Prisons of the Body, Prisons of the Soul: The Four Walls of the Mind in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted

Persona (1966)In the first instalment of our Prisons of the Body, Prisons of the Soul series, Abbie Saunders confronts the beast of duality in two twin ‘prison’ narratives: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted. Read part two of this article here.

“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, On Narcissism: An Introduction

Freud’s analysis of narcissism is one that has been selected by countless critics over the years in an attempt to psychoanalyse Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). While more than three decades separate James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted (1999) = from Bergman’s Persona, this very notion of narcissism lies at the heart of both films. Persona and Girl, Interrupted, respective explorations of personality disorders and the prison of the mind, present to their viewers the abundance of the self-contradictions, tensions and binaries that Freud’s quotation begins to articulate. Susan Sontag expands on this notion in her article on Persona for Sight and Sound magazine. She describes Persona as the story of ‘two women bound together in a passionate, agonised relationship’, pointing directly to the polarities of ‘violence and powerlessness, reason and unreason, language and silence, the intelligible and the unintelligible.’ Dualities of this kind govern these films and the characters within them. The key characters – Susanna and Lisa of Girl, Interrupted, and Elisabet and Alma of Persona – not only violently oscillate between the tensions in their own minds, but wage wars with one another too. Their minds are governed by opposing forces which appear to resist reconciliation while Susanna and Lisa, and Elisabet and Alma increasingly identify with one another, becoming two sides of the same soul. As Freud identifies, the narcissist is torn between action and apathy, but Sontag’s analysis of Persona marks a development in this theory. As these powerful dualities – reason and unreason, language and silence – begin to corrupt the minds of each character and their relationships with one another, the most powerful tension of all arises from the matter of each film: sanity and insanity. In both Persona and Girl, Interrupted, it is the role of the psychologist or psychiatrist to articulate this duality. In Girl, Interrupted, this occurs during Susanna and Dr Wick’s debate about the word ‘ambivalence’. Mistaking the word for a certain kind of apathy, Susanna uses it to describe how she feels. In fact, this word epitomises the tensions which run throughout the film. It is only when Susanna is forced to confront real madness, real death, that she is forced to respond to the insanity she finds so seductive. As Dr Wick identifies, ‘sanity’ and ‘insanity’ are courses of action for Susanna. Diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder after a botched suicide attempt and entertaining certain romantic notions about death, Susanna signs herself into a psychiatric institution, where she is described as a ‘lazy, self-indulgent little girl’. As the description indicates, borderline personality disorder is not classified as a mental illness, but rather as a psychiatric condition; an attempt to create a psychological diversion from the external world. She is the embodiment of Freud’s very description – entirely self-absorbed and lacking in responsibility while at once rapturous, emotional, and wholly unpredictable. ‘Ambivalence’ epitomises the binary forces exercising themselves in Susanna’s head: does she choose to be sane or does she choose to be mad? In Persona, the chief psychologist’s speech is decidedly more ambiguous, but points, equally, to the opposing forces which govern the mind of the patient. Elisabet, a famous actress who has fallen mute half way through her performance of ‘Electra’, is institutionalised following her diagnosis of selective mutism. Despite being a symptom of a classified mental illness, the nurse describes Elisabet’s condition in the same terms as Susanna’s: the eternal dilemma of human life, ‘The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming to be, but being […]’, a line which Roger Ebert famously linked to Hamlet’s ‘to be, or not to be’ monologue in his own review of the film. All of these references belong to characters, forces and minds drawn between two poles in each respective film. These tensions and dualities manifest themselves figuratively, physically, and psychologically. Alma is asked to care for Elisabet in order to help her recover, but in the process, the nurse loses all sense of her own identity and she takes on that of the patient. Susanna is institutionalised so that she can rest and recover her sense of self, but in doing so she only drifts further from sanity. Indeed, perhaps two of the most lasting images from these films are the composite