To this day the close-up remains a unique aspect of the cinematic experience. On the big screen its nuanced details and poetic properties widen our anthropological understanding and breathe life into inanimate objects. In abstract terms the close-up holds a strong affinity to time. In her intriguing (though maddening) article ‘The Close-up: Scale & Detail’, Mary Ann Doane believes the close-up is “always at some level an autonomous entity” operating “synchronically rather than diachronically.” As a synchronic element, which hinders narrative progression, this intimate component creates a “temporality of contemplation,” allowing the audience to examine the subject in frame. Ingmar Bergman’s volatile 1966 feature Persona contains a plethora of close-ups of its voiceless protagonist Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann). Two scenes in particular relate to, and contradict, Doane’s argument of the close-up as a separate, synchronic entity. From the eerie vacuity of Ullmann’s face in the psychiatric ward to the climactic sequence of dual-sided revelations Persona denies clear explanations. Having watched the film innumerable times I have managed to untangle threads of its complex web of enigmas whilst revelling in its opacity. If the typical dose of hyperbole demonstrated by many actors was present then the meaning behind Ullman’s spiritless visage could be easily deciphered. Doane highlights the inherent opposition between “exteriority and interiority” suggesting that there is always something beyond our visual understanding. When confronted with an indefinable stare in close-up, the spectator is encouraged to contemplate its presence on screen and “dismantle it as a pathway to the soul.” Thus the face itself becomes a sight of subjectivity, granting viewers a bottomless supply of interpretations.
Analogous to Doane’s statement, Bergman himself exalts film as the only art form that “goes beyond ordinary consciousness” into “the twilight room of the soul.” With the taciturn Elisabet, including the unhinged nurse Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), Bergman employs the camera as a tool that transcends the exterior limits in order to reveal the characters’ hidden imperfections.
In the sparse hospital bedroom, a lonesome Elisabet is left lying on her bed listening to Bach’s Violin Concerto No.2. The uninterrupted close-up of Ullman’s face remains static for just over a minute as her blank expression is gently obscured by an unknown shadow. Ullmann’s eyes glisten through the darkness with a luminous gloom. This bewitching moment corresponds to Doane’s notion of the face being a sight of subjective meanings, reaching beyond interpretation, enabling the spectator to dig beneath the external surface of the character into the marred interior. With the length of this shot being held for over a minute the close-up becomes an autonomous, synchronic element as the audience concurrently scrutinise the face in an attempt to decipher its meaning whilst acknowledging the ambivalence of its features. Moreover, as Bergman halts the narrative flow for a languid rumination, Ullmanm’s inexpressive stare remains stark with an inexplicable allure.
Though the stony stoicism of Ullmann’s face elicits a myriad of feelings and ideas, this autonomous entity of speculation also holds a clear meaning, connected to the narrative. When referring to the final scene of Rouben Mamoulian’s 1933 pre-code film Queen Christina, Doane herself proposes that the close-up does not always operate synchronically. Despite the potent ambiguity of Greta Garbo’s inscrutable face the scene “invites a reading that is indissociable from the narrative’s adamant production of overwhelming loss.” The same can be said of the tightly knit close-up in the hospital bedroom. Already, at an early stage of this neurotic tale, the audience learn that Vogler is mentally healthy with no signs of lunacy. These facts of her mental stability, accompanied by Bach’s melancholic strings, push the narrative forward, indicative perhaps of Elisabet’s soul being polluted with an unforeseeable pain. The close-up reveals the pain lurking within the catatonic actress, constituting the narrative whole in preparation of later scenes as the film gradually unmasks her apparent apathy.
In this sense, the close-up can be seen to function both synchronically and diachronically. On the one hand, Bergman’s use of the close-up suspends the narrative for a contemplative moment of scrutiny and admiration for Ullmann’s stolidity. On the other, while still prompting the audience to scrape away her external gloss of indifference, the notion of the close-up as synchronic is questioned due to our awareness of Ullmann’s character and the emotional intensity of Bach’s baroque composition.
