Bright Lights Film Journal

A Mindscape of Mirrors: Persona and the Cinema of Self-Perception

Like Sylvia Plath’s mirror, which promises then imperils her ideal self, the gaze of the other in Persona is a double-edged sword: a threat to pure subjectivity but also the existential “mirror” through which it is realized.

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Set to a voiceover of Sylvia Plath’s Mirror, Criterion’s video essay Mirrors of Bergman offers a vivid parallel for illuminating Persona.1 In Plath’s poem, a woman’s attempt to achieve “unmisted” self-perception as she gazes into the glass ends up fatefully obscuring her identity.2 Fearing that her reflection does not match the ideal self of her imagination, she becomes possessed and imprisoned by the mirror, which Plath personifies as a kind of detached double calmly observing her anguished ritual.3 The dialectic of inner and outer selves that lurks beneath Plath’s quixotic quest for pure subjectivity underscores a similar tension at the heart of Bergman’s film. As Alma and Elizabet each become the other’s “conscious mirror,” or objectifying eye, what results is a perceptual interworld where the contours of their identities grow anxiously blurred.4

An electrifying study of intersubjectivity, Persona merits closer examination through the lens of Merleau-Ponty’s chapter in Phenomenology of Perception, “Others and the Human World.” In his analysis of consciousness, Merleau-Ponty presents the very paradox that defines Bergman’s film, which is that self-perception is necessarily filtered through others, yet its fluid, inexhaustible dimensions as experienced from within are at odds with the finite and objective way one is perceived from the outside.5 Like Plath’s mirror, which promises then imperils her ideal self, the gaze of the other in Persona is a double-edged sword: a threat to pure subjectivity but also the existential “mirror” through which it is realized.

In Persona, each woman depends on the other’s gaze to sustain an idealized projection of her inner self, only to have it turn against and deconstruct this image. Alma, who secretly covets her patient’s distinguished aura, relishes Elizabet watching her as she theatrically recounts her shameful past, only to have her fantasized actress persona aborted when she reads Mrs. Vogler’s letter to the doctor. Elizabet, meanwhile, relies on the nurse’s naïve and adoring set of eyes to prop up the notion of herself as an impeccable artist. Alma’s judgments, however, eventually seep into the “pure” existence Elizabet has contrived, ridden with shards of ugly truth about her coldness toward her husband and son.

Halfway through the film, we see how quickly Alma and Elizabet’s dented dream worlds disintegrate into a battleground of gazes, dramatizing what Merleau-Ponty calls “the violent act that is perception itself.”6 Bitterly betrayed by Elizabet’s unflattering letter to the doctor, Alma pulls back the curtain and steels her gaze upon the actress – as if stripping away the illusion of intimacy with which Elizabet had seduced her the night before. The camera then cuts between them until the tension reaches the breaking point, the screen fracturing around Alma’s face, while the psychologically dominant Elizabet is left intact. Bergman scholars have characterized the dynamic between the women as a variation on August Strindberg’s play The Stronger, in which Mlle Y’s serpentine silence similarly invites the vehement breakdown of Mme X’s personality.7

The glass cracks around Alma’s face as she pulls back the curtain.

Elizabet’s “transcendence” of Alma, however, does not so much negate the latter as it affirms her indispensability to the actress’s world.8 Without Alma, Elizabet has no one for whom she can perform; she loses the role through which she can escape her failure to play the part of a loving wife and mother. When the film’s second half begins, we see her alone in the cabin, anxiously pacing and peering through the window. It is not until she spots Alma along the shore that a subtle reassured smile alights on her lips. Despite the threat of judgment Alma now poses, she remains Elizabet’s only promise of recreating her isolated dream world at the cabin, where she can avoid the realities of her personal life that contradict her esteemed-actress persona.

