Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Swedish movie (1966). Svensk Filmindustri. Pr Ingmar Bergman. Dir Bergman. Spfx Evald Andersson. Screenplay Bergman, published as Persona (1966; trans in Persona and Shame 1972 US). Starring Bibi Andersson (Sister Alma), Gunnar Björnstrand (Vogler), Margaretha Krook (Dr Läkaren), Jörgen Lindström (Boy), Liv Ullmann (Elisabeth Vogler). 84 mins. B/w.

Almost certainly the most disturbing movie ever made about Identity Exchange, P has attracted countless interpretations rooted in psychoanalysis. Above all, we are never allowed to forget that P is a movie: it opens with the starting up of a projector and a jumbled sequence of images – some loathsome – from other movies; at a crux moment later on the projector apparently jams and the film is burnt out, with a further jumble of film clips before the main action recommences; close to P's end we see for a moment the crew at work filming Ullmann; and the movie ends with the film coming free of the projector's sprockets.

That introductory jumble of filmic images may represent the suppressed images in the mind of either of the two main characters: Elisabeth, an actress who has suddenly become dumb/autistic; Alma, the nurse assigned to try to lure her back to speech during a long vacation in a remote beach cottage. Yet these events are set back from us by the use of something akin to a Frame Story: the first coherent minutes of P show a young boy waking in a mortuary (though whether this is a normal awakening or the emergence of his no-longer-incarnate Soul is dubious) and projecting the overlain images of the two women's faces. As we find later, this sequence has a dual meaning: the women may be the products of the boy's Perception, or the consignment of the boy to a mental mortuary may be a product of Elisabeth's perception of the son she abhors.

The events at the cottage are superficially simple. Since Elisabeth is silent, even her facial reactions being minimal, Alma talks for both of them; as the relationship between them becomes close to that between lovers (or so Alma assumes), her talk becomes more revelatory and confessional, displaying an honesty Alma has hitherto allowed only in communicating with herself. But Alma reads one of Elisabeth's letters to her husband, and realizes Elisabeth has no love for her – indeed, regards her as a child, to be patronized. At this, Alma's love turns swiftly to hatred (the turning of this tide is marked by the jamming of the projector). Onto the tabula rasa of Elisabeth she projects motivations that will explain her own behaviour. Only one woman leaves the cottage: her physical appearance is Alma's, yet she may be Elisabeth, or perhaps Elisabeth/Alma ...

P is a powerful movie, and requires repeated viewing. The two central performances are spellbinding, especially Andersson's. This was Ullmann's first movie, although she already enjoyed a successful career on the Norwegian stage: Bergman chose her because of her physical resemblance to Andersson, though this is not especially pronounced – P gains from the fact that the facial differences of the two women become ignored: it is their mental congruence that makes them come to seem identical. [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.