veemignon: (magictoyshop)
[personal profile] veemignon
persona


Many a director has pondered what happens to the female identity when a male-dominated society is in place. Watching Kenji Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu reminded me of various other films I had watched that delve into this territory: Pandora's Box, Camille Claudel, Raise the Red Lanterns, and Ingmar Bergman's Persona. Both Bergman and Mizoguchi were considered feminist directors, perhaps because they focused on the state of a woman's identity when ruled by men who appear to have no power.

The difference is that Mizoguchi focuses on the external consequences while Bergman works with internal. The Life of Oharu is about a woman repeatedly exiled from society due to society disregarding that she has the notion of choice. Persona is about the fragmented female identity, split in two due to warring aspects. Mizoguchi reveals that this golden Edo period is only an illusion and not truly an honor-bound society. Bergman reveals that anyone, regardless of gender, views their life as a film and constructs illusions to suit that.

personapersona
personapersona


Bergman's Persona is the story of two women - or are we falling under the spell of film? Persona is the story of one woman, played by both Bibi Anderson and Liv Ullman. Anderson's Alma is a respectable woman living an ordinary life. She's married, with no children, and works as a nurse at a mental hospital. One day, she's sent to take care of Ullman's Elisabet, a woman who is perfectly psychologically healthy with one exception: she has become mute for what seems to be no reason. Once, Elisabet was a famed stage actress, exalted for her craft and then suddenly, while performing Electra, she falls mute in the middle of it. For this reason, the staff at the mental hospital can't fathom why she should be there. Eventually, Alma and Elisabet are sent to a Summer house, removed from society, amidst nature. Due to Elisabet's muteness, Alma begins to reveal her darkest secrets, believing that there is a level of confidentiality between them. But when writing letters to her husband, Elisabet mocks Alma's secrets, causing a rift between the two. This rift is never consoled, as such a rift is never consoled in Mizoguchi's work.

The Life of Oharu presents a middle-aged prostitute who comes with high pedigree. Oharu was born into a life of court nobility. In youth, she fell in love with a page who was beneath her class. They ran off together only to be found - Oharu and her family exiled from court while her lover was executed. His last request was that Oharu marry someone she truly loved. Eventually, word goes out that a daimyo needs a concubine to bear him a son, as his wife is said to be "ill". The lord's men search for a wife that fits his tall list of perfection, finding only Oharu to fit every single description. Without a choice, she's sold to the daimyo by her father. Oharu bears him a son but the lord's wife begins to grow jealous; she finds a way to banish Oharu from court and she returns to her family without much money. Her father has accrued a debt by then, believing his daughter would return with riches. To make ends meet, he sells her into prostitution. When Oharu finds happiness, it's short lived. Her husband, who knows of her past as a prostitute and only wants to make her happy, is killed by a bandit shortly into their marriage. Oharu's life tumbles downwards until she is a middle-aged prostitute, seeing faces of old lovers on statues of saints. In the end, rather than live an affordable life in exile, Oharu makes her second choice in life and escapes the men, becoming a beggar for the Buddha.

personapersona


These films both focus on how a patriarchal society can tear a woman apart from the inside; Bergman's is psychological while Mizoguchi's is external. I find the use of Electra in Persona to be quite profound. In ancient Greek history, Electra was a woman who avenged her father, Agamemnon, by murdering her mother Clytemenstra. Clytemenstra's anger at Agamemnon was due to his sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to Artemis so that their ships could sail across the sea to start a war. While Electra was involved in the plot to murder Clytemenstra, it was her brother Orestes who was held accountable for the action. What this story shows is the power that a male-dominated society can hold onto, even after death, and how it pits women against each other. Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia (Jungian psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen reads this as giving up his inner female force to the patriarchy) so that he could continue a war. This pits woman against man, as Clytemenstra held it against her husband, but this eventually pits woman against woman - Electra being true to Athena and defending the patriarchy.

Persona shows a society in which two decent parts of a woman are forced against each other rather than working together. Elisabet is the interior part of a woman, more in touch with her id nature. She devotes everything to her craft and, as Alma says, is considered a "selfish" woman because of this. But creative people have to be selfish. That's the only way that good work is created. There's only one aspect that could knock Elisabet down from her accomplishments and this is that she isn't "motherly." In order to prove them wrong, Elisabet has a child with her husband, but she grows to hate the child as it takes more and more from her. Once her son is older, perhaps the greatest tragedy is that her son is desperate for his mother's affection. This is a common problem in Bergman's work, as Autumn Sonata is another story in which a creative parent lacks the selflessness to raise a child. Alma has given herself up entirely to her super-ego, working in a job that requires her to be selfless and agreeing with her husband when he insists they don't want children. It's only when she acts on an impulse and has sex with an underage boy that she becomes pregnant and even then, her husband forces her to have an abortion. She is stagnant. When Alma and Elisabet turn against each other, it is through the vehicle of a man - Alma reading a letter by Elisabet to her husband. Alma is external and Elisabet is internal; when they are warring against each other, Elisabet does psychological harm by mocking Alma and Alma does physical harm by leaving out broken glass for Elisabet to step on.

