Narrative Space

This theoretical-ethical point around which Persona is structured is already dramatized in the pre-credit sequence, where a boy with his hands stretched out trying to touch the (projected) image of a woman (his mother?). The image, as it becomes larger and larger is both too close to be clearly recognized and too far to be concretely grasped - it is at once immediately tactile and irredeemably unreal: the boy's longing for his mother, human contact and physical commu

nication remains unfulfilled, for how could he ever bridge the gap between the two planes of reality that separate the body from the image. (To underline this point, and make the didactic-metaphysical implications quite obvious, Bergman lets the boy turn round and repeat the gestures into the camera, obliging the spectator to be both directly related to his predicament and experience it indirectly: we will always remain "unreal" to him, and that means that he - as indeed all the characters in the film - exists only in terms of the role we are prepared to give him, in the act of activating our empathy, our touch, our intellect). In this pre-credit scene of violence and graphic detail, or bodies asleep and bodies in the morgue, of slaughtered sheep and human hands having nails driven through their palms, Bergman clarifies his own position (as if to bid farewell to his early films which, in order to make these points about reality and appearance, had to invent historical fairy tales, (e.g., The Face).

Bergman's concern for, and awareness of, the medium is also apparent in his very differentiated and subtle organization of space, that is to say, visual space. This may seem paradoxical, insofar as a certain kind of representational space does not exist at all in Persona. There is an almost complete absence of perspective and depth. The women are close to the camera, the background is often indistinct or blurred, and their faces are seen as if from behind glass with flat visual planes with clear outlines, yet without a feeling of roundness and wholeness, thus giving an overwhelming sense of at once claustrophobia and transparency, of constriction experienced in a state of almost hallucinatory clarity. This deliberate one-dimensionality of the image, clearly and essentially belongs to the women's predicament, is achieved by Bergman's refusal to let the illusion of ordinary space develop, substituting instead a properly cinematic space without in any way destroying that sense of psychological realism, so necessary to any involvement in the interpersonal drama unfolding.

The full significance of this floating, translucent space, however, only becomes apparent when contrasted with scenes where there is edge and perspective. For example, when Alma tells her story about the boys on the beach, Bergman gives the room an extraordinary depth, with the two women as focal points, clearly distinguished and surrounded by a particular light which both illuminates and isolates (especially the light near Elisabet). Against the impersonal, flat and even surface of the other scenes, this one has an immediate - but deceptive - quality of warmth and intimacy. The function and significance of this new space is twofold: firstly it clearly separates the two women, isolating Elisabet from Anna's experience, and giving to Anna an emotional freedom, outside their ambivalent relationship. Secondly the deep focus, allowing as it does a fullness of the image and the expansion of the visual space not only corresponds to the sentiment that Alma tries to express, but at the same time associates its thematic value, giving it an interpretation which the story itself does not make evident, which is namely the immensely liberating significance that Bergman wants to convey through Alma's tale, the sensual reality of a warm, expansive day on the beach, the sexual abandon, the physical intimacy, the strangely innocent fulfillment of this impersonal human contact across passion and lust. Thus, the expansion of Alma's self in the narration corresponds to the expansion of the cinematic image, and the reality of her experience becomes materialized in the visual reality of the room in its three-dimensionality.

Where such a reality no longer exists in relation to the characters (as subsequently when Alma breaks down and cries on Elisabet's bed), the space, too, reflects this contraction, becoming indistinct, obliterated. Similarly, the longshots on the beach, among pebbles and rocks (a landscape present in at least half a dozen of Bergman's films) indicate the total destruction of their relationship, their fundamental discord between each other and their environment. Whereas in his earlier films, these beach scenes often made a somewhat allegorical point about "isolation" and "alienation," the scene in Persona has quite a different, wholly specific connotation, because the spatial construction, as I have tried to show, relates to other scenes, and therefore belongs to a specific dramatic turning point.

