"Persona" is a stunning film, and there are things that have always stuck in my mind. One is the image of a composite face, one half Bibi Andersson's, the other Liv Ullmann's. Another is the remarkable monologue where Andersson's character describes a sexual encounter and its aftermath.
Although the film is psychologically complex, this is partially offset by the relatively straightforward central story. It revolves around Alma (Andersson), a 25-year-old nurse put in charge of Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann), a well-known stage and screen actress who has stopped speaking. Elisabet steadfastly maintains her silence, evidently through the sheer strength of her will. When there seems no reason for the actress to remain hospitalized, the attending psychiatrist suggests that she stay at a remote seaside cottage under Alma's supervision. There the nurse does the talking for both of them. But soon Alma realizes she is becoming like her patient in ways she finds deeply disturbing.
"Persona" contains one of the most erotic sequences in cinema history. While the two women are relaxing and sipping wine at the cottage, Alma describes an incident where she and another young woman were sunbathing nude and encountered two young men they had never seen before. But the nurse goes on to tell of the incident's painful consequences and how she still feels tormented by it. The telling of this story makes for a highly erotically charged scene, yet I found that Alma's feelings of desperation and despair all but cancel out the eroticism.
At the cottage, conflict develops between the two women that heightens until we are eventually drawn into a lengthy dream where Alma's identity temporarily merges with Elisabet's. It is during this dream sequence that a stunning repeated monologue occurs. Twice Alma speaks the same monologue, in which she accuses Elisabet of being unable to bond with her own son, and each time the words and delivery are almost exactly the same. At this point, the two women's identities are so difficult to differentiate that the scene has the eerie, evocative effect of something seen from each side of a mirror. The first time Alma's monologue is delivered the camera focuses on Elisabet's face, the second time on Alma's. What Bergman does here is completely unexpected, and I was at first taken aback by it. However, after watching it many times, I see it as a stroke of genius. While I doubt I will ever completely understand it, I always find it profoundly moving.
At the end of Alma's repeated monologue, the fusion of the two identities is indicated by the famous image of the composite face which is half Alma's and half Elisabet's. To my mind, this extended dream sequence is a tour de forcemanaging to be simultaneously both surreal and super-real. But before the dream ends, Alma succeeds in asserting her separate identity. When Alma awakens from her dream, she finds Elisabet packing a suitcase. The women prepare to leave the beach cottage, apparently to return to their normal lives and their separate identities.