Elizabet only desires interaction with Alma insofar as the latter remains an unselfconscious acquiescent admirer, a kind of malleable “human mirror” she can manipulate so that her own fantasies are reflected back at her. Her solution to the difficulty of communicating with others is what Merleau-Ponty describes as a self-deluded retreat into solipsism that disregards others’ subjectivity and privileges her own private world as the only knowable “undistorted” truth. Elizabet projects her inner reality as if her mind alone existed – like “the eye of a little god four-cornered,” to borrow Plath’s image.9 Her pretensions to objectivity are also much like Plath’s, whose supposedly detached declarations in Mirror are in fact uttered within a supreme space of the Self: “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions/Whatever I see, I swallow immediately/Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike/I am not cruel, only truthful.10 Plath’s incessant use of first person hints at the self-absorption that belies her avowed striving for “unmisted” self-awareness. Elizabeth is, likewise, self-involved beneath her blank demeanor, clinging to a superior version of herself as an anguished but faultless artist.

It is the doctor who sees through Elizabet’s behavior, calling her self-imposed seclusion and refusal to speak “a fantastic set-up” that will not last: “You can keep quiet. Then at least you’re not lying. You can cut yourself off, close yourself in. Then you don’t have to play a part, put on a face, or make false gestures. But reality plays tricks on you. Your hiding place isn’t watertight enough. Life starts leaking in everywhere. And you’re forced to react.”11

The doctor is convinced that the only condition Elizabet actually suffers from is existence itself, which renders her insertion in the social world inevitable and will force her to play some role vis-à-vis others, even behind her erected wall of silence. Merleau-Ponty makes the same case in “Others and the Human World” – that in turning away from the realm of the social, one does not cease to be situated in relation to it. “The refusal to speak is still a form of communication,” he writes. And in Elizabet’s case, it is far from a genuine one.12 Her interactions with Alma abound in false gestures and expressions. She is, ironically, as much of an actress as she was before leaving the theater.13

In her so-called neutral state of silence, Elizabet actively condescends to Alma. She superficially plays the part of a good listener but is bored by the “ordinary existence” of her fan. Her lack of empathy and interest as Alma recounts painful episodes from her past is revealed through her unaffected gaze, which the camera imitates. Cutting between an overwrought Alma and a blank-faced Elizabeth, it maintains the same psychological distance – an almost clinical detachment.14 It keeps Alma confined within the room’s theater-like décor, suggesting that Elizabet views Alma as she would a role in a play: a set of words and gestures that do not hold any real significance.

Elizabet, ironically detached, watches Alma’s emotional performance.

It is Elizabet’s self-satisfied letter to the doctor that ends up shattering her uncontested dream space, where others exist inconsequentially as mere objects of thought. Alma’s glimpse into Elizabet’s actual opinion of her incites a prise de conscience on her part; she is no longer “a simple fragment” of the actress’s world but “the place of a certain elaboration and view of the world” – a force of judgment to which Elizabet becomes subjected.15 During the second half of the film, Alma grows increasingly ruthless in her attempts to expose the actress’s personal life. At the climax of her cruelty, she unearths a photo of Elizabet’s son from beneath her hand, demands that she speak about it, and delivers a blunt monologue of her own when Elizabet refuses.

Elizabet looks sideways to avoid Alma’s gaze. Ever so slightly, she shakes her head “no” in desperate denial of Alma’s words. Yet we see from the contorted pain on her face that, as much as she tries, she cannot be immune to this “other” who now holds up a stark mirror to her inner truths. Just as the doctor predicted, reality starts to seep in on all sides. In contrast to the detachment Elizabet maintained before, she is now pulled in toward Alma’s face. The camera’s unyielding close-up of Alma underscores the psychological violence of this confrontation, which traps the actress inside the gaze of this masklike, unfeeling double that the nurse has momentarily become.16

The series of zoom-ins during Alma’s monologue echoes back to previous moments when Elizabet’s gaze was sucked in by raw images reflecting her tormented inner state: the burning monk, the boy in the Warsaw ghetto. Both times, the light intensifies around her face to suggest a psychological connection; the camera then cuts back to a close-up of these images, unframed and filling the entire screen, as if the boundaries between these worlds and Elizabet’s had dissolved. Inside the hospital, we see an aura of brightness joining the actress’s ghostly figure to the edges of the TV screen, which then disappear as her gaze is pulled into it.

