Criterion Month: ‘Persona’, Mental Illness, and Finding My Voice

Image via Kanopy

When Persona begins, it is a cacophony, an offsetting amalgamation of images that are meant to unnerve the mind. At first, they seem unrelated, though as the film progresses we come to understand that they are a reflection of Elisabet’s (Liv Ullmann) innermost thoughts. Elisabet, who went suddenly, completely and enigmatically mute during a performance of Elektra, spends her days lying motionless in a mental institution; her life is alabaster and sallow, repetitive with no sound. Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) is her caretaker, filled with gentleness and an impossible lack of frustration. Their interactions are almost like a pas de deux if one dancer remained entirely still. Elisabet’s doctor sends them to her remote summer home, where Elisabet is to recover with only Alma to care for her. At first, their days are calm and serene, but their time together quickly becomes a harrowing and laborious experience. Alma confesses and confides her deepest secrets, and Elisabet listens keenly. Their identities flicker and merge, as they grow closer. Their physical similarities soon turn them indistinguishable, and the tension between them only escalates.

A surrealist masterpiece which plays expertly with duality and confluence, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is an incredibly rich and imprisoning film. There are two primary ways I digest Persona. First, as a representation of and commentary on mental illness. Second, as being related to my own personal struggles in finding my voice.

I think I could turn into you if I really tried.

Persona is shot in black and white — and gorgeously so — however, tonally it’s full of greys. Pewter, ash, and fog, the shades of a life half-lived. While Elisabet’s psychosomatic illness goes undiagnosed, her mentally ill state is indisputable. The intensity of her grief and suffering has caused her to lose any desire or need to speak to another person. She has burrowed so deeply into herself that even her stare is alien and strange. Elisabet’s mental illness has turned her into a shadow of a person, as she removes herself from all forms of communication.

The longer she is cooped up with Elisabet, the more Alma becomes impassioned and frantic. As her loneliness becomes all-consuming, her patience falls away to anger and desperation for Elisabet to speak and respond to her. She confesses every last sin, but Elisabet gives her nothing in return but silence and touches on the cheek here and there. Elisabet will not be made to speak by screams or outward stimuli; the moment she chooses to speak again is her own, a choice to attempt recovery.

Image via Kanopy

This representation of mental illness feels like a genuine attempt to speak from an accurate perspective. It feels (at least to me) like an honest exploration of grief, torment and the urge to suppress oneself. It touches on aspects of depression and muteness, on the agony of choosing voicelessness over confronting the things that ravage us. It is easy to appreciate the delicacy and craftsmanship put into building such a real and vulnerable experience.

I used to be an extreme type of shy, the kind where I was diagnosed as selectively mute. Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that is specifically experienced by young children who feel unable to communicate in certain situations due to social anxiety. I hardly spoke, especially not to unfamiliar people or adults. My world was small and messy — it felt expressionless. It was a stifling kind of fear because it left me with such a lack of interpersonal awareness. I experienced the world mostly through observations and didn’t express any of my more inner thoughts. My childhood life was obviously not as dull or void of emotions as Elisabet’s, but having such deep social anxiety is debilitating in many ways. I only began to really express myself through art, both performing and visual, which allowed me to initiate my own self-exploration for the first time. Being able to release these small parts of my voice into the world helped me to know that the world was not as big and scary as I thought; my anxieties peeled away little by little and I learned how to breathe. Elisabet’s worldly experiences as an artist and as someone with a mental illness vibrate with complementary energy to mine. Elisabet first goes mute in the middle of a performance, and I only began to crack open the walls I had built once I began performing for the first time.

Although now I lean more towards extrovert than introvert, I still experience some voicelessness in relation to my own mental illness as well as in my identification as a lesbian. I first watched Persona about four years ago and felt strangely represented by Elisabet, who watches the world pass by through hollow eyes. Mostly I just felt the weightiness of her estrangement from the universe and compared it to my own. It’s not a constant feeling — I would not be able to function if it was — but it lingers and sometimes it presses all the way around me so that all I can do is watch the world. In this way, like me, Elisabet is a drifter, she lets herself float and allows the world to wash over her as her trauma spins in her mind. Elisabet is almost like a spirit and each pointed shot of her as she hovers throughout her life is as graceful as it is destitute. Her self-imposed solitude is achingly familiar to me.

Image via Kanopy

When I was closeted, it felt like there was a cloud of this unspeakable thing towing itself behind me wherever I went, just as Elisabet tugged her grief behind her. Not to mention that certain moments of Elisabet and Alma’s merging into a singular being had deeply gay-coded undertones, which I was very aware of. This aspect made the film all the more relatable to me and my struggles in finding my voice. Although I was not shy at this point, I was constantly nervous about saying certain things that might give me away or expose my true identity. At the same time, I was restless and desperate to free my whole self into the world.

To me, Persona is something very extraordinary. It is me and isn’t me. It reflects all I’ve ever been and something I hope not to become. It is a collection of my life’s encounters and breathtaking work of cinema. It serves as a well-intentioned representation of mental illness, and an unintended sliver of visibility for gay women. It is harrowing, beautiful and determined.

Jenna Kalishman

BA in English and film studies. Early English literature as well as fantasy and sci-fi fanatic. Bylines include Lithium Magazine, Hey Alma, and Flip Screened. @jenkalish on socials.

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