Mr Webster defines fog as “a murky condition of the atmosphere or a substance causing it.” Dense fog rolled in here exactly one week ago and will not let go. It pushes against me from all around, disallowing any semblance of clarity on the ground and trying to obscure what is within. Forcing itself everywhere, the fog pervades – from waking in its unearthly light until stumbling home beneath its dark weight and tamping of even the nearest lights. For all of its wispy meteorological properties and the faux dreamscape it renders, fog is harsh. The daylight, especially, struggles to find any place to fit within the earthbound clouds. What comes through is a hard brightness, a silvery attempt at definition allowing only impressions and uncertainty.
Fitting, then, that I chose to watch the 1966 film, Persona, in the middle of this foggy week. The weather outside lent itself to all of the film’s grey notions and any murkiness within the viewer. Which is to say that amid Persona’s black and white, I can find very little that is clear, and much that causes me to want to push back against that quality, to struggle and place meaning where there is no straight view, to emerge from the fog.
Ingmar Bergman’s startling portrayal of two women who are, like dense clouds, close to the ground, uses imagery that is at once bleakly detached and vibrantly, even sexually, charged with closeness. Persona is, barely, the story of an actress, Elisabet Vogler, played by the majestic Liv Ullmann, and her nurse, Alma, rivetingly portrayed by Bibi Andersson. Elisabet, a maestro of words upon the stage, is stricken silent during a performance of Electra. The camera halts in a garishly bright, lingering view of her panicked, empty face, her pained mouth, haunted eyes, and sweat suffused lip. “She apologized afterward, saying she had got the urge to laugh.” But the frozen moment turns into a period of near catatonia and hospitalization for the actress.
Elisabet’s doctor places her in the express care of Nurse Alma, a young woman who has her life figured out, it would seem. “I’ll marry Karl-Henrik and have a couple of children, which I’ll have to raise. All of this is predestined. It’s inside me. It’s nothing to think about. It’s a safe feeling.”
Alma and Elisabet travel to the doctor’s seaside cottage to facilitate the silent actress’ recovery. There, as the center of the film unfolds and the viewer experiences the world of alienation and pain inhabited by both women, the only thing plain about the film is its universality. “Life trickles in everywhere.”
The women, their gauzy clothing and carefully lit skin placing a thin façade upon their overt sexuality, settle into their new locale. Elisabet begins a tentative, silent response to Alma’s caregiving by taking oceanside walks and writing letters. When a sudden downpour finds them inside for an evening, Alma, faced with the uncomfortable notion that she is the only one able to speak, begins to disclose secrets to which Elisabet responds with barely perceptible enrapturement and tightly restrained prurience. The cinematography which dwells upon the faces of both women reveals them to their pores and follicles.
Alma and Elisabet are women displayed by Bergman in raw, earthy aspect. They are alienated, alone, separated by intractable distance and pain from one another and from the world. It is an agonizing and yet beautiful thing to watch. Their attempts to care for one another, their efforts to dismiss and wound one another, the conflicted caring they impose upon others, all combine flawlessly to produce an unforgettable experience. Each woman has sought respite, Elisabet in silence, Alma in the numbing, fleeting liberation of sex. The viewer is free to go right there with them, into their skin. The film spends long minutes upon facial closeups of Ullmann and Andersson, blending and blurring their identities until the only thing visible, truly, is the image, not of one or two women, but of the viewer in a sharp moment of self-recognition.
Persona is a film that gathers resonance and impact long after the reels symbolically burn in the closing. Far from the “ingenting” left to Elisabet and Alma, Persona is a film to be savored, lit from within, and kept for the bewildering journey.