Elizabet’s efforts to remain impervious to the world are ruptured when she sees the burning monk.

When the camera returns to Elizabet’s face, her expression is horrified, panicked. She backs up into a corner of the room, trying to put the maximum distance between herself and this shocking image, but is unable to extricate herself until the television has shut off. Even then, she remains shaken, quietly gasping for breath. Even in the secluded hospital, reality seeps into the vacuous dream world Elizabet inhabits, charging it with currents of death, chaos, and human fragility, and as the doctor said, forcing her to react.

Beneath the stoic manner she tries to master, Elizabet is unable to cut all ties with the human world. No matter how far she retreats into herself, there remains a trace or flicker of some emotional connection to these images of suffering, despite their radical alterity. In the burning monk, she perhaps sees her own renunciation of the world – her violent impulse to escape her role-playing existence and purge herself of “lies” once and for all. In the photograph The Warsaw Ghetto Boy, she undoubtedly sees the son she abandoned and could not bring herself to love. These images of others function crucially as Elizabet’s private mirrors, refracting her awareness of a tortured self she keeps hidden. Bergman, moreover, embeds them in Persona like shards, destined (like the literal ones that Alma scattered) to shatter the actress’s wishful notion that she has left the theater to liberate herself from others’ gaze and find the “real” Elizabet Vogler.

Alma, however, is no less caught up in a dream world than her patient is. In contrast to Elizabet’s fantasy of a completely “sovereign” self, Alma attempts to become the other by molding herself into Elizabet and experiencing reality through the actress’s private world. If Elizabet denies the inevitability of communication with others, then Alma denies the truth of humans’ fundamental separateness as self-conscious beings. She even mentions that while watching one of the actress’s films, she thought they “were kind of alike” – that perhaps she would be capable of “becoming her on the inside.”17

With exquisite attention to form, Bergman captures Alma’s fantasy of assimilating Elizabet’s persona.

In her erotically charged dream where Elizabet enters her room, Alma’s fantasy of assimilating the actress is reflected in the differences that fall away in the frame. When the scene begins, the two are starkly opposed: the unconscious Alma, a dark, solid figure stretched out laterally in the foreground, while the vigilant Elizabeth is vertically poised behind her, approaching like a specter through the curtains. Then, as Alma awakens, they are drawn into a mirroring position, face-to-face, arms at their sides, both in white nightgowns – their private selves “alike” beneath the social masks they wear. Consumed with mimetic desire, Alma exposes herself to Elizabet, who hovers voyeuristically, as if watching and feeding off of her pseudo-self. Alma is Sartre’s “mannequin,” molded through the gaze of this other who represents her ideal self.18 As they turn to face the spectators, Elizabet’s eyes shift from Alma to a point beyond the screen where their perspectives seem to converge, “synchronized” into a single awareness.

Even after reading Elizabet’s cruel letter, Alma continues to nurse this fantasy of becoming her. Yet, as she turns away from her own past suffering to immerse herself in the actress’s, she ignores the fact that no degree of imagination or empathy can bridge their existential separation. “Strictly speaking,” Merleau-Ponty cautions, “there is no common ground between others and the self because the other’s (emotions) never have precisely the same sense for him and for me. For him, these are lived situations; for me, they are appresented. The two situations are not congruent.”19

