The Female Experience in Persona (1966) and Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Most films serve as windows to different eras. Some unveil folk customs, common beliefs and attitudes held in a particular period of time, and they reveal women’s place in society. Even though Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou (1997) were created in two different continents and in two different time periods, both films capture the female experience in their narratives. While Persona and Eve’s Bayou approach male characters in a different way, they present strong female characters, deal with the theme of identity and reclaiming power, and emphasize