In the 1993 movie The Piano, director Jane Campion creates the story of Ada (Holly Hunter), a talented pianist who has chosen since childhood not to speak. According to critic Harvey Greenberg (46), elective mutism is a condition that most often occurs in young girls, especially following trauma. The choice of mutism is, in effect, a refusal to participate in the symbolic order of communication. It is not an uncommon condition in artistically sensitive girls who strongly feel their “otherness.” Maya Angelou, perhaps America’s most beloved poet, was an elective mute for several years of her childhood. She chose to be mute because she was laughed at by other children for being different.
In The Piano, Ada speaks only through her daughter Flora, with whom she has a rather symbiotic relationship. They use their hands in a peculiar sign language that they themselves have created—a language no one else understands. Hands play a crucial part in the unfolding of The Piano. Flora is Ada’s only audible voice—a voice mediated through their hands. Ada’s piano music is her other surrogate voice, mediated, again, through her hands.
When her obsessive affair with a neighbor creates an even wider schism in Ada’s already strained relationship with her husband, he intercepts a love note between them and angrily chops off a finger of her hand in retribution, thus silencing her through a form of symbolic castration. Her hands, her chosen voice, must subvert to his will.
Hands also play a major role in the visual mise en scene of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. In this film, hands are shown in extreme close-up, detached within the cinematic frame from the body of the actors, communicating something beyond words. There is a curious parallel in the stories of Ada Stewart and Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman)—a stage actress who has chosen voluntary mutism after a moment on stage wherein she was temporarily unable to speak her lines. Although Elisabeth does not sign with her hands, Bergman does. Throughout the film he uses her hands, and those of other people, to represent more than just their real or symbolic Lacanian orders. Hands seem to communicate Bergman’s message at an imaginary level. Quintilian, the great rhetorician, once said:
[T]he hands may almost be said to speak. Do we not use them to demand, promise, summon, dismiss, threaten, supplicate, express aversion or fear, question or deny? Do we not use them to indicate joy sorrow, hesitation, confession, penitence, measure, quantity, number and time? Have they not the power to express approval, wonder, shame? (Cooper 78)Absence of Voice/Presence of the Mimic Mask
It is reasonable to our sense of social constructs that elective mutism would be a condition more common to the female sex than the male. Imagine Ullman’s character played by a man. It seems less believable, or at least less admirable in a protagonist. But according to some, women’s voices have long been absent from the cinema
Jung and Myth
One clue to the meaning of Persona may lie in its Jungian title. Jung developed several theories regarding a collective unconscious that have been drawn upon by anthropologists who study mythology in cultures. In 1979, David Cowart approached an analysis of Tarzan myths and movies using Jungian concepts of maturation, probing, unconscious, and heroes. Cowart sees Tarzan’s cinematic metamorphosis from beast to man as a model of Jungian growth. He makes several compelling arguments for the application of Jungian paradigms to cinema. As psychologist Marsha Sinetar writes in Reel Power:
Movies are often parables that retell myths....The medium of film blends all facets of art in a uniquely riveting way. Like consciousness itself, film engages our senses, intellect, and heart, capturing our attention so completely that we can enter the world of self perception. (21)
Without integration of their characters, perhaps Elisabeth and Alma, representing persona and psyche, keep the boy-child Bergman from becoming godlike. Roy Armes presents a convincing argument that Persona is in truth about Bergman’s communication as an artist (Armes 102). The film begins with an unusual sequencing of non-diegetic shots. In the opening, we see the apparatus of a film projector. This is interrupted by the first image that might be interpreted on a narrative level—a pair of child's hands crossing each other several times. Now we see the filmstrip magnified, a frame at a time, as a cartoon winds through the projector. We are shown a projected image from a primitive, silent film comedy. In this silent film, a figure clad as a skeleton chases another character toward a bed where the second character covers himself with a sheet.
In this introductory sequence, Bergman seems to be asking us to be aware that we are watching a filmic creation. The silent film introduces two symbols that will recur throughout the non-diegetic interruptions––death and the covering of the body. The only possibly diegetic image in this sequence is the child’s hands, and hands will recur as a symbol continuously throughout the diegesis.