This fundamental disparity is captured visually in Persona in the scene when Alma imagines Mr. Vogler arriving at the cabin and mistaking her for the actress. Staring masklike into the camera, Elizabet is bluntly at odds with the rest of the frame, where we see Alma in profile dramatically imitating her. Alma embraces Mr. Vogler, sobs with regret, and sleeps with him in Elizabet’s place, imputing the actress’s indifference to herself as she shouts, “I’m bad, poisonous, cold, rotten!”20 But as much as she tries to live the situation as her own, she can never more than imagine it. Elizabet’s presence reminds us that the inner reality of these encounters is knowable only to her, residing behind the silent wall of her face and hardly accessible to Alma or to us. Shown in this scene is what Merleau-Ponty calls “the paradox of trying to experience consciousness from the outside” – of trying to apprehend the world through another person’s self.21

The radical impossibility of Alma’s attempt to be Elizabet culminates in the collage of their faces during her unsparing monologue. Significantly, she utters it twice: first with the camera on Elizabet’s face, then on her own, underscoring their distinctness from one another, which contradicts her impulse to merge their identities.22 “The chiasmic transaction between the women’s intertwined conflicted subjectivities is always shot through with the awareness of difference,” writes Małgorzata Myk in her study of Persona, which she likens to Merleau-Ponty’s “interworld of selves that try to reach one another yet at the same time strive to preserve their autonomy.”23

Alma’s face disturbingly merges with Elizabet’s as she becomes possessed by the actress.

We see Alma’s horror as she realizes that her attempt to live through Elizabet’s consciousness has resulted in her invasion and possession by the actress.24 In fully privileging Elizabet’s inner world, she has lost the ability to conceive of herself as an ego, and her fear of self-annihilation prompts a sudden reassertion of subjectivity: “I am not Elizabet Vogler! You are Elizabet Vogler!”25 But half her face is eclipsed by Elizabeth’s as we hear a jarring chord on the soundtrack. Alma’s disintegration through the psychically stronger actress has attained a nightmarish pitch, as she suffers an onslaught of identities – “we, you, me, I, us!” – that are no longer distinguishable.26

As this collage of faces disturbingly lingers on-screen, Bergman articulates Merleau-Ponty’s notion of impersonal consciousness as unable to transcend subjectivity and its conflictual communication with the other. The problem with this hypothetical impersonal consciousness, as Merleau-Ponty illustrates, is that “the individuality of perspectives is erased” to the point where experience is no longer assignable to anyone at all.27 The other is no longer someone to be understood but a being, along with the “I,” that loses its outlines entirely. We see how Alma – caught in a cloud of non-identity – is no longer even speaking to Elizabet but crying out in confusion.

As her face dissolves and the screen goes white, it recalls the same collapse in communication that occurred midway through the film, when she and Elizabet stared at each other through opposite sides of the glass until it shattered. Through these repeated disruptions, Bergman denies any resolution to the entanglement of subjectivities that drives the exchanges between the two women. Like “Others and the Human World,” Persona suggests that neither Elizabet’s watertight solipsism nor Alma’s transgressive self-effacement constitutes a real solution to the problem that others pose to self-perception.28 This is because both discount the profoundly dual nature of the self: its conflicting impulses toward distinctness and interconnectedness with others. ((Myk, 62: “Showing the women as both strikingly similar and strikingly different, Bergman emphasizes the fact that we are all both similar and different; we share the common ‘interworld’ that is nevertheless a separate project of each of us.”))

As Bergman put it in his famous Snakeskin essay written shortly before Persona, humans live “in selfish fellowship.”29 On the one hand, there is a mysterious existential separation between people that can never be fully bridged despite a certain degree of resemblance underneath. Persona’s ending is symbolic of this. After “getting mixed up in each other” in the cabin’s fluid dream world, Alma and Elizabet depart and readopt their social masks – Elizabet returning to her career, while Alma boards a bus wearing her nursing uniform. “By showing Elizabet onstage,” writes Myk in “Transgressive Transactionality in Persona,” “Bergman reminds us that performativity defines our everyday lived existence and can never be fully sidestepped. We may try to transgress the limits imposed on us by the world we live in . . . but more often than not this turns out to be an illusion that ultimately carries us toward the limits of being.”30

