One of the most striking shots in Bergman’s confounding opening sequence to Persona is that of the young boy reaching out and attempting to touch the blurry image of a female face. Framed by sequences that leave no doubt as to the meta-cinematic nature of the film – first and foremost, the shots of the projector and the reel of film – this image also functions meta-cinematically, commenting on the very medium which is producing it. It thus posits a figuration of the cinematic apparatus in which the viewer is, or desires to be, in an imaginary relationship to the image, paralleling the original, imaginary, dyadic relationship between child and m/other, all the more literal in that the boy is credited as Elisabet’s son. The very mediation of the cinematic medium – here, the screen within the screen toward which the boy is reaching – is exactly what prevents this contact from ever occurring as such, operating as the non du père interrupting the imaginary and dyadic relationship, bringing the child into the restrictive matrix that is the symbolic, and placing cinematic representation in the order of the symbolic. On the one hand, this only makes sense – cinematic representation, is, after all, representation, and thus belongs to the world of language. At the same time, however, cinematic representation is here the only thing that presents to the child the imaginary image of its mother, imbuing the image with the capability to proffer to the viewer that desired state to which the viewer cannot return. This simultaneous presence and absence is a fundamental component of Christian Metz’s figuration of the cinematic arrangement in his essay, “The Imaginary Signifier,” in which he resolves the tension of this presence/absence with the following formulation:
The Law is what permits desire: the cinematic equipment is the instance thanks to which the imaginary turns into the symbolic, thanks to which the lost object (the absence of what is filmed) becomes the law and the principle of a specific and instituted signifier, which it is legitimate to desire. (76)
Persona, however, makes for a complicated case in applying Metz’s model, insofar as it goes to such great lengths to underscore the failings of its own representation, drawing conspicuous awareness to itself as medium and also to the myriad threats that trouble specifically cinematic representation – the burning and tearing of the film reel being perhaps the best example. Persona knows very well the impossibility of representation that constitutes its very being as a film, and makes the viewer aware of it as well, discouraging the disavowal necessary to partake in – identify with – conventional narrative cinema, “je sais bien, mais quand même.” The effect of discouraging this disavowal is not merely one of Brechtian distanciation, however. In showing us the impossible desire that structures our position as viewer, in underlining the irretrievability of the lost object of our desire, Persona raises the question of what desire we are attempting to satisfy by watching it – a question that, in a sense, it answers almost immediately in the above shot. More than just a film about film, Persona is, in many ways, a film about the fracturing of identity that constitutes our very being as subjects, a theme elaborated across the seemingly infinite number of more or less equally (in)valid ways of conceiving of Alma and Elisabet’s relationship – they both are and are not lovers, sisters, the same person, so on and so forth. The uncharacterizability of Alma and Elisabet’s relationship simply allegorizes that of our relationship to ourselves: an asymptotic effort to close the fracture between the two I’s who come into being in the wake of the mirror stage, an endeavor naturally fraught with dangerous projections and disavowals. What we (and what Alma and Elisabet) really desire is to be made whole – a desire elaborated as impossible in the shot of Elisabet’s son, the impossibility of their conjunction as impossible as the exodus from the symbolic order that such a return to the imaginary would entail. We might say therefore that the viewer’s presumed desire – at the least, curiosity – surrounding the potentially sexual nature of Alma and Elisabet’s relationship is an allegory (perhaps, even, a projection) of the desire to reconcile this split in personality. Scenes of intense eroticism, most notably that of Alma’s recounting of her orgy, are of no small import here; they invite the viewer to wish (project) upon them this conjunction with all the more fervor. However, the film ultimately shows us the result of such a conjunction, always-already failed, and its effect is, undeniably, one of horror.
To return to “The Imaginary Signifier,” Metz writes, “To fill in this distance [between voyeur and object] would threaten to overwhelm the subject, to lead him to consume the object (the object which is now too close so that he cannot see it any more), to bring him to orgasm… Orgasm is the object rediscovered in a state of momentarily illusion; it is the phantasy suppression of the gap between object and subject” (60). What Bergman presents here is exactly this phantasy suppression, Alma and Elisabet fused together in a grotesque janus-like image reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster. The filling in of the distance between Alma and Elisabet stands in for the filling in of the distance between Alma/Elisabet and the film’s spectator, who voyeuristically desires this closure of the distance between them (a distance underscored by the shadow that serves as seam – and therefore tear – between the two, evoking the torn photograph and film reel seen earlier in the film and thus the mediation of the symbolic order). The horror with which Bergman renders this sequence is arguably Persona at its most poignant: a forceful, didactic, almost punitive display of the real object of our (voyeuristic) desire (the suppression of the gap between Alma and Elisabet), at the same time as a mournful commentary on its own portrayal and on the act of cinema at large, marring the cinematic fantasy by insisting not only on its horror, but also its utter impossibility, injecting the symbolic into the imaginary at the moment we think we truly behold what escapes the symbolic.