The “apparatus” shots are followed by a vignette shot of a large spider, a sheep being butchered, the sheep’s eye, and a close-up of internal organs. Hands play a predominant visual role in each of these last three shots. A man’s hand in extreme close-up drains the blood from the throat of the sheep. This hand moves toward the eye of the apparently dead animal and appears to examine the pupil. Hands take apart the internal organs, as though separating them from the carcass. And next, we witness a nail driven through a human hand. After a montage of winter trees, a spiked fence, and a pile of snow, we see extreme close-ups of a dead man’s mouth, the face of a dead woman, a boy in a bed, and two shots of dead faces (woman and man). These are followed by extreme close-ups of hands hanging limply or crossed together on a body’s chest. As a phone rings, we cut quickly to the dead woman's face with eyes staring wide open.
The boy sits up in bed, dons glasses, and reads a book. But he appears to be disturbed by some presence, turns toward the camera, and reaches out toward the viewer to touch an invisible screen with one, very prominent hand. We then see, over the boy’s shoulder, a projected image of a woman’s face, which he runs his hand over as though feeling a three-dimensional surface. The woman's projected face changes several times through a series of dissolves.
Obviously, Bergman asks us to be aware of the apparatus of cinema and the self-consciousness of juxtaposed shots. Death (mortality) is portrayed in several manifestations—the skeleton in the silent film, a probably poisonous spider, the sacrificial sheep, the crucified hand, the bodies in a morgue—as are bedclothes—in the silent film, in the morgue, and in the boy’s room. We see what is present outside the bedclothes in close-up—faces, feet, and especially, hands. The bodies (and their differences) are covered. In the sequence of shots to this point we have watched the apparatus of watching, watched the projection of the apparatus of watching, watched as an animal is slaughtered in such close-up that it could be our own hand, watched ourselves being seen (by the boy), and experienced what the boy sees and feels with his hand over his shoulder.
Our point of view—the viewer’s view—has frequently changed. Our point of view is not the thread of consistency through the diegesis—this is provided instead by the loosely connected imagery of hands.
H a n d s a s F e t i s h i s t O b j e c t s
When we first join Alma and the doctor in the hospital, we are given several shots of Alma from the rear. Alma serves here as an instrument for our consciousness within the movie, just as our own minds interpret what comes from the projector behind us in a movie theater to transmit the image we see before us on the screen. This viewer’s view of Alma creates a mise en abyme of subjectivity. After establishing this mirror, the camera very deliberately tilts down from Alma’s head to her hands clasped behind her back. It is almost as though the camera calls attention to their being hidden from the doctor, communicating some sort of subversive complacency.
Throughout the film this preoccupation with hands continues. Hands seem to express emotion and thoughts deliberately. The first half of the film is shot in an abundance of close-ups. (This only appears to change for a brief segue when Alma has read the letter written by Elisabeth to her husband—a letter that reveals Elisabeth's amusement with Alma’s chatter.) In the early close-ups of the actresses (even the doctor is a woman) their hands are not only visible, but interact with their own faces in the way the little boy’s hand interacted with the projected faces. There are other inexplicable close-ups of hands––for example, the extreme close-up of Elisabeth peeling an apple in the hospital while the doctor talks. Like Ada in The Piano, Elisabeth somehow communicates with her hands, but unlike Ada, not within the diegesis. She communicates to us, the viewers. It is as though her hands have become a substitute on screen for her voice.
What is this curious power that hands have in the film? Hands, particularly in close-ups as they often appear in Persona, could represent disembodiment. Whenever one part of the body is framed as a unit separate from the whole, it might serve psychologically as a substitute for the penis, suggesting castration and sexual difference or lack. As Linda Williams explains in her analysis of Melies’ tendency toward depicting of morcellation of the body:
[I]f, as Baudry suggests, the cinematic apparatus in general affords the simulation of a lost unity with the body of the mother, then we find that some of the earliest representations of the female body within this apparatus aim at a more specific restoration of unity in the fetishistic disavowal of castration. But if the woman’s body generates a surplus aestheticism designed to disavow the difference, this surplus also severely limits the meaning of this body to the two contradictory poles of the assertion and denial of sexual difference. Like the fetish which it in some ways becomes, the woman’s body arrests the male’s gaze just short of the site of difference. Caught between these two poles of the fetish structure of disavowal, the woman’s body is perversely trapped with the contradictory assertion and denial of the fear of castration. Thus the cinema became even before its full “invention” one more discourse of sexuality, one more form of the “implantation of perversion” extending power over the body. (532)As it is difficult to imagine a mute male protagonist, it is also difficult to imagine a film that would place so much attention on a man’s hands. Elisabeth, and Alma (the nurturing nurse), being obvious mother figures in the film, may represent to Bergman the difference of Other. Their disembodied hands illustrate their lack, and it is a lack through which they must communicate. They continually touch one another with their hands, lending lesbian overtones to their scenes together at the seaside cottage.