On the other hand, one cannot forget Persona’s penultimate image: the boy in the hospital morgue caressing the screen that vacillates between the actresses’ faces. This flickering projection offsets the strictly narrative ending with its evocation of the porous boundary between Alma and Elizabet, of the dreamlike permeability and fluidity of their inner selves. It is Bergman’s cinematic encryption of “the truly transcendental” – that alterity already present within the self, which makes it possible to reach the other through the psychic barrier. The truly transcendental, as explained by Merleau-Ponty, “is not a transparent world without shadow and without opacity spread out in front of an impartial spectator.”31 It is not that pristine illusion of objective self-consciousness that falls apart in Plath’s Mirror. Rather, it is an ambiguous world, in which the perceiving self is tied to, shaped by, and endlessly revealed through the other it perceives.

Bibliography

Axelrod, Steven Gould. “The Mirror and the Shadow: Plath’s Poetics of Self-Doubt,” Contemporary Literature, 26(3), Autumn 1985, pp. 286-301.

Bergman, Ingmar. “Persona” and “The Snakeskin.” In Persona and Shame: The Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman, trans. by Keith Bradfield. London: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1972.

Dixon, Winston Wheeler. “Persona and the 1960’s Art Cinema.” In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, ed. by Lloyd Michaels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Holmberg, Jan, “Persona.” Stiftelsen Ingmar Bergman, May 20, 2012. Accessed Oct. 3, 2015. http://ingmarbergman.se/en/production/persona.

Kogonada. “Mirrors of Bergman.” The Criterion Collection, Feb. 12, 2015. Accessed Aug. 7, 2015. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3461-mirrors-of-bergman.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Others and the Human World.” In Phenomenology of Perception, trans. by Donald A. Landes. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

Myk, Małgorzata. “Transgressive Transactionality in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona,” in Against and Beyond: Subversion and Transgression in Mass Media, Popular Culture and Performance, ed. Magdalena Cieślak and Agnieszka Rasmus. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

Persona (English subtitles.) Directed by Ingmar Bergman (1966), MGM, 2004, DVD.

Plath, Sylvia. “Mirror.” In Crossing the Water. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. by Hazel E. Barnes. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1943.

Steene, Birgitta. “Bergman’s Persona through a Native Mindscape.” In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, ed. by Lloyd Michaels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Vineberg, Steve. “Persona and the Seduction of Performance.” In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, ed. by Lloyd Michaels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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Note: All images are screenshots from the film.

