Daniel Shaw uses psychoanalysis to explore the main female characters of Ingmar Bergman's horror film, Persona.
While many of Ingmar Bergman's films are extremely painful to watch, none of them (save perhaps for Vargtimmen [Hour of the Wolf, 1968]) contains as many references to the iconography of the horror film as does Persona (Sweden, 1966). Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman), a famous stage actress recovering from a nervous breakdown, is depicted as preying psychologically on her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), and Alma herself has a dream late in the film in which she opens a vein in her arm and invites Elisabeth to suck her blood.
As Kelly Oliver writes, alluding to the enigmatic opening sequence with its images of sacrifice, vampirism, crucifixion and death, "in their exchange, Alma is figured as the sacrificial lamb of the opening visual poem, while Elisabeth...is figured as the vampire." However, the potentially devastating results of this psychological vampirism are insufficiently appreciated by most critics. Even Oliver claims that, at the end of the film, "they each go back to their respective lives to take up their duties, their personae, as they did before."  For Alma, at any rate, that is not likely to be as easy as it sounds.
In what follows, I will argue that the impact on Alma will most certainly be disastrous, perhaps to the point of causing her to commit suicide. Freudian diagnoses of the behaviour of both women, based on parallels to actual case histories recorded in his Collected Works, will serve to substantiate this contention. According to the concept of femininity that emerges from those volumes, women are more likely to take out their aggressions passively, in psychological rather than physical violence. While Nurse Alma acts out her aggression in physical ways, by leaving a piece of glass out for Elisabeth to step on, and by threatening to throw boiling water in her face, Elisabeth's assault is far subtler and (potentially) far more devastating.
Elisabeth Vogler, paraphrenic
In one of his most celebrated papers, "On Narcissism: An Introduction," Sigmund Freud proposes to subsume the traditional conceptions of "dementia praecox" and "schizophrenia" under a single heading, calling such afflicted individuals "paraphrenics". He describes the symptoms of this neurosis as follows: "Patients of this kind...display two fundamental characteristics: megalomania and diversion of their interest from the external world—from people and things. In consequence of the latter change, they become inaccessible to the influence of psychoanalysis and cannot be cured by our efforts." Freud continues by observing that, in contrast to hysterics, paraphrenics break off their erotic relations to people and things, and do not replace them with fantasies. He attributes this to a secondary narcissism, "which is superimposed over a primary narcissism that is obscured by a number of different influences."
Freud proposed a primary and normal narcissism, which, in turn, led him to postulate a difference between ego libido, which is essentially narcissistic, and object libido, which is directed at the external world. The normal individual transfers much of their initial ego libido to object libido, thereby passing beyond the limits of primary narcissism. The factors alluded to in Persona that contribute to this "damming up" in Elizabeth include her great beauty, her choice of profession and her oversensitivity to the horrors of the objective world (as revealed in her reaction to the newsreel footage of the self-immolation of a Vietnamese monk).
Such individuals find themselves incapable of loving. Their chief aim and source of satisfaction in relationships consists instead in their being loved. Their "self-regard" cannot permit them to be humble, or to sacrifice the part of their narcissism that love requires. Reacting to demands for love from others, paraphrenics withdraw their libido from its natural objects (husband, lover, child). They do not wish to undergo the feeling of dependence that inevitably lowers self-regard. As Freud puts it: "the return of the object libido to the ego and its transformation into narcissism represents, as it were, a happy love once more; and, on the other hand, it is also true that a real happy love corresponds to the primal condition in which object-libido and ego-libido cannot be distinguished." The person who acts with virtual indifference to others is quite correctly referred to as an "egoist"- one whose narcissism cannot permit them to care for anyone.
The behaviour of Elisabeth Vogler exhibits precisely this degree of narcissism. She withdraws from the world after performing in Electra, and shows little concern for her husband and son. Indeed, she fails to respond to her husband's letter, and tears up her son's photograph near the beginning of the film. Her treatment of Nurse Alma reflects the same callousness to the feelings of others. As a letter to her doctor reveals, Elisabeth sees Alma as an interesting "case study," bemused by the recognition that Alma is "a little in love" with her.
Her megalomaniacal attitude is demonstrated in her willingness to use Alma as a vehicle for her own recovery: "as you see, I am grabbing all I can get, and as long as she doesn't notice it won't matter..." But Alma does notice, and confronts Elisabeth with her need to hold a conversation. In denying her this human courtesy, Elisabeth shows her inability to respond to Alma (or anyone else) in a caring fashion. While Alma shared her confidences in the hope of securing (at least) a friendship with Elisabeth, the latter only observes her in a detached fashion, enjoying her nurse's guilty torments.
Freud believed that women generally have a greater tendency to narcissism than men, and that "complete object-love of the attachment type is, properly speaking, characteristic of the male." This is especially true, in his view, of women like Elisabeth, who are exceptionally attractive. Most normal women overcome their narcissism only through attachment to their children. It is revealing in this context to examine Alma's analysis of Elisabeth's behaviour, offered twice near the end of the film. Alma contends that Elisabeth had a child in response to the suggestion by some that she wasn't "motherly" enough. She conceives only to develop this aspect of her personality, and then bitterly regrets her decision. Though the child loves her, she cannot accept the self-sacrifice that raising it requires. Shoving the child off on a nurse and some relatives, she returns to the theatre, which alone can assuage her incessant craving for adulation.Elizabeth's impenetrable self-regard, her great beauty and success, and the strength of will that she embodies all prove irresistible to Alma, whose own neuroses dovetail tragically with her patient's.
Elisabeth's stereotypically masculine rationality and self-control are coupled with a tendency that is common in narcissists: "They are plainly seeking themselves as a love object." Such individuals are practically impervious to outside influences. In a lengthy epilogue to the original Bergman script, Elisabeth's psychologist is represented as saying: "In December, Elisabeth Vogler went back to her home and her theater...the whole time I was sure she would come back. Her silence was a role like all her others. After a while she didn't need it any longer, and she laid it aside." Having nourished herself by feeding off of Alma's pure spirit, Elisabeth returns refreshed to that most narcissistic of professions, acting.
The obsessional neurosis of Nurse Alma
A Freudian diagnosis of Alma can be much less speculative, since she reveals a good deal about herself in her monologues to Elisabeth. She has seven brothers, and a mother who was also a nurse. She has dedicated her life to serving others, and to fulfilling the conventional expectations of society that she become a wife and mother. Her one true love was an older married man, with whom she had a five year affair (a classic development in the so-called "Electra Complex"). She felt that she "was never quite real to him." She claims to love her fiancé, Karl-Henrik, but their only satisfying sex occured because she was aroused by her participation, earlier that same day, in a sexual foursome instigated by a mysterious and brazen young woman. She was impregnated on that day, and still suffers severe guilt feelings about her subsequent abortion.
Alma is threatened by her first meeting with Elisabeth, wondering whether she is up to confronting such a strong-willed person. She nervously reaffirms her conventional goals during the restless night that follows. Trying to initiate a friendship (and perhaps more) between them, Alma soon shares intimacies that she had never before revealed to anyone. When rebuffed, and reduced to a mere case study, her obsession escalates to the point where possessing Elisabeth is not enough: Alma wants to be Elisabeth, and failing that, to hurt her terribly in retaliation.
Interestingly enough, Freud had occasion to describe a case of female homosexuality with strong parallels to the personal history sketched above. A young woman had become obsessed with an actress of somewhat shady reputation, and had pursued her vigorously. "As for the demi-mondaine, she had always been treated coldly by her and never allowed any greater favor than to kiss her hand." The woman protested that she was not bothered by the chaste nature of their acquaintanceship, but it obviously pained her very much. She finally attempted suicide, which precipitated her treatment by Dr Freud.
Obsessional neuroses involve malfunctions of the process of transference, whereby individuals shift their original erotic attachments from their parents onto appropriate romantic objects. The process of transference is particularly difficult for women, according to Freud, because little girls take their mothers as their first love-object. In what he calls their "pre-Oedipal" phase, girls form erotic attachments to their mothers just like boys do, as the result of the mother's usual role as primary caretaker. Freud contends that girls transfer their erotic attachment to their fathers because of their castration complex. Recognising the inferiority of the clitoris to the penis, Freud argued, girls blame their mothers for this lack, and turn to their fathers with the desire to conceive a penis substitute, ie, a baby.
Freud's patient had a vivid memory of making such a comparison with her brother's genitals when she was about five years old. She had three brothers, the third of whom was born when she was about 16 and had recently emerged from her latency stage due to the onset of puberty. Just at the time when her Oedipal longings were rekindling, her mother did precisely what she herself desired, ie, have a male child by her father. As a result, the woman forsook her attachment to men and "took her mother in place of her father as the object of her love."
The obsession that the woman had for the actress, then, was a regression to the pre-Oedipal phase of her development. Her low self-esteem dictated that she must attach herself to a powerful personality. The actively masculine character of the actress, as evidenced by the promiscuous sex life she so vigorously pursued, was an additional bonus. The girl's inversion thus received its final reinforcement when she found in her "lady" an object which promised to satisfy not only her homosexual trends, but also that part of her heterosexual libido which was still attached to her brother. Her choice of love-object-as it is for all of us, according to Freud-was dictated by the history of her psychosexual development.
The final and most significant element in that history concerned the woman's relationship with her father. As in so many Victorian families, "The father was an earnest, worthy man, at bottom very tender-hearted, but he had, to some extent, estranged his children by the sternness he had adopted towards them." That forbidding sternness made it even less likely that she would successfully transfer her primary object-cathexis to him. It also led to her having a highly developed super-ego, which the patient subsequently rebelled against, taking great glee in publicly flaunting her connection with the actress.
Nurse Alma in Persona exhibits the same type of obsession, and for similar reasons. She holds herself in low regard, and is subject to a punishing conscience that compels her to live a conventional lifestyle. Her identification with her mother was strong, as witnessed by her adoption of the same profession. Though she never mentions her father explicitly, certain details of her life bespeak his presence. The degree to which Alma's super-ego has developed would be the natural result of having a stern father. Her first erotic attachment outside the home was to a clear father-substitute, an older, married man. Such a triangle rehearses the original Oedipal one. Though she admits to liking her fiancé, she seems to have fallen in love just once, with this older man. When he rejected her, as her father before him had to do, her defenses against men were solidified.
This additional trauma was necessitated by a difference in Alma's development from Freud's patient. Alma's seven brothers were all older than her, so she did not have to face their births during the transitional period of puberty. Her attachment to her father remained sufficiently strong that it dictated her first choice of love-object. But her failure to be recognised by that object drove her to the same type of obsession as gripped Freud's patient.
The significance of the orgy at the beach is that Alma was able to let herself go only because of the presence of the aggressive Katarina, her female companion. It was Katarina who initiated sex with the older of the two boys, who showed up at the beach to watch the women sunbathe naked. Alma admits that she felt strangely attracted to Katarina's big breasts and thighs. She went so far as to interrupt the initial coupling of Katarina and the older boy, insisting the boy enter her as well (as if he could serve as a conduit between the two women). Alma orgasmed immediately, and was aroused yet again when Katarina subsequently seduced the younger boy as well. The intense sensuality of her experience on the beach was sufficient to carry over to her intercourse with Karl-Henrik that same evening, which was better than it had ever been before or since. Her pregnancy, and the resultant guilt caused by an abortion of convenience, no doubt contributed to her inability to experience satisfaction since that day.
It is in this very bruised emotional state that Alma finds herself when she meets Elisabeth, who is everything Alma is not. Proud and self-sufficient, a great beauty widely acclaimed as an actress, Elisabeth has an indomitable will. Alma's obsession exhibits the same love-hate ambivalence that often characterises the breaking (even unconsciously) of the taboos that have repressed our constitutional bisexuality. Freud contends that bisexual desires are less thoroughly repressed in women than in men, because women (having already been "castrated," so to speak) avoid the castration anxiety that drives those desires so deeply into a boy's unconscious.
The power struggle in which the two women are locked for much of the film (after Alma reads Elisabeth's condescending letter to the doctor) plays out this ambivalence to the hilt. Alma oscillates between fantasies of becoming Elisabeth and conscious actions (and dreams) that express the hostility that being rejected engenders. It is not easy to predict what the consequences of this encounter will be in Alma's future. The film ends with her return to the everyday world, but surely her conventional views have not been left intact. If she succeeds in re-repressing the drives that erupted so powerfully during her stay with Elisabeth at the seashore, she could simply continue to devote her life to nursing, marry Karl-Henrik and raise a family. But I suspect that, like Freud's patient, a suicide attempt would be the more likely outcome.
That a woman can drive another woman to suicide by simply denying her the human recognition we all crave is the most horrifying aspect of Persona. The moment when Alma becomes so desperate to get Elisabeth to speak that she is ready to throw boiling hot water in the latter's face is one of the most terrifying in the history of "art-house" cinema. The modern psychological horror film foregrounds the neuroses and psychoses of its principle characters, and much of the terror that emerges therefrom—if it doesn't degenerate into mad slasher clichés—is derived from the etiology of their neuroses, and the plausibility of how they act as a result (Michael Powell's Peeping Tom  is a particularly apt example). Both women horrify us here: Elisabeth with her sadistically predatory nature, Alma with her masochistic need to sacrifice herself. Only one of them is likely to be shattered by the experience, however. Elisabeth is regenerated by feeding on the adulation of her nurse, but Alma is likely (if she survives at all) to require extensive therapy as the result of her encounter with this spiritual blood-sucker.
Daniel C Shaw
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