In order to remove the close-up from the space of the narrative, Doane states that the focus must be on spectatorial space. In relation to the commodity system, the close-up is simultaneously part of the gigantic and the miniature. In the auditorium, the size of the face is given greater detail, momentarily constituting “itself as the totality, the only entity.” When referring to Susan Stewart, the movie star is seen to exemplify the “commodification of the gigantic.” Perhaps when projected on theatre screens movie stars become sanctified figures who fill the screens as the spectator is awed by their proximity. Doane’s and Stewart’s argument, however, seems more applicable to the softly lit stars of Hollywood as the faces of Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich are often admired for their irresistible charm.
Though Ullmann’s face fills the frame in the hospital scene, the ostensible appreciation of her natural beauty is capsized by Bergman’s wish to encourage the audience to probe his characters’ internal corruption. Furthermore, with its extended length, the enlarged image of Ullmann briefly becomes a portrait of appreciation and an unbroken, self-contained element to ponder.
In comparison to the gigantic, the miniature enables the bearer to possess the object in hand, imparting “an illusion of mastery.” Though the spectator is unable to physically touch the subject the shot becomes a palpable “object of vision” enforced by its intimacy. One would believe that the amount of close-ups Ullmann inhabits denotes Bergman’s love for the actress, as if she were a shared prize for both him and the audience. However, during the infamous sequence in which both women are confronted with their mutual depravity, the spectator’s momentary sense of possession is dispelled by Bergman’s self-reflexivity.
As Sister Alma coldly narrates Elisabet life story to her the camera slowly dissolves from a medium shot to an entrapping close-up. Doane argues that this intimacy of the close-up as “miniature” bestows upon the audience the power of possessing this separate entity. With Liv Ullmann broodingly staring directly into the camera, however, a double-edged gaze of inquiry is created. Here, Bergman has invaded the spectatorial space, causing the audience to become conscious of their implication.
This self-reflexive tactic prevents the spectator from possessing the close-up, though its intimacy is enhanced as the narrative space and spectatorial space merge. In addition, the fervour of Ullmann’s stare not only contradicts the notion of intimate ownership but also Doane’s argument of the close-up’s synchronic traits. Ullmann’s uneasy gaze arouses complicity, as if the audience were scrutinising and reciting Elisabet’s life with Sister Alma, stripping away her stoic façade.
In the same sequence, as spaces merge within and outside the narrative, the diachronic and synchronic are also bound. The most indelible image of Persona resides in the last twelve seconds of the sequence as both Ullmann and Andersson’s faces are spliced together in close-up. For twelve seconds this experimental fusion of both actresses’ faces are frozen, rupturing narrative time for another contemplative moment of scrutiny. With the collapse of the narrative’s spatiotemporal coordinates the image becomes synchronic, marked as “an isolable entity” that can be “taken and held within memory.”
In diametric opposition to this, it can be argued that this shot is deeply rooted within the narrative itself, as a symbol of the characters’ indistinguishable personalities. At this point Sister Alma has already confessed her infidelity and self-loathing of her tedious lifestyle. Whilst narrating, Alma reveals Elisabet’s furtive hatred of her unborn child and the façade she built as a woman content with her maternal future. Furthermore, by conflating both faces, the close-up may also have a diachronic drive, linked to the thematic basis of the plot to emphasise the moral vacuum shared by both characters.
Persona refutes Doane’s argument, proving that the close-up is caught in a paradoxical realm with an overlapping temporal purpose. Though the unparalleled technique may offer room for reflective scrutiny upon the framed subject, its stance as a self-governed entity detached from the plot can be questioned as it may always pertain to the themes of the film. It seems that Doane also neglects the employment of the long-take as a synchronic element of film form. To an extent, numerous shots from Persona, including elaborate sequences from Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho The Bailiff or Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend could be considered autonomous segments that create a meditative string of images with each one engraved in the viewer’s psyche.