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Woman in the mirror

In 1966, engaging with your internal life might have appeared frivolous, like a juvenile dalliance in the presence of more pressing matters. There were wars to protest, revolutions to engage in, power to account for, justice to be fought for, rules to be broken and rewritten. This omniscient mood of world-changing energised some, but what became of those who rejected the vitality, not out of righteousness but of fatigue? Surely there were those who wanted to opt out of it all, retreat into something decidedly interior, far from the madness and excitement that coloured modern life. Today, it wouldn’t surprise me. In a time of saying yes—yes to a job, yes to political engagement, yes to “staying informed”—the word “no” carries a seductive lure. It materialises as a healing balm, thick and nourishing, packaged in the form of reduction, self-ejection and opting out when the world feels as chaotic as it does right now; perhaps as it always has felt, but it can be easier to conceptualise this turmoil as a modern affliction.

There are limited ways to fulfil such a desire. The goal is not to give in, but to simply press pause. Drugs can help for a while but ultimately fail to address the point, and suicide is too decisive. How else does one opt out? How else can a person say no? In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman) provides one alternative. That by becoming mute, she can renounce her life. The conditions that propel a person to this conclusion are mysterious. In contemporary parlance, we might call it burn out.

The premise is iconic. After freezing during a stage performance of “Electra”, Elisabet has been unable to speak, either by choice or by medical mystery. A doctor eventually deduces that her patient has made a vow of silence with herself. Her advice: to play this role out till the end, just as she would with one of her stage roles. She enlists a young nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) with her care, sending the two women to a remote island cottage to see out the end of Elisabet’s treatment. Upon arriving on the island, it doesn’t take long for the women’s personas to start to crumble.

During a time when much of cinema and popular culture was looking outwards to politics, war and social upheaval, Persona looked in. As such, I’ve been returning to the film this year for comfort. The ceremony of lockdowns and self-isolation might have encouraged us to look inwards, yet this introspection has constantly been challenged by larger external events that took precedence in the collective psyche: the global pandemic (inevitably), racial justice protests that spread from country to country, one country’s drama-fuelled presidential election. In the presence of more acute matters, the act of shutting down and remaining silent is often accompanied by shame, even guilt. Persona played with this desire for self-ejection in a way that shirked negative judgement.

The doctor in Persona embodies a role typically reserved for men in Bergman’s universe: the cold, one-note character whose job it is to cut a main character down. Who reduces her (and it’s almost always a her; the most fascinating characters in Bergman’s world are often women) to her most base self, one that is overcome with shame, abject and suffering like a naked animal. She recounts Elisabet’s wrongs to the audience: “Kill yourself? No, that’s too horrid. You don’t do that. But you can become untouchable and silent. Then at least you aren’t lying. You can shut yourself in and put up a screen. Then you don’t have to play any roles, show any false faces or gestures.”

With Alma by her side, Elisabet picks late summer mushrooms by the sea, reads a book, drinks coffee, writes letters, lies in the sun. She looks at herself standing beside Alma in the mirror. Weaves strands of hair through her fingers, interrogates the face of the woman beside her. Her world, once cavernous, has suddenly shrunk. As time passes at the cottage, Alma grows weaker, more fragile and anxious. She begins to question her surroundings and find uncertainty in her relationship with her patient. But Elisabet beams. She finds strength in the security of her environment, in a sort of gentle introspection that occurs naturally when one is shut out of normal life. No more speaking, no more acting, no more pretending.

“Don’t you think I understand?” the doctor asks her patient. “The hopeless dream of being. Not pretending, but being.”

Most likely, Elisabet’s lassitude has a root. But maybe we’re not interested in finding it; maybe it isn’t important. There’s a scene wherein she watches the famous footage of a Buddhist monk burning himself alive in Vietnam, in protest of the war. Elisabet stares terrified at the screen, eyes widened, pulling a hand to her mouth in disbelief. In that moment, she is directly confronted with another human being’s capacity for caring so much about something that he is willing to self-immolate for it. This notion is an affront. She is petrified by her own apathy, of her inability to feel for the things in life she’s meant to feel something for: family, children, a successful career, politics, even art. Love. In the doctor’s eyes, Elisabet shuts down from a lack of authenticity and fear of this fact. Through her silence, she’s found a way to opt out of pretending, which might just be what life is. At some point, the voluntary is destined to become involuntary. Do we choose to participate in life, don our masks and carry out our practicalities? For Elisabet the answer has become clear. For most of us, we will continue to look in the mirror for reassurance.


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