What makes Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) begin to unravel is the silence. Hearing her own voice and having nothing come back to her. At first, when she talks to Elizabet, she is uninhibited, unashamed, the chatter goes on without stopping for about half an hour. You wonder, watching this, how it can be sustained, you wonder what is driving Alma to divulge so much – what is it in the silence of the other character that propels her so?
It is the silence, in the end, that breaks Alma down.
I know that fear. I live with that fear. My solitude, as much as a I cherish it, can also – with one or 2 bad days – turn into a macabre echo chamber. I stand at the foot of the steps leading up to my apartment – and I think: I can’t go back in there. In that moment, “in there” is actually “my life”. The realization that I can’t go back in there because I know the solitude that awaits me cuts me like a knife in those moments, and I do not want to confront the silence anymore. The silence is not kind in those moments, it does not envelop me, or give me peace. It stares me right in the face, threatening to submerge me entirely. It echoes me back to myself, only distorted, my worst fears realized. Or – when I yearn for distortion, when I yearn for a little soft-focus – it refuses. The silence gives me back reality as it is. Unblinking. I had a weekend like that recently and I had to grit my teeth, knowing it would pass, and that I would soon be myself again. But for that weekend, I felt insubstantial, as though I had no solidity, I couldn’t locate my self, the self that is NOT fluid, the self that says: I am Sheila and I know who that is. I walked through the streets of Hoboken on Saturday, Feb. 17 and felt as though I could not be seen. I had lost that much substance. A phone call with David made me realize that that was just the bad-ness in my brain, no no no I am here, I am still Sheila … don’t go there, you don’t need to go back into your apartment, you don’t need to go back in there, until you feel it is yours again. I spent the night at Flynn’s and when I returned on Sunday night – the translucence had passed. And my apartment no longer yawned with unforgiving silence. It was mine again. This happens to me often, by the way. Not as often as it used to – but when the ominous feelings start to come over me – they are as familiar as oxygen. Oh. Yes. You again.
That was what Persona made me think of.
In Persona the stunning sensuous-mouthed Liv Ullmann plays Elizabet Volger, an actress who suddenly, during a performance, gets an overwhelming desire to laugh. (She’s acting in a tragedy, so the laughter seems inappropriate to her) And after she gets the desire to laugh – she opens her mouth to speak – and nothing comes out.
She ends up being put in a hospital, where she lies in bed, mute – not speaking. Her silence reminded me of Holly Hunter’s in Piano, where the not speaking is an act of will and ego, a giant ego withholding from the world. A kindly doctor says to Elizabet, “I think being in the hospital is actually harming you. There is nothing wrong with you mentally. I think you and Nurse Alma should go stay at my summer house – she can take care of you and you can rest.”
And so begins this descent into hell. A two-person hell.
Liv Ullmann doesn’t speak. And yet she is reactive. She doesn’t lie around, staring into her interior space. She listens to Nurse Alma, her glimmering eyes focused on Bibi Andersson – as they do various activities together – picking mushrooms, reading, drinking wine. It is not that she lies mute and unthinking. It is just that she has decided not to speak. And at first Nurse Alma does not question this. She knows that Elizabet will speak when she is good and ready. It is her job to take care of her, should a crisis arise. It is not her job to turn her into Helen-Keller-At-the-Well.
At first Nurse Alma finds the non-responsive silence of her companion liberating. Alma finds herself chattering away to her charge, talking nonstop, an avalanche of confession and anecdotes. She can’t seem to stop herself. She doesn’t want to stop herself, she is having so much fun, it is so freeing to just talk and talk, with such a sympathetic listener. It does seem that Elizabet is listening. Elizabet sometimes smiles understandingly, sometimes just listens impassively – it is hard to tell what is going on sometimes – but it is obvious that her silence has an extreme effect on Nurse Alma. From little hints Alma drops here and there, we do get the sense that she might not be too thrilled with her life. She’s marrying a man she doesn’t really love, although he’s okay, and stable … they will have kids … and, at the moment we first meet her in the film, none of this is questioned.
