“Persona” lives in the darkest corners of 2019 cinema. Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 classic not only influenced how modern filmmakers approach psychological horror, but also foreshadowed modern film culture trends. “Persona” organically incorporates identity politics and contrived personalities. From a 2019 perspective, the Persona Filter can be used to better understand one’s sense of self, and to better understand the complexities of being so detached from reality through social media - also known as “extremely online” behavior.
On the surface, “Persona” appears to be about the power dynamics between nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) and Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), a well-known actress. When Elisabet stops speaking - a personal challenge of willpower - she travels to a Swedish cottage with the admiring Alma in tow. The two women bond and seemingly learn to understand each other, yet Alma does all the talking, only to realize she’s being studied. Bergman’s final act suggests that Elisabet and Alma are the same person.
Surrealistic montages bookend “Persona,” and imply that the narrator could be a man; someone attempting to process and cope with grief. “Persona” may have a black and white palette, but it can be interpreted in a variety of colorful ways. It depicts the pursuit of an authentic image; a journey to a moment of truth.
For modern streamers, “Persona” may not seem like the ideal viewing option. Bergman’s themes are heavy and complex. The visuals are surreal; the dialogue is cryptic. There’s much to unpack. However, we can use "Persona" to reach small epiphanies while analyzing some of 2019’s most polarizing psychological horrors.
When applying the Persona Filter to Ari Aster’s “Midsommar,” a fever dream meditation comes into focus. After a devastating tragedy, Florence Pugh’s Dani travels to Sweden with her boyfriend. A college friend invites her to participate in a communal midsummer celebration, one that takes place every 90 years. Upon arriving, Dani meets a local named Ingemar, the brother of host Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Aster has been on record about Bergman’s cinematic influence, so the nomenclature - and the setting - isn’t a huge surprise.
At its core, “Midsommar” focuses on Dani’s search for self. In the vast Swedish countryside, she’s immersed into a cult of relatability; people who laugh and cry together. They share each other’s pain. From act to act, Dani learns to accept basic truths; the writing is literally on the wall. Dani finally lets go and breaks down, with the female locals mirroring her posture and tone. There’s genuine empathy and deeply disturbing behavior depicted in “Midsommar.” And it’s not hard to see a snapshot of 2019 social media culture. Dani connects with others through a shared ritual; she becomes the May Queen. Dani finds her place in the world while setting others ablaze.
Performance drives the most unforgettable horror films, and Pugh provides the goods in “Midsommar.” She walks like Harriet Andersson’s Karin in the Bergman classic “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961); she moans like Andersson’s Agnes in “Cries and Whispers” (1972). Pugh doesn’t have many loud moments in “Midsommar,” much like the central leads in “Persona.” These performances build towards an emotional release. Bergman and Aster both meditate on specific modes of behavior; the imitators and the followers. In “Persona,” Ullman excels as the Double; a woman that Alma can’t quite reach. Alma’s push and pull with Elisabet strangely connects to the film’s provocative opening sequence: a boy reaches out towards a female face, one that’s familiar yet distant. With “Persona,” Bergman meditates on two women, but he could indeed be processing his own childhood experiences. In a way, “Persona” documents Bergman’s state of inception, with Ullman and Andersson assisting in the conceptual execution through grounded and relatively balanced performances.
Visually, Bergman emphasizes the distance between the two “Persona” leads, only to slowly bring them together, both literally and figuratively. With “Midsommar,” Aster similarly underlines his lead’s isolation through physical space. By the final act, the May Queen’s dance competition parallels the swirling thoughts in Dani’s head. Within this particular cult of relatability, Dani has almost found her safe zone. In relation to “Persona,” Aster’s final “Midsommar” image complements Bergman’s most affecting fourth-wall character shots. Dani essentially winks at the audience. I see you … do you see me? Like Bergman, Aster copes with personal issues through female character catharsis. Both “Persona” and “Midsommar” are meditative lucid dreams.
In Jordan Peele’s “Us,” the Persona Filter reveals the Double in the far corner of one’s mind. Whereas “Midsommar and “Persona” are simmering meditations, “Us” functions as a chase for clarity. The Wilson family vacations in California, and the cult of relatability factor comes into play once again. As with the racially-charged and enlightening “Get Out,” Peele explores a cultural divide, all the while underlining a sense of unity. Like “Midsommar” and “Persona,” “Us” can be viewed as a search for emotional resolution while processing traumatic memories. Interestingly, Peele incorporates action and thriller elements to discombobulate the audience. And whereas “Persona” hints at its Double theme, “Us” makes the concept blatantly clear. Once again, the richness and depth of the central female performance allows the director to execution his vision, and build towards a final act magic trick.
