The Mount Everest of Cinema: Persona (1966)
“[Persona is] a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others. And on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.”
-Psychoanalyst, Carl Jung’s theory of Persona.
I begin this essay with the presentation of Carl Jung's notion of persona, and what started Bergmans' obsession with the harrowing view of the human psyche, and our tendency to play into our solace. In Ingmar Bergman's 1966 film Persona embodied is the art of filmmaking alongside humanity, in its entirety. From what is taking place on-screen to all that was done through the power of makeup, clothes, and, in-camera effects, without this crucial melodic symphony of constituents, Bergmans' complex tropes would not have been as well-received as they had been. Through scenes such as the film's iconic mirror scene and experimental Esq opener, along with the brief description of The Boy in the Picture scene, my analyses of these key scenes of the film prove my argument; that it is because of the visual design taking place amongst them that make it the film that critics appraise today. The implementation of visual design elements within Ingmar Bergman's film Persona affects the film's themes. Such themes are the representation of the fragility of the human psyche and instinctive human nature. This is done using critical visual design components, including lighting, in-camera effects, and makeup along with costume.
Many components in this film are undoubtedly noteworthy, but to start, Persona's use of lighting. Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist (A.K.A. "The Master of Light'') are very reliant on the lighting cast throughout the film. Typically the two sway more towards naturalistic lighting. As an audience, we can specifically see this in the quintessential scene where we watch the two women protagonists, Elisabeth Vogler and Alma who live symbiotically become one—also known as the "mirror scene" followed by the “The Boy in the Picture scene”. The mirror scene encompasses many of Bergmans trends in his work.
However, most importantly, in this scene, we see the two protagonists completely backlit for the entirety of the first half of the scene and contrastingly being distinguishably frontal lit in the second, eliminating most shadows that depicted the womens' identifiable features belonging to them. Thus drawing the film's turning point even more towards the loss of each woman's identities and projections onto one another. Lighting in Persona expresses emotion beyond just the dialogue and tone. The way light illuminates both of the women and scenery in this scene gives the audience a feeling of eeriness using gentle contrast and silhouette lit frames. It is reassured through the low-key lighting that impacts the scenes overall envisionment of both of the woman's views of one another. Through this lighting, the audience can truly see into the women's souls as they indeed are. This is significant because, without this use of lighting, it merely would not have been an Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist's film. Director Bergman wrote in regards to missing cinema after retiring, "With Sven Nykvist we are both utterly captivated by the problems of light, the gentle, dangerous, dreamlike, living, dead, clear, misty, hot, violent, bare, sudden, dark, springlike, falling, straight, slanting, sensual, subdue, limited, poisonous, calming, pale light. Light '' It is
because of Bergman's and Nykvist's precise and poetic perceptions of lighting that help to depict better the complexities of their characters and the characters' purposes within their films.
Secondly, the film's opener could arguably be considered disturbing, a spiritual journey, or a direct narration of the whole film through short shots and still images. Its use of in-camera editing captures the fading-in onto a montage, which seems to feel like a drawn-out fever dream, projected as if watching a film within the film. Interjected is the sound of a film reel rolling, and fast glimpses of images, hard to piece to the plot, are projected onto the screen. We follow other in-camera effects such as lens flares, time-lapses, static overlays, and forced perspectives that deceive the viewers' perception. Some of the shots are of innocent cartoons, a child's hands, while others go to show gruesome closeups of blood, tarantulas, a lifeless goat, and a man's genitalia. All of which are intercut with white light and piercing bright noise. This upwards of a six-minute opener could be perceived as many things. Still, to put it simply, its experimental aspects are what off the bat makes the film extraordinarily dependent on the in-camera effects aspect of its visual design. The film immediately directs the audience's attention to the feelings of pain, purity, loneliness, and utter confinement in one’s self. This opening is metaphysical, found in its eloquent expression of all Bergman and psychoanalyst Carl Jung are trying to express through exploring individuals' persona. The recurring motifs symbol to hands, specifically in the opener with a nail being driven into a man's palms play at the recurring panning, in-camera effect, to hands throughout the film. Symbolizing how our persona fails to mask are
full true self, which says something about our true selves. Their persona grows both women, and hands are just one way of measuring age, and growth. This symbolism is elevated throughout the film through in-camera edits such as quick pans and forced perspectives.
Thirdly, going back to the mirror scene, a visual design component we should note when evaluating the film's themes, is the use of makeup and costumes in this scene. Again, this is the scene that reiterates the persona of the film. We watch as Alma prepares for bed and as Elisabeth Vogler enters the frame from behind her. Hovering, in a way, this sentiment is likely a metaphor for the women seeing one another as their own personas.
Furthermore, how that notion comes
This film is so impeccably driven by visual design, and philosophical meaning, that it is easy to get lost in the film's literal foreignness. While watching it, like me, you may even forget you are reading from Sweedish subtitles because you are so immersed optically in the story being played before your eyes. Like that of the wide traction this film has gained over the years, many of which the audiences cannot understand Swedish, we find ourselves unpacking the complexity of the Swedish language, along with the complexity of what Persona even means. Furthermore, that is the power Ingmar Bergman brings in addressing the human psyche's fragility and the distinctiveness of one's human nature. We best see this display of themes through Bergman and Nykvist's use of lighting, in-camera effects, and makeup alongside costume.