At first, we get the sense that Nurse Alma is a bit in awe of Elizabet. Elizabet is older, more experienced, and also a famous actress. Then, as the months stretch on, and their time at the summer house continues – and their isolation from the outside world intensifies and lengthens – Nurse Alma’s awe of Elizabet starts to dissolve. And her confessions become more deep, personal.
There is one absolutely extraordinary scene when Alma, in a billowy white nightgown, starts telling a story from her life to Elizabet, who lies in bed, smoking. Elizabet is sitting up, she’s wearing black, which makes her look stark and strange against the white sheets. Alma sits across the room in an armchair (at least at first) – and starts to talk about this time she was lying on a beach, and she came across a girl who was nude, sunbathing … and Alma lay down and joined her, and eventually 2 boys join them, and an orgy commences. Alma is confessing. But she’s not confessing in a “Oh boo hoo I have sinned” way – but in a “This was the most incredible experience of my life … and how on earth could I ever explain it to anyone?” She has told no one.
The monologue – and its length – makes me realize, yet again, how choppy movies are today, how directors today (for the most part) have no idea what to do with actors, and seem hellbent on cutting away from them as much as possible. They distrust long cuts. Or, not distrust: they don’t know how to tell a story, so the use quick cuts to disguise their own inadequacies, hoping we will not notice. It is trickery, based on flimsy technique. They are more interested in the toys of their profession, cameras, lenses – and to just plop a camera on an actress’ face – and let her talk – without interruption – with very few takes – would be unthinkable. You realize how rare it is when you see Bergman’s films, in general. It is a very challenging kind of film-making. It is confrontational.
I watched Alma tell the story of her orgy – and at some point I thought:
I have never seen acting like this.
I stand by that statement. I have never seen acting like that.
And Bergman – with his melancholy pessimistic genius – doesn’t meddle too much in the scene. There aren’t too many takes, we don’t get too many close-up reaction shots from Ullmann that will tell us what to think. We are implicated. We are also listening to Alma speak, and we also have to decide how to respond to what she says. Do we feel any condemnation? Do we feel judgment? Do we feel sorry for the emptiness of her life now? What is our response? Bergman does not tell us what we should be feeling. He leaves it up to us. And that is an incredibly confronting kind of cinema – one that barely exists anymore (especially in the United States).
Ullmann – who says nothing throughout the film – is riveting. After a time, you become used to her silence, and the film becomes a meditation on her face. It’s a very movie-ish movie. Obviously. Lots of talk about acting and art and playing make-beliieve, and what is a role … and in the end, Elizabet Volger remains a mystery. She is opaque. Her eyes shine, Bergman gets so close to her at times that you can see the light peach-fuzz on her cheeks … you can see her messy eyebrows – her freckles. We are not inside her – the way eventually we are inside Alma. We are outside. She is objectified. She is an object – to be studied, which I suppose makes some sense, seeing as the character is an actress. Her face becomes an artifact, like the crumbly face of the statue outside the house. It is something to be contemplated, but not understood.
Here is a quote from David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film : Expanded and Updated about Bibi Andersson’s career:
“She needed such a holiday to prepare for one of the most harrowing female roles the screen has presented: Nurse Alma in Persona (66, Bergman). That this masterpiece owed so much to Bibi Andersson was acknowledgement of her greater emotional experience. She was thirty now, and in that astonishing scene where Liv Ullmann and she look into the camera as if it were a mirror, and Ullmann arranges Andersson’s hair, it is as if Bergman were saying, ‘Look what time has done. Look what a creature this is.’ Alma talks throughout Persona but is never answered, so that her own insecurity and instability grow. Technically the part calls for domination of timing, speech, and movement that exposes the chasms in the soul. And it was in showing that breakdown, in reliving Alma’s experience of the orgy on the beach years before, in deliberately leaving glass on the gravel, and in realizing with awe and panic that she is only another character for the supposedly sick actress, that Andersson herself seemed one of the most tormented women in cinema.”
Essay on Bibi Andersson
Photos from the film below.
Liv Ullmann as Elizabet Vogler
Bibi Andersson as Nurse Alma