  1. Kogonada. “Mirrors of Bergman.” The Criterion Collection, Feb. 12, 2015. Accessed Aug. 7, 2015. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3461-mirrors-of-bergman. []
  2. Sylvia Plath, “Mirror” in Crossing the Water (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1971), 34. []
  3. Steven Gould Axelrod. “The Mirror and the Shadow: Plath’s Poetics of Self-Doubt,” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Autumn, 1985), 286: “In much of her later poetry, Sylvia Plath sought to give birth to a creative or ‘deep’ self hidden within her . . . by unpeeling an outer self . . . she sought to unveil and give voice to an inner ‘queen’ or ‘White Godiva,” . . . although she may at least partially have achieved this in such celebrated poems as “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” and “Ariel,” she more characteristically dwelt on her fears that she would fail – that she would be unable to reveal her ‘deep self,’ or that she did not in fact possess such a self at all. Plath’s figures for these fears were the mirror and the shadow.” []
  4. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Others and the Human World” in Phenomenology of Perception, trans. by Donald A. Landes. (New York: Routledge, 2012), 408, 411: Merleau-Ponty posits a “third genre of being between the pure subject and the object” that emerges when individual perspectives “slip into each other.” []
  5. Ibid, 368: “Insofar as another person resides in the world, insofar as he is visible there and part of my field, he is never an Ego in the sense in which I am one for myself. In order to conceive of him as a genuine I, I would have to consider myself as a mere object for him, which I am prevented from doing by the knowledge that I have of myself.” []
  6. Ibid, 379. []
  7. Birgitta Steene, “Bergman’s Persona Through a Native Mindscape,” in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, ed. Lloyd Michaels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 31-33: Persona’s “psychological tug of war” is strikingly similar to the dramatic chemistry one finds in The Stronger, a modernist play written by August Strindberg, whom Bergman consistently cited as his most important influence. []
  8. Merleau-Ponty, “Others and the Human World,” 378: “I can construct a solipsistic philosophy, but by doing so I presuppose a community of speaking men . . . It is said that a choice must be made between others and myself. But one is chosen over the other, and thus both are affirmed.” []
  9. Plath, “Mirror,” 34. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Ingmar Bergman, “Persona” in Persona and Shame: The Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman, trans. by Keith Bradfield (London: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1972), 41. []
  12. Merleau-Ponty, 377-378. []
  13. Małgorzata Myk, “Transgressive Transactionality in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona,” in Against and Beyond: Subversion and Transgression in Mass Media, Popular Culture and Performance, ed. Magdalena Cieślak and Agnieszka Rasmus (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), 63: “What she (Elizabet) actually accomplishes by abandoning the sociolinguistic sphere is only a short-lived recuperative illusion of residing outside the confines of society and the roles she plays there.” []
  14. Winston Wheeler Dixon, “Persona and the 1960’s Art Cinema,” in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, ed. by Lloyd Michaels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 46: Dixon notes how the cinematography in Persona is reminiscent of New Wave filmmakers such as Godard, who “observed his characters with clinical detachment in sculptural, austere compositions of light and shadow.” []
  15. Merleau-Ponty, 369. []
  16. Steve Vineberg, “Persona and the Seduction of Performance,” in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, ed. Lloyd Michaels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 128: “Alma seems to be writing the script of Elizabet’s life, forcing Elizabet to play the role as she has shaped it.” []
  17. Bergman, “Persona,” 58: Alma (to Elizabet): “That evening when I had been to see your film, I stood in front of the mirror and thought, ‘We’re quite alike.’ In some way, we’re alike. I think I could turn myself into you. If I really tried. I mean inside.’” []
  18. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. by Hazel E. Barnes (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1943). []
  19. Merleau-Ponty, 372. []
  20. Bergman, “Persona,” 89. []
  21. Merleau-Ponty, 364: “The analysis of the perception of others encounters the essential difficulty raised by the cultural world because it must resolve the paradox of consciousness seen from the outside.” []
  22. Vineberg, “Persona and the Seduction of Performance,” 124: “For all that has been written about their similarity, Andersson and Ullman are not true lookalikes and Bergman continually underscores the physical differences between them.” []
  23. Myk, “Transgressive Transactionality in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona,” 62. []
  24. Vineberg, 128: “Bergman’s depiction of Alma as the actress and Elizabet as the role reveals a creepy and highly personal vision of acting as possession.” []
  25. Merleau-Ponty, 374: What leaps out of the frame in this moment is the dilemma posed by Merleau-Ponty – that of “positing another with his world and positing myself with my world.” []
  26. Persona (English subtitles.) Directed by Ingmar Bergman (1966), MGM, 2004, DVD. []
  27. Merleau-Ponty, 373. []
  28. Ibid, 379: “It is just as false to place us within society like an object as it is to put society in us as an object of thought, and the error on both sides consists in treating the social as an object.” []
  29. Bergman, “The Snakeskin” in Persona and Shame, 15: “The artist is on equal footing with every other creature who also exists solely for his own sake. Taken together, we are probably a fairly large brotherhood who exist in this way in selfish fellowship on the warm, dirty earth, under a cold, empty sky.” []
  30. Myk, 63. []
  31. Merleau-Ponty, 382. []