Of Masks, Doubles, And The Delicate Nature Of Identity

“Persona” is undoubtedly stunning to behold, elevated by Sven Nykvist’s electrifying cinematography that manages to add a dreamlike tint to both open and liminal spaces. Bergman sets up his shots in a purely experimental fashion, often breaking the fourth wall when one or both characters look directly into the camera, inviting viewers to be an active part of the film’s reality. Owing to the nature of the narrative, and Bergman’s fascination with faces, close-ups are used liberally throughout, notably during Alma’s monologues and the final confrontation between the two women. All of these factors, when combined, produce a synesthesia of haunting imagery that lies somewhere between the real and imagined.

The seaside cottage, which is an intimate, secluded space cut off from the rest of the world, acts as a parallel world filled with possibilities. There, Alma and Elisabet start merging into one another, to the point that their trajectories — although wildly different — echo and mirror one another. After a certain point, it becomes unclear where Elisabet starts and Alma ends, and vice versa, although the catalyst behind this enmeshing is crystal clear.

Elisabet, through her self-imposed muteness, sheds every role expected of her: she no longer has to wear masks when she acts on stage, or pretend to be a doting mother for a child she secretly abhors. On the other hand, Alma perceives Elisabet as her sole confidant and mirror, which leads to her recounting a salacious orgy and subsequent abortion that still elicits shame and guilt. This displacement of anger, which she directs at the mute other, culminates in the boiling water scene, causing Elisabet to momentarily break her vow of silence. As familiarity and contempt escalate, the two women caress in a defining, magnetic scene, resembling two halves of a whole.

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