I first saw Persona at the Surf Theatre in San Francisco in my early 20s, and I suspect my deepest sense of what art is was defined by it and similar Bergman films, particularly by the monologues, where a character speaks at length directly into the camera in intensely intimate confessions that are often strangely not confessional. I’d never seen anything like it: no car chases, not even any “Stella!”-like theatrics, no matter how much I loved that stuff. Just someone taking their time and talking quietly about what mattered to them.
In one scene in Persona, where the character is not talking into the camera, Bibi Andersson, as Alma, talks without interruption for four minutes to the silent Liv Ullmann, as Elisabeth, and for Alma’s entire monologue the camera stays on Elisabeth’s face. Then comes the amazing move where the monologue is repeated, this time with the camera on Alma’s face. At the end she is terrified she is turning into Elisabeth as she tells Elisabeth’s story. And one more complication: the silent Elisabeth is a stage actress. As seen in the image above, Andersson’s face merges with Ullmann’s at the end of the monologue, long before Photoshop.
The paradox of Persona is that it is intensely intimate and revealing while at the same time it leaves the viewer frustrated and never sure what the truth is. One could say the film frustrates and at times infuriates the viewer in the same way as Elisabeth’s silence frustrates and infuriates Alma. In another monologue—Pauline Kael called it “one of the rare truly erotic sequences in movie history”—Alma tells Elisabeth about a sexual experience she had on a beach.
The obsessive intensity of these monologues is the quality I crave most in the novels and stories and poems I read as well as in movies (not to mention my own writing). Persona may be the perfect movie for me because it is almost entirely a monologue, but crucially, a monologue Alma speaks to Elisabeth, not to an abstract audience or to herself, and Elisabeth is wholly present throughout the film.
Is film particularly suited to express this intensity? If anything, poetry and fiction seem particularly suited to it, but it’s true that Bergman’s script might fall flat if it was merely read on the page. It can be almost embarrassing in its clichés: “Elisabeth, you have everything as a woman and as an artist, but you lack motherliness.” I don’t think there’s any doubt that Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann—and their revealing of themselves through the personas of Alma and Elisabeth—are crucial to the film’s power, as are the extraordinary actors in all of Bergman’s films. (I also think of Ingrid Thulin’s monologue in Winter Light, the camera focusing on her face as she “reads” her letter to the minister who is her ex-lover.)
But film does have one huge advantage over writing—it can capture the silence. Poetry can attempt to do this, through white space on the page, more easily than prose, but white space seems clumsy compared to what can be done with the camera. We see the curtains in the room as Alma speaks, we see how the light shifts as the curtains drift, we see the creases in her skirt, and we see the amazingly expressive faces of Alma and Elisabeth as they talk and pause and keep silent. It’s the silences that give their words depth. How does one get that into the written word? Probably the answer is not that different from film: the silence comes in through the brief moments in even the most intense scenes where one notices the weather or a blue-checked tablecloth or the turn of an eye.