Persona: five films inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece

It’s more than half a century since the release of one of the most influential films in modern cinema: Ingmar Bergman’s identity-merge masterwork Persona. Here are just a few of the movies – and an ABBA video – that are cast in its image.

David Parkinson
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Persona (1966)

Ingmar Bergman had always been a master of the intense chamber drama. But, having abandoned his search for God in the early 1960s, his growing despondency with the state of the world and the condition of cinema prompted him to move towards a new subjectivity and fascination with the metaphysical.

In 1965, he was hospitalised with double-pneumonia and penicillin poisoning. In order to occupy his time, he composed a ‘sonata for two instruments’ around Nurse Alma and her patient, Elisabet Vogler, a famous actor who becomes mute during a stage performance of Elektra. However, as Alma (played in the film by Bibi Andersson) tries to coax Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) into conversation, she confides long-held secrets and feels betrayed when they are exposed in a letter.

Persona (1966)

Persona (1966)

Taking cues from August Strindberg’s 1889 play The Stronger, Bergman chose the title Persona as this was both the Greek word for ‘mask’ and the term coined by Carl Jung for the outer self that opposed the inner ‘alma’. He also picked Elisabet’s surname carefully, as Albert Emanuel Vogler had sapped the energy of others for his artistic endeavours in his earlier film, The Magician (1958).

But, while he blurs the lines between fact and figment, Bergman contents himself with leaving clues rather than explaining why Elisabet falls silent, or why Alma’s outward serenity crumbles. Similarly, he litters the action with distortions, dislocations and surrealities to withhold whether the segment after Alma falls asleep is a single dream or a meld of illusion and reality paralleling the iconic composite images of the women’s faces.

In Images: My Life in Film (1994), Bergman declared: “I feel that in Persona – and later in Cries and Whispers – I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.”

Persona (1966)

Persona (1966)

These “secrets” have been inspiring filmmakers ever since. Bergman himself borrowed ideas for Hour of the Wolf (1968) and they have recurred in the power games chronicled in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), Marina de Van’s Don’t Look Back (2009), Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (2015).

What critic Miriam Bale has dubbed “persona swaps” have cropped up in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female (1992), Gilles Mimouni’s L’Appartement (1996), Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2014), while adroit variations on the theme have informed Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique (1991) and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).

But Persona has also inspired its share of visual quotations, from the fleeting image of an erect penis in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and the crawling spider in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007) to the melting celluloid in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared (2006), and the close proximity of faces in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the poster for John Woo’s Face/Off (1997), Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love (1998), Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) and, of course, Lasse Hallström’s video for Abba’s 1977 hit ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’.

Here are five key films it would be difficult to imagine without Persona’s influence.

Les Biches (1968)

Director Claude Chabrol

Les Biches (1968)

Given some of Persona’s stylistic devices were French new wave-inspired, it’s fitting that Claude Chabrol should return the favour in this noirish study of identity, sanity and ambiguity, which he later claimed was “the first film which I made exactly as I wished”. Echoes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) also reverberate through bisexual bourgeois Stéphane Audran’s grooming of pavement artist Jacqueline Sassard. But it’s hard to miss the reference to Liv Ullmann stroking Bibi Andersson’s hair as Sassard stands behind Audran while she applies lip gloss in the mirror.

Fellow auteur Jean-Luc Godard paid his own homage in Weekend (1967), by having Mireille Darc treat her therapist to a confession as graphic as Andersson’s sunbathing anecdote.

Performance (1970)

Directors Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell

Performance (1970)

Although it numbers works by Jean Cocteau, Kenneth Anger, Francis Bacon, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Losey and John Boorman among its influences, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s account of “the perverted love affair between homo sapiens and lady violence” owes much to Persona, as fugitive gangster Chas Devlin (James Fox) begins to lose his grip on his identity while falling under the spell of rock star, Turner (Mick Jagger).

At one point, Chas and Turner’s faces dissolve into a composite that complements an image of Turner’s Powis Square housemate, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg, who had dated Jagger’s Rolling Stones bandmates Brian Jones and Keith Richards). No wonder the picture’s tagline was “Vice and Versa”.

3 Women (1977)

Director Robert Altman

3 Women (1977)

In his Observer review of Robert Altman’s personal and elusive snapshot of a nation succumbing to consumerist banality, Philip French posed a question that applies equally to Persona: “Is the film a dream or a series of dreams? Are the interdependent women a single person?”

Altman insists he got the idea during a disturbed night while his wife was seriously ill in hospital (“All complete. The story, the casting, everything.”). But the influence of Bergman is evident as the delusional Shelley Duvall chatters as compulsively as Andersson, while her face melds with Sissy Spacek’s in the same way that Andersson’s does with Ullmann (who, like Spacek secretly makes notes on her companion’s behaviour). Even feckless husband Robert Fortier finds it as hard to recognise his wife as Gunnar Björnstrand does during his brief visit to the coast.

Stardust Memories (1980)

Director Woody Allen

Stardust Memories (1980)

Woody Allen considers Persona a work of screen poetry and its influence can be felt in Interiors (1978) and Another Woman (1988), with Mia Farrow’s overheard therapy sessions in the latter recalling Alma’s shocking confessional monologue (which was also photographed by Sven Nykvist).

Typically, he lampooned Persona during the wonderful ‘wheat’ exchange with Diane Keaton in Love and Death (1975). But Allen most strikingly referenced the picture in Stardust Memories, as the blown-up photograph of the Vietcong officer echoes Bergman’s use of the images of a self-immolating monk and the Warsaw ghetto, while the harsh Alma-like close-ups employed for Charlotte Rampling’s jump-cut asylum speech give her nowhere to hide her emotional fragility. 

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Director David Lynch

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

In her Sight & Sound article on Persona, Susan Sontag said it shared with The Silence a thematic interest in “the scandal of the erotic; the polarities of violence and powerlessness; reason and unreason; language and silence; the intelligible and the unintelligible”.

The same could be said of its relationship to David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., as the shifting dynamic between Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) and Rita/Camilla Rhodes (Laura Harring) closely resembles that of Alma and Elisabet. Lynch mixes and matches the characteristics, with Betty being an actor like Elisabet and stricken with psychosexual guilt like Alma. But nothing in a “dream place” is ever what it seems (particularly once illusions have been shattered) and, therein, lies the elusive fascination of each film.

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