Persona deals with two women who, throughout the course of the film, enter into a play of identity. In doing so, ideal images of womanhood are presented, only to be disintegrated into each other. The question then becomes: whose ideal images of womanhood is the film dealing with?
At the beginning of the film we see a boy touching a screen. This, I feel, is the key to the whole film. Though the majority of the film focusses on two women alone in a cabin by the sea, it is again the male lens that we see through, as signified by the boy.
Think of the two women. One is a nurse, kind and nurturing at first, unerringly optimistic. The other refuses to speak. Bibi Andersson, who played Sara, returns as the nurse. The other is played by Liv Ullman.
What we see here is two archetypal female figures of the male psyche. One is the mother, kind and nurturing, while the other is the sex object, the one who does not speak for herself, the one imbued with fantasy. And indeed she is, for her silence encourages the nurse to admit once having taken part in an orgy on a beach. It is here that the roles become ambiguous, where the archetypal images of each begin to break down.
It turns out that subsequent to the orgy she found she was pregnant. She had an abortion, but it weighs heavily on her. On the other side of things, the mute woman who we learn had been an actress had a child because she felt it she ought to, but she grew to resent her boy. In both cases, we are dealing with two sides of the same coin, with longing and loss, sorrow and guilt. It is through these emotions that we can explore the female character. Well executed tragedy, as Aristotle held, has the character of truth.
The boy, then, in a sense occupies the same space as Isak. He too finds barriers between himself and women. Isak’s are the barriers of a cold old man, while one child’s barrier is that of life itself and the others is his mother’s rejection of him, which has driven her mute.
Here we can ask an interesting question about objectification in general. The mother’s rejection of the son is key to her muteness. She becomes the empty vessel of desire only after this rejection. It would be easy to reverse the roles, and say that we are dealing primarily with male rejection of female personality in making the female the object of desire, but lets not. Perhaps the rejection lies in both parties, active participants in the creation of the object of desire. Or, perhaps the rejection lies incredibly outside both parties, a kind of pre-requisite to objectification?
These two archetypal figures fall into one another, the mother proving not to be as innocent as she first made out, and the reasoning behind the other woman’s muteness becomes more sympathetic than simple rejection. We see her watching a news bulletin about the Vietnam war and being extremely perturbed. Later, we see that the picture she carries of her son has soldiers in it. Her rejection is not simply of him, but of all men in what she perceives to be the cruel barbarity they inflict upon the world. In her rejection of this very male world of the 1960s, her withdrawal from the language of this world, she becomes the ultimate object of fascination and allure. What she rejects in the son is his potential to follow this course.
As the identities of the two become more ambiguous, the nurse especially taking on the other woman’s identity, the matriarchal figure moving towards that of the sexual object. This is where the tension of the film lies. I think that all women probably experience this tension in one way or another. Bergman, in having the boy touch the screen at the beginning of the film, is honest and respectful enough to show us that ultimately, though sympathetic and insightful, it is through a male lens, or glass, that we look through.
As the old saying goes, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t!