Hands Across the Water
Early in the scenes at the doctor’s seaside cottage, Elisabeth holds Alma’s hand against her own and studies them. “It’s bad to compare hands,” Alma tells her. Is it perhaps, then, bad to compare their lack? Or perhaps it is bad to compare power? Hands, whether phallic or not, often represent power (the hand of God, for example, or “an iron hand”). Indeed, Alma and Elisabeth will soon become involved in a struggle of psychic power and identity.
Alma uses the silent Elisabeth as a confessor. She develops an obsessive closeness to the other woman, imagining herself perhaps to be in love with her. “I could be you,” she suggests. “I saw you in a film and thought, I could be you. You could be me in an instant. It would be so easy for you.” She suggests she could be Elisabeth, and yet she cannot really know Elisabeth, because Elisabeth does not talk. Alma has projected her own feelings and reactions onto Elisabeth's silence. She imagines she knows what Elisabeth thinks. Like a child not yet having entered the mirror phase, she imagines Elisabeth and herself as one. It is shortly after this, that Alma discovers the letter to Elisabeth's husband. This shatters her false reflection in Elisabeth's face.
Elisabeth is now Other, and Alma is no longer sure of her reflection in that mask.
Elisabeth is now Other, and Alma is no longer sure of her reflection in that mask.
Shortly after this, a self-conscious break occurs in the diegesis, as though the film is burning in the projector. This calls attention to our looking, as though to break our own identification with the characters, as Alma has broken hers with Elisabeth. An image of the hand with the nail driven through flashes on screen. This crucifixial image recalls a sacrifice that is reminiscent of the boy-child who might have died in the fire of Demeter. It is only through death that Christ too became immortal. For Alma, there has been a symbolic death. The question remains. Will she be herself or become one with Elisabeth? This is a turning point in the film. Alma’s relationship with Elisabeth changes. She demands that Elisabeth speak, reveal her thoughts. It is an interesting detail that after this point in the film, Alma’s hair is always pulled back from her forehead in the way Elisabeth's hand had earlier pulled it back as though comparing their faces in a mirror.
When Elisabeth does not speak, Alma threatens to throw boiling water on Elisabeth's face—her mask. That her face is a mask is implied after Elisabeth shouts, “No, don’t,” Alma pulls at her cheek, and Elisabeth rubs the spot as though a mask had been loosened. Later, waiting for the missing Alma to return to the cottage, Elisabeth examines a photograph of a child being escorted by Nazi’s to Auschwitz. She seems to equate this child’s suffering with Alma. The boy’s prominent hands are shown in the air as he is led away by soldiers carrying guns.
Alma comes to Elisabeth's bedroom and examines her face as she sleeps. She touches Elisabeth's face as the boy in the introduction touched the face of the screen. “Your mouth is swollen and ugly,” she says. Elisabeth's image—her mask—has been shattered for Alma.
Interestingly, when Elisabeth's husband appears at the cottage, the first thing we see of him as he reaches toward Alma is his hand. For several seconds we do not see his face. On one level, this puts us in his subjective view as we were put in the little boy’s subjective view earlier. On another level, it disembodies his hand as hands and feet were disembodied in the shots in the morgue. When he sleeps with Alma, we see only their faces in profile, and his hand on her forehead as Elisabeth's hand was earlier placed on her forehead. For Alma, he has replaced Elisabeth. And for him, Alma has replaced Elisabeth. If Elisabeth represents mother, here we have played out completely the typical Freudian order: daughter choosing man over mother as Persephone must, and son choosing a woman like the mother but not the mother. But it is not a fairy tale ending, for Alma cries out, “Anaesthetize me. Throw me away. I can’t go on. It’s shameful.”