faces that have come to be synonymous with the psychological torment of Persona and Girl, Interrupted. Both black and white images present a front profile of a face, made up of half of Alma and half of Elisabet, half of Susanna and half of Lisa, respectively. Mangold undoubtedly drew inspiration from Bergman; choosing such an iconic image in order to draw upon its legacy, and to create not only a binary between his characters Susanna and Lisa, but between his own film and Bergman’s. These striking images epitomise the strained relationships between these characters, as they struggle both with and against one another. Although both Susanna and Elisabet as ‘patients’ have to battle with the tensions which govern their own minds, they are also faced with another battle; between themselves and their counter-characters. Initially set up as distinct polarities – Susanna representing sanity and Lisa representing insanity, Elisabet representing the patient and Alma representing the nurse – these characters begin to identify with one another throughout the film, losing all sense of themselves and feeding off of their other ‘half’. Perhaps the most visually striking example of this is in Persona when, in an apparent dream sequence, the characters appear to represent ‘black’ and ‘white’ polarities before merging together, becoming almost indistinguishable from one another. This particular vision explores the binary of internalisation and externalisation. Alma, as ‘nurse’, is there to care for Elisabet, as ‘patient’, but Elisabet’s silence becomes less cathartic for herself, and more cathartic for Alma, who is given the rare (and dangerous) opportunity to talk when her job is to listen. The nurse slowly becomes the tormented patient, and Elisabet becomes the listener – almost Christ-like in her self-imposed serenity. In this ‘dream’ sequence, Elisabet is cast in white, her hair around her shoulders, walking in from the bright light of the adjacent room; she is a perfect vision of the Virgin Mary. Alma, lying on the bed having confessed ‘her sins’ – the story of an orgy on a beach – lies in the black shadow cast across the bed. Both characters rise together, one from the light and one from the shadows. Alma memorably says that ‘we look alike’, a dangerous acknowledgement of the notion that they are losing their individual senses of identity in one another. Indeed, this scene ends in a vision of two becoming one. In another iconic still often taken from the film, Elisabet and Alma lock necks, their two heads appearing to grow from the same pair of shoulders, opposite sides of their faces turned to the camera. The composition of this shot is evocative of the comedy/tragedy masks from Greek antiquity. When acting the part of Electra in the theatre, Elisabet adopted a distinctly tragic role, but now she blends with Alma, leaving the polarities no longer identifiable. Alma is no longer the nurse and Elisabet is no longer the patient, Elisabet is no longer white, and Alma is no longer black; neither are pure, both identities are cast, physically and figuratively, in shades of grey. Black and white forces initially balanced out against one another – yin and yang – but now the distinction between these forces is lost, and so, too, is the balance. Freud’s notion of narcissism links Mangold’s Susanna and Bergman’s Elisabet: both are selfish and lack responsibility. But does ‘narcissism’ equate to madness? One of the most common questions asked both by characters within the context of the films and their audience is ‘are they really mad at all?’ The veracity of ‘madness’ is called into question by the repeated references to Elisabet’s occupation as an actress. Rather than madness, the chief psychologist identifies it as apathy; she should ‘play this part […] until it’s no longer interesting’, just as Susanna is told that she will remain ‘insane’ until she realises that she can choose to recover. With this notion in mind, it is, in fact, Elisabet’s muteness that is her mask: her conscious decision to withdraw from communicative relationships, from the meaninglessness of words, to choose between herself and her family.  Perhaps, as the psychologist suggests, Elisabet is not mad. But it is not the madness that imprisons her, it is the persona she chooses to adopt. If Elisabet and Susanna were entirely mad, then perhaps there would be no tension, no duality at all. Madness itself is not the psychological prison in which these characters are incarcerated; it is the apathy that comes with feeling lost somewhere between sanity and insanity which traps them within the confines of their own minds.

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  1. […] In the second instalment of our Prisons of the Body, Prisons of the Soul series, Abbie Saunders looks at wordless prisons in part two of her essay on Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted. Read part one here. […]

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