Persona begins with a slow fade-in of a white square on the black screen. For a moment the space looks like a movie theatre; the image changes as it lights up and we realise that it is the inside of a projector. The rest of this opening sequence is a montage of self-contained images: a running film strip, a short scene from what looks like a silent movie, a clip from an animation, a close-up of the eyes of a dying sheep, shots of dead, unconscious or immobile people. Any attempt to understand the meaning of this sequence is futile; each image evokes different associations; explanations and interpretations generate new grounds for thinking about it. However, the sequence can function as a clue in trying to understand the film; its abstract style is more meaningful when evaluated in conjunction with the fragmented narrative. Bergman’s choice of images evokes notions that are significantly related to cinema: movement, death, stillness, illusion, animation, light and dark. Similar to the film’s protagonist, Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), Bergman seems to be suffering from and looking for answers to a problem about storytelling, representation and performance.
As is well known, halfway through the film, in the middle of a scene, a frame freezes, cracks and burns; the story begins somewhere else and with a more uncomfortable atmosphere. What had seemed to be a linear narrative up to this point reverses to become more abstract in terms of space, time and causality; this crack shifts the narrative to a more indecipherable level where we can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy, fact and fiction or Alma and Elisabet. Not only are we reminded of the opening sequence, but also our engagement with the story is visually disrupted with this extremely self-reflexive fracture. I find Susan Sontag’s observation of this interruption helpful in trying to make sense of the film’s fragments and absences:
‘Bergman’s procedure, with the beginning and end of Persona and with this terrifying caesura in the middle, is more complex than the Brechtian strategy of alienating the audience by supplying continual reminders that what they are watching is theatre (i.e., artifice rather than reality). Rather, it is a statement about the complexity of what can be seen and the way in which, in the end, the deep, unflinching knowledge of anything is destructive. To know (perceive) something intensely is eventually to consume what is known, to use it up, to be forced to move on to other things’.*
*Sontag, Susan (1967) ‘Persona’, Sight and Sound, Autumn, 36:4, 186-191, p. 190.