Alma’s later hypothesis of Elisabeth's relationship with her son and her pregnancy is another pivotal scene in Persona. It begins with a close-up of Elisabeth's hands hiding the snapshot of her son. Alma places her hand over Elisabeth's and asks her what she’s hiding. She tells Elisabeth then that they must talk about it. She postulates an explanation and becomes Elisabeth's voice. This scene is repeated in toto. We see it first from Alma’s point of view, and again, from Elisabeth's. As Alma describes the son’s swollen face, one is reminded of her own abortion, her description of the boy’s puffy face during the beach orgy, and her earlier commentary on Elisabeth's sleeping face. All characters and events have somehow melded into one allegory.
Later, as they are about to leave the cottage, Alma, in her nurse’s uniform approaches Elisabeth. She thrusts her hand forward as though to touch her face, but halts, hand in fist. “I’ve learned a lot,” she says. Suddenly she pounds her hands uncontrollably on the table, in gestures that are reminiscent of the first shot of the child’s hands in the introductory sequence. At this point, Alma speaks what appears to be poetic gibberish—as though she has lost the ability to speak sensibly. She covers her face with her hands, then scratches at her wrist. All of this is in close-up. When her wrist bleeds, Elisabeth pulls it to her own mouth and vampirishly drinks the blood. Shocked, Alma slaps at her. We see this slapping first as an isolated shot of her hand and then from, Elisabeth's point of view coming at the camera. Perhaps the viewer is the vampire, too. The final shot of the diegesis is the little boy’s hand again, tracing the outline of the projected faces. These hands, across the watery substance that is Persona, have the final word.
Hands are one of the vehicles through which we most strongly experience touch. While we are still in the womb, touch is our most predominant sense. We are nothing but feeling. We are not yet consciousness. Later, hands become a primary tool of connection to other people. At this point we experience images not as separate from ourselves. It is only later that we enter the symbolic order through voice and language.Perhaps hands are so prominent in Persona because it is a film about the intersection of the imaginary and symbolic orders. Persona can be read as a story about two woman or an allegory of the integrated self. The integrated self can also be interpreted as cultural myth. James Olney believes that it is only through metaphor that we can mediate between the internal and external and between a past and present reality (Olney 167). Foucault also believed that words are inadequate to the task of conveying visual memory. Film on the other hand, is considered by many to work more as the interior mind works. As Catherine Portuges has said:
While a verbal narrative of one’s life falls prey to the distortions, repressions, and transformations resulting from human subjectivity and the fallibility of memory, there is evidence from psychoanalysis that images are more directly linked to the internal experiential world. (54)Movies, like myths, are part of society’s ongoing dialogue about ourselves. The act of watching enthralls us because it is both a mirror of culture and of the self. And perhaps they are the same thing. Anais Nin wrote:
We carefully observe and watch the happenings of the entire world without realizing they are projections of our inner selves. What we are watching outside is a representation, a projection of our inner world into the universal. There is no distinction...This understanding is applicable to all phenomena, to the venom of Time magazine, the hostility of one camp, one group against the other, one set of writers against another....I derive the optimism of my work from the understanding of events and people whom I would otherwise see as monsters from prehistoric nightmares. You can only dispel the nightmare by awareness that it is our personal nightmare, projected on a multiscreen cinerama. (198)What does it mean that Elisabeth is mute and toward the end of the film Alma can not control her words? Silverman uses Lacanian psychology to speak of the “maternal voice,” a voice the subject hears first from the womb. It is this “acoustic mirror” in which the child initially hears itself. But the maternal voice is heard only as “babble” while the subject is encased in a “bath” of sound. Even until the child learns to speak, before he has experienced himself as Other, he is existentially separated from the maternal voice into a “perceptual and semiotic insufficiency.” Therefore, the maternal voice is aligned with disempowering interiority (100). I am simplifying Silverman’s theory here, and probably in the process, making it appear more arbitrary than it is in its full presentation in The Acoustic Mirror. But it broaches several of the aspects of Elisabeth and Alma’s characters in Persona—Elisabeth's role as mother, her muteness, the disempowering of Alma’s will, and her temporary inability to speak.
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