The film's spatial organization is thus determined by the development of the narrative argument, the power relations and inter-personal struggles, moving from claustrophobic one-dimensional surfaces to focal depth and clarity, or unrelated, forlorn vistas on the beach. Particular importance in this context is given to Elisabet's hospital room. The darkness is bathed in ghostly light emanating from the television set. Terrified by the images of the burning monk, Elisabet tries to escape from the impact of this experience by pressing herself against the wall. The scene is crucial, in that it finds a most apposite visual metaphor for the insoluble nature of her dilemma in the outside world, which she tried to exclude by her silence, but which intrudes the more forcefully as images which quite literally are reflected on her own person. This throws light on her own predicament, and illuminates her inner world from which she cannot escape (though she might have cheated herself, as most of us do, by turning off the set, as she had done previously with the radio). Unobtrusively, yet very powerfully Bergman validates the metaphor of the room as an image of Elisa-bet's interior world, in which she is exposed to violent conflict. Hence once more the concrete sense of space (which is not a theatrical space) that Bergman gives to the scene. It foreshadows and anticipates a situation of bodily threat and psychic danger repeated later, when Alma is about to pour boiling water in Elisabet's face. If in the first scene it is the reality of an image (the reflection of an external reality) which threatens her, the second scene stages a threat to Elisa-bet's body image, intended to expose the fallacious purity of her escape into silence. In both cases, the intensity of the emotional conflict depends for its dramatic reality on the justness of its materialization in a visual space.

The importance which Bergman gives to space invalidates a charge made against Persona at the time, namely that it examines the relation of the two women in a social vacuum. Not only does the first part of the film show how and why they are gradually taken out of their habitual environment, but the subtle variations of space are partly intended to keep the political dimension constantly present. From the beginning, Bergman stresses the sensual, intellectual (and social) difference between the two women. One notes, for instance, the juxtaposition of the two women going to bed: Elisabet, with her face motionless turned towards the camera, and the image becoming slowly darker and darker - cinematic expression of her essentially reflective nature, while Alma, restless, switching the light on and off is characterized as temperamental and impulsive. At the same time, their common characteristics (from which the dramatic conflict flows) are also underlined. They are both in a "false" position, i.e., both contain within themselves irreconciled contradictions: one by choice and act of will (Elisabet's silence, deliberate negation of her profession as actress and of her middle-class existence), the other by innocence and ignorance (Alma's soliloquies at night as she removes her make-up - a symbolic action, reminiscent of a similar scene at the end of Summer Interlude (1950) and contrasted to her seemingly straightforward self-assured day-time manner).

What are these opposites, and what do they signify? As I have already indicated, Persona seems to me most meaningful when also considered as a meta-cinematic statement, in which the nature of the characters' drama relates intimately to the specific qualities of the cinematic medium. Thus, Elisabet seems to find in her self-imposed silence a release from her extroverted existence imposed upon her by her profession as an actress. Away from the role that smothered her own self under layers of make-up, she tries to discover an inner dimension, a new intimacy which seem to be the fruit of solitude. To this, Alma brings the necessary - devastating - correction that there may not be a self beneath the mask. On the other hand, Alma, too, finds in this silence a screen upon which she can project all the roles she had always wanted to play. She becomes an extrovert to a degree that seems to surprise even herself, though only to discover in the process that by playing these roles she has stripped herself of all her outward assurance and certainty. By playing herself, and as it were, dramatizing her own existence in front of her silent spectator, Alma becomes an actress, performing before an audience. (The meta-discursive dimension in relation to the cinema is evident, if only by the fact that Alma is of course played by a professional actress: Bibi Andersson).9 The fictional Alma is nonetheless caught at her own game also by the silence of the spectator Elisabet who makes her lose all control, plunging her into a hysteria that brings her face to face with her own long-concealed anguish. This is precisely the kind of anguish that made Elisabet renounce being an actress - the nurse has become patient, and the patient has become teacher. In this, Bergman seems at pains to remind us of the perverse and at the same time revealing conditions under which (artistic) creativity exercises itself today, which is always on the verge of hysteria, hype, and hypocrisy.

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