10/08/21: _Persona_ and the Ethics of Love

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Love is psychoanalytically interpreted as the rapturous fantasy of the blur between subject and object, as Sigmund Freud describes in Civilization and its Discontents. In Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 Persona, this particular (non)relation between subject and object makes itself clear in terms of a love which resembles the transferential relationship of analysand and analyst. The relation between Alma and Elizabet is narratively introduced as a relationship between nurse and patient respectively. The narrative of Persona is subversive primely because it takes this originary hierarchical relationship and inverts it gradually throughout the film, upturning Symbolic and Imaginary roles by dissolving the occupational frame of Alma, acted by Bibi Andersson, through Alma’s behavior speaking towards the void that is the mute Elizabet, played by Liv Ullman. Elizabet, as a famous actress suddenly disillusioned by the performativity she must engage in for public consumption, is. brought into the world of Persona through her silence, which is one psychically founded on a renunciation of the Symbolic wor(l)d. Thus, her function as the representation of the bare screen of the non-receptive Other is consummate for Alma’s flurry of signifiers, in which Alma details her subjective history with the expectation of a lack of judgement. Through the precarious paradigmatic positions of Alma and Elizabet, and through Bergman’s brilliant introductory and outro scenes, Persona signifies Metz’s explication of cinema as the Imaginary Signifier. One can take, for instance, the introduction of the film where Bergman places emphasis on the sexual difference that marks cinematic creation, as demonstrated through the split-second image of an erect penis followed by the parallel lighting of a cinematic arc light (shot 2). Through metonymy, the successive images emphasize the apparatus of cinema as suturing the gap of the Real, or the gap of non-meaning produced by the gulf between enunciation and the field of enunciation. This gulf is narratively figured by the (mis)recognition that characterizes the (loving) relationship between Elizabet and Alma, and in extension, the relationship between spectator and screen. All of this is to say that Bergman, through both narrative and visual tomography, plays with the undecidability of the interpretability in the most broad sense.

Following the film’s significant focus on the void underneath, and yet constitutive of, interpretative power, the film reaches a tense fissure when Alma realizes the blank, and non-receptive, screen of Elizabeth is a dupe. Opening and reading the signifier that is Elizabet’s letter, a presence reciprocal to the absence of Elizabet herself, Alma’s veneer of naivety is shredded, and her immediate vengeful gaze at Elizabet brings the entire screen of Persona to a closing. The film’s screen breaks in half, and burns through a hole that engulfs the entire screen towards the pure absence of a white screen (shot 1). As opposed to the erect penis and the arc light at the beginning of the film, Bergman presents the absence that is the orifice resembling the Real itself. The phantasmatic screens of identification between Alma and Elizabet, and spectator and screen, have disintegrated, resulting in the psychosis that characterizes Alma’s confusion over selfhood in the latter half of the film. Psychoanalytically, this is what defines the fantasy of love itself, as related to the Biblical commandment of “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” the commandment that is fundamentally “impossible to fulfill” (Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 771).

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