

While Persona may elude certainty, its genesis can be easily recapitulated. The film was conceived while Bergman—already psychically depleted by the bureaucratic demands made of him as the managing director of Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre—was hospital-bound in the spring of 1965, recovering from double pneumonia. During his recuperation, he came across a photo of Andersson, by then a long-standing member of Bergman’s troupe, sitting next to her friend Ullmann, an up-and-coming Norwegian actress. Finding a strong resemblance between the two women, Bergman began to develop a film that would star them both, later referring to the project as “a sonata for two instruments.”

Bergman’s illness may or may not be reflected in Persona’s mysterious prologue, a collection of shots, some lasting less than a second, that includes an erect cock, a tarantula, a hand being nailed to a board. A thin, bespectacled teenage boy stirs from what looks like a mortuary cot and touches a panel of glass or a screen, on which the visages of Andersson/Alma and Ullmann/Elisabet slowly come in and out of focus. Following this phantasmagoric preface, we are introduced to Alma and Elisabet: the former, age twenty-five, has been happily employed as a nurse for two years and is affianced; the latter, married with a small son, froze onstage during a performance of Electra and has been mute for three months.

Having determined that there’s nothing physically or mentally wrong with her, Elisabet’s doctor (Margaretha Krook) offers the actress the use of her summer cottage by the sea, where she will be ministered to by Alma (whose name is Latin for “the nourishing one”). Yet the physician’s generosity is spiked with some contempt. “You’ve turned this apathy into a fantastic setup,” she tells her patient, who grows abashed at the doctor’s final directive: “You should play this part until it’s played out. . . . Then you can drop it, just as you eventually drop all your other roles.”

Ingmar Bergman, Persona, 1966. The Boy and Alma (Jörgen Lindström and Bibi Andersson).
Ingmar Bergman, Persona, 1966. The Boy and Alma (Jörgen Lindström and Bibi Andersson). Courtesy The Criterion Collection/AB Svensk Filmindustri

Elisabet, at least initially, encounters no such hostility from Alma once the two settle in to the littoral bungalow, located on Fårö, a small Swedish island in the Baltic Sea where, soon after Persona’s production, Bergman built the house that would be his main residence until his death in 2007. Alma, in fact, seems delighted, even proud, to be the caretaker/roommate of the actress. At the idyllic resort, the women share an easy affection; Elisabet caresses Alma’s cheek, rubs her shoulders. The silent woman listens with utter absorption as Alma grows increasingly voluble; Elisabet’s flattering attention leads the nurse to more candid confessions.

One of these divulgences signals a crucial moment in Persona. Alma explicitly recounts to Elisabet an episode in which she had sex with a stranger on a beach—“I came over and over”—growing more agitated as she narrates the event. As she concludes her salacious tale, the women lie next to each other in bed, Alma crying, Elisabet holding her and stroking her hair. The scene that follows shortly after, like much else that transpires in the remainder of Persona, may or may not be a dream: drunk, Alma goes to bed near dawn. Elisabet enters the nurse’s room. Alma rouses from sleep, magnetically drawn to the actress. Elisabet, positioned behind Alma, strokes the nurse’s bangs away from her forehead and kisses the back of her neck.

This feverish segment, stills from which stand as Persona’s most iconic images, thrums with desire. Yet the charged sequence provoked one of Sontag’s more puzzling assessments in her essay. Declaring that the film “certainly contains the materials of an erotic subject. . . . above all, the connection between the two women themselves,” Sontag then appears to contradict herself: “But, in fact, what might be sexual in feeling is largely transposed into something beyond sexuality, beyond eroticism even.” Without quite explaining what she means by this—an anomaly in an otherwise rigorously argued piece—she repeats herself later, again with little evidence to bolster her claim, in the same paragraph: “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 strange disavowal. Earlier in her essay, Sontag—decrying those critics who insisted that the two women, following Alma’s betrayal by Elisabet soon after the scene described above, “exchanged” personalities and therefore assumed masks of another kind—offers this unimpeachable instruction: “My own view is that the temptation to invent more story ought to be resisted.” But to aver that the libidinally galvanic episode between Alma and Elisabet is “beyond eroticism” seems a willful refusal to acknowledge the obvious. These passages in her Persona appraisal evoke a similar repudiation in “Notes on ‘Camp’”; in that landmark 1964 essay, Sontag, after having meticulously distilled a gay (male) sensibility, offers this anxious dismissal: “Yet one feels that if homosexuals hadn’t more or less invented Camp, someone else would.” The language in both pieces is dissembling, hinting at Sontag’s conflict about her own same-sex desire—a source of shame her entire life, as Benjamin Moser stresses in 2019’s Sontag: Her Life and Work.

To a movie about masks, Sontag the critic brought her own obscuring observations. For Sontag the filmmaker, Persona left an indelible imprint, though one that she would acknowledge obliquely. Having been given carte blanche and generous funding by the Swedish government, Sontag made her first two (of an eventual four) movies in the Scandinavian country. Brother Carl (1971), her second film, features, among its cast of emotionally wounded adults, a mute young girl—an indirect homage to Elisabet Vogler. As Moser recounts, the title Brother Carl contains another tribute, this one even more coded, to another woman, this one all-too real: Carlotta del Pezzo, a druggy, distant Neapolitan aristocrat with whom Sontag had a yearlong, emotionally abasing relationship, which, at the time of Brother Carl’s shooting, was nearing its end. A gender-inverted salute to a woman who had besotted and devasted her, the name Brother Carl evinced more of Sontag’s veiling.

Sontag’s essay on Persona, despite—or because of—its masking, illuminates what happens on-screen. A more recent book by someone with firsthand knowledge of two of the film’s three principals details their lives off-screen. Bergman and Ullmann fell in love while making Persona and were in a tumultuous relationship that lasted roughly five years. (Bergman and Andersson, who died in 2019, had been lovers for about two years in the 1950s, the decade she began working with him.) Though a movie of immense anguish, Persona, as Ullmann states in that 2013 interview, was a film “made by very, very happy people.” Two months before the movie’s October 1966 premiere in Sweden, Bergman and Ullmann’s daughter, Linn Ullmann, was born. An esteemed literary critic and novelist, Linn had banned any discussion of her parents in interviews—until the publication of her sixth book, Unquiet, the English translation of which was released in 2019.

Labeled fiction, Unquiet is masqueraded memoir, in which Linn’s famous parents are never referred to by name—they are “Pappa” and “Mamma” or “the filmmaker” and “the actress”—and the narrator shifts between “I” and “the girl.” The narrator recalls her summer visits to Fårö as a child with her father and her many half-siblings (Bergman, who married five times, had nine kids; Linn is the youngest). Shortly before her father dies, the narrator records several conversations with him in Fårö, colloquies that she hopes might become a book about aging. Frail, the father stumbles as an interlocutor; when the narrator asks, “Can you tell me about Mamma?” he responds with a non sequitur about Beethoven. His answer is another kind of mask. This section in Unquiet summons up one of Sontag’s pronouncements near the end of her essay on Bergman’s film: “Persona demonstrates the lack of an appropriate language, a language that is genuinely full. All that remains is a language of lacunae, appropriate to a narrative strung along a set of gaps in the ‘explanation.’” In the gap of her analysis of Persona, Sontag kept an integral part of herself hidden. In her analysis of the man and the woman who became a couple while making the movie and, soon thereafter, made her, Linn Ullmann conceals names—but in the gap of anonymity discloses intimate truths.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns. Her monograph on David Lynch’s Inland Empire will be published in the fall by Fireflies Press as part of its Decadent Editions series.