In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Elisabet’s silence is deafening. For both the viewer and Alma, her supposed caretaker, it is frustratingly disruptive. Deliberately exempting oneself from the realm of language is an affront to the symbolic order, a defiance of all that is known and understood. Beneath this symbolic structure exists only the real – a space that encompasses that which cannot be understood through language. By choosing to remain silent for most of the film, Elisabet rejects the symbolic order in an effort to come closer to the real, perhaps as a result of her encounters with representations of human horrors (the self-immolation of a man during the Vietnam War on television; a photo from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during World War II). However, as Lacan argues, this effort is ultimately futile, as the real – like Freud’s navel of the dream – is impenetrable as long as the individual clings to the notion of the self and continues to exist within the symbolic order.
Elisabet, especially, is indebted to the symbolic; as an actress, she is constantly engaged in the act of self-performance. She also uses her silence to gage some reaction from Alma With Bergman’s jarring, self-reflexive direction, as noted by Lloyd Michaels in “The Imaginary Signifier in Bergman’s Persona,” the audience is distanced from Elisabet and from the film itself; Liv Ullmann’s acting of Elisabet is exaggerated, her stark black costumes are designed for the camera’s gaze; and the mise-en-scene basks in the psycho-sexual relations between the two women through various sequences of innovative power play. One scene in which this is apparent is on the beach, when Alma tells Elisabet she found her letter and accuses her of betraying her trust. It begins with a shot of Elisabet heading down a cliff, then a close-up from the side of Elisabet looking out for Alma. She is in a thick black headband and a black turtleneck, cloaked in the perfect shadow of her hand. Right away, her “to-be-looked-at-ness” is established in the Mulveyan framework; she is inevitably a product of the cinematic imagination. She then finds Alma and sits in the foreground of the shot in a wide-brimmed hat with Alma behind her, also in all black with black sunglasses. The effect of doubling through costume and framing, as well as the sheer aesthetic relations of the shot, underscores the film’s awareness of its own cinematic quality. In this sequence, like all others, Bergman forces the viewer to confront the ways in which cinema creates imaginary signifiers in the Metzian sense. Alma says, “I see you’re reading a play,” as if to highlight this notion of theatricality and performance. While Elisabet purports to have escaped the symbolic by eschewing language, she reverts to a dependence on the imaginary signifier with her consumption of media. This is a “healthy sign,” as Alma says, because any reversion to the imaginary indicates an inclination to continue living within the understood paradigm of the symbolic order; near-total escape would render one mentally ill in societal terms. Elisabet shakes her head when Alma asks if she misses the city because for her, the cottage by the sea represents an escape from the hegemony of urban life; however, that very association – a signifier representing a signified – is symptomatic of an imaginary worldview.
It is clear that Elisabet’s attempted escape from the symbolic and subsequent search for the real has at this point disrupted her relationship with Alma in addition to disrupting the conventional cinema apparatus. When Alma begs her to talk, the camera cuts back to Elisabet from Alma’s point of view, seeing only the back of her hat as her head turns slightly to continue reading. While the hat hides her from certain angles, it also helps create a certain shadowy aesthetic for the film; Elisabet attempts to hide from the outside world, yet cannot avoid being part of its game of images. When the camera cuts back to her, she is then shown cutting the back of her back with a knife, perhaps in an act of defiance against the imaginary signifier. This echoes the various cuts and disruptions throughout the film, or syntagmas, that Michaels argues are associated with the cinematic signifier and its inevitable absence of the lost object through signification. When Alma rips off her glasses out of frustration, saying “and these glasses!” the viewer is again reminded of the very craft of the film’s mise-en-scene and the ways in which Bergman possesses the power to create hollow meaning through representative objects, like glasses, a hat, or a knife. When Alma subsequently reaches for Elisabet to fight, Elisabet is at first positioned offscreen and the camera occupies a low angle. This choice illustrates the way in which Alma, for most of the film, is constantly grasping at something that is not there – at the imaginary, at language, at the illusory kinship between the two women, based on an imagined sense of trust, intimacy, and perhaps eroticism. Only when Elisabet is threatened with boiling water does she finally speak. Though violence in the film forces Elisabet to confront the real, it also forces her to confront her reliance on the symbolic. She must come to terms with the fact that living depends on a submission to the world of language at the expense. The reality principle dictates we cannot escape the symbolic order lest we upset the force of law and contribute to our own self-destruction.