In The Life of Oharu, women are continually turned against each other and Mizoguchi's film criticizes class, religion, and society. The wife of the lord should be angry with her husband, but she projects that anger onto Oharu instead and strips her rights of being a mother by taking her son away. Her mother continually excuses Oharu's father's behavior, never stepping in to stop him from accruing debt. Her parents sell her off to a family hoping they'll adopt her and marry her off to a respectable husband. The wife grows jealous of Oharu around the husband Jihei. Jihei becomes lecherous around Oharu when he learns that she was once a prostitute. The Buddhist nun who takes her in does so in an act of her ego; Oharu is her ticket into salvation, thus why she's so affronted when Oharu is seducing or possibly raped by Jihei. They buy into the illusion of society, that this is how you are a good woman, a decent human being. It forces them to look down on Oharu, who truly is a decent human being.

This point made by both films is that women are continually defined by their relationship to men rather than by who they are as individuals. Elisabet may be a brilliantly creative woman, but it's held against her that she isn't a mother. Both Elisabet and Alma are married, but their husbands are rarely seen; their true relationship is with each other, in this interior masterpiece. The women Oharu encounter define themselves solely by their relationships to their men and hold Oharu accountable when that definition strays. In her life, she's defined as a daughter, a concubine, a mother, and a prostitute, but these terms mean nothing of who she is as an individual. Like in Pandora's Box, it really sickened me to see Oharu, an intelligent, dignified woman, treated like low class simply because she was once a prostitute. Once that knowledge is divulged, she becomes a vessel for their sexually deviant thoughts. They project those thoughts onto her so that they feel better about who they are.

personapersona


Like in Camille Claudel, these films present what happens to a woman when she allows men to define her existence. Oharu's life could have ended up like Camille Claudel's and the women in Persona appear to never coalesce into one being; Elisabet stays at the house while Alma takes a bus far away. They are driven even further away, fragmented into even more pieces. I've heard that Bergman has a fascination with mirrors and reflections. Persona represents a shattered mirror of an identity. And if I want to go for a comparison knock-out, I'll go back to (500) Days of Summer, which not only visually references Persona, but also does so in how Tom's character sees his life in the form of film techniques. He defines Summer solely by her relation to him rather than by who she is. So how do we go about defining ourselves, women? How do we create an individual stamp that includes our connections to other human beings rather than "defined by man"?

Persona presents the dilemma and insinuates that there is no reclaiming of these drifting parts. But I also see Persona as being more universal in terms of gender. Yes, it's a story about female identity under the hands of men, but it can also easily be read as a genderless story. For under a patriarchal society, both men and women suffer. Men are held up to an impossible ideal and if they don't fit into it, they are cast out. This can be seen in The Life of Oharu as the only two decent men are considered weak. Criticizing the hypocrisy of society, Mizoguchi cleverly depicts an "honor-bound" society against Oharu and her lover, of a lower caste, running off together. I don't know what's more honorable than sacrificing everything in life for the one you love. But it's held against Oharu and her lover is seen as a dishonorable man. The fan-maker knows of Oharu's past and simply wants to make her happy but he's killed in a horrible fashion. While bringing home a sash for Oharu, no less. He's seen as weak in his society while the men in power appear to be powerless to women.

But it's in The Life of Oharu that I believe one can find an answer. The structure of the film is brilliant, in that Oharu reflects upon men her entire life. It's only when she has an epiphany while looking at the saints, fainting, perhaps dying and being reborn, that she's freed of men. She dedicates herself to a higher power, by becoming a beggar for the Buddha, a role that is generally reserved for men. It's a religious saving without terms, unlike the Buddhist nun. She gives up her ego for a higher form of understanding of herself.

personapersona
personapersona


I take issue with Persona being described as a horror film, just as I take issue with The Life of Oharu being seen as a tragedy. Persona features staples of horror films, the doppelganger, the uncanny, the harbinger of death, but it's also about how one is unable to form an identity out of these two split parts. If there is any horror in Bergman's film, it's about how we're doomed to this kind of representation by our ego. That we must see our lives in the form of film, that cameras guide our lives, and that this causes a splitting simply through the fact that one part of our ego must be the photographer and one must be the photographed.

Oharu's life isn't a tragedy. It's easy to see her as being cursed: cursed for being beautiful, cursed for bearing a son, cursed for being everything that she is. But I don't think she's cursed. If you think about it, Oharu lived a good, honest life. The other women are stuck in illusions while Oharu had two great loves and she was allowed to see her son achieve great status. She gains the tools for her epiphany through suffering. It is like Henrik Ibsen once said in Rosmersholm: Ennoblement doesn't come through great happiness but great suffering. Oharu achieves ennoblement through her suffering; Alma and Elisabet are fractured even further through suffering.

This is a dilemma that continues through film, fiction, and other mediums. Individuality is our universal plight.
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