In “Us,” Lupita Nyong’o delivers one of the year’s finest performances as Adelaide Wilson and the “Tethered” character Red. When paired with “Persona,” the double concept is disjointed yet fluid; Andersson and Ullman riff back and forth, but they favor restraint over melodrama. And because Nyong’o plays two roles in “Us,” she essentially applies the Persona Filter to create two distinct characters. One represents Adelaide’s roaming mind, the Other is symbolic of past trauma. Like "Midsommar'"s Dani, Adelaide emotionally flees from a cult-ish group, but she’s confronted by an immediate threat, evidenced by Red’s menacing dialogue and unnerving voice, the result of Nyong’o researching a condition known as “Spasmodic Dysphonia.”
Character silence connects “Persona” and “Us.” In Peele’s film, the child version of Adelaide refuses to speak; she’s traumatized by a real-life confrontation with her Double. In “Persona,” Bergman is more subtle. Elisabet refuses to speak in order to establish psychological control over her double, or so it seems. Maybe it’s just a game to pass the time; a way for Elisabet to psychoanalyze herself through Alma. Early on, a female doctor gets straight to the point while discussing “the hopeless dream of being.” She seems to know that Elisabet subconsciously hopes to be “unmasked” or even “annihilated.”
Like “Midsommar,” “Persona” is a slow-burn meditation on identity. In contrast, “Us” details the chase for clarity; the act of setting upon a specific persona. For many, an online persona correlates with the cult of relatability concept. Some individuals have purely self-serving reasons for presenting a contrived image, while others merely seek out practical connections. “Persona,” “Midsommar” and “Us” collectively underline one’s search for assimilation and self-acceptance.
“Lords of Chaos” reveals the dark side of celebrity culture and the cult of relatability. Directed by Swedish filmmaker Jonas Åkerlund, the horror thriller is loosely based on the Norwegian Black Metal scene, specifically the band Mayhem and its co-founder Øystein Aarseth aka Euronymous. In “Lords of Chaos,” the Persona Filter spotlights the main character’s moment of truth, an extension of Midsommar’s meditation and Us’ cerebral acrobatics. Åkerlund pinpoints the dangers of constructing a contrived persona for commercial success. As Euronymous, Rory Culkin doesn’t provide an all-time performance like the aforementioned Andersson, Ullman, Pugh and Nyong’o, but he does indeed embody all the necessary charisma that so many people utilize to sustain a relatable persona, whether it’s online or in real-life.
The behavior of Culkin’s Euronymous mirrors the “extremely online” persona of 2019. Åkerlund’s antihero absolutely understands his crowd; a cult of edgy followers who relate to his music, physical appearance and rebel yells. But Euronymous doesn’t understand himself. Still, this particular character appreciates the beauty of a contrived persona. Euronymous presents a customized image - death metal to the core - but ultimately reveals himself to be a fraud, somebody who actively seeks to manipulate others; a social pariah. When applying the Persona Filter, Euronymous appears to be an older version of the young boy from Bergman’s opening montage in “Persona”; someone trying to understand why he was left behind. In “Lords of Chaos,” Euronymous meditates on a formula for success, and then chases after clarity. In the process, he reaches a moment of truth. Unfortunately, Euronymous is murdered by one of his own, stabbed to death by a musical Double who resents the Mayhem singer’s fraudulent persona.
Alma, Elisabet; Dani, Adelaide and Euronymous - these characters battle personal demons in pursuit of an acceptable persona. But as with real life, the main characters in “Midsommar,” “Us” and “Lords of Chaos” shouldn’t be completely reduced to simple archetypes and concepts. There’s always something new to learn, there’s always different perspectives to consider.
To quote Roger Ebert’s 2001 essay on “Persona,” “Most of what we think of as ‘ourselves’ is not direct experience of the world, but a mental broadcast made of ideas, memories, media input, other people, jobs, roles, duties, lusts, hopes, fears.” Much has changed since the beginning of the 21st century, and certainly since’s Roger’s passing. But Bergman’s film remains timeless and timely, and so incredibly important as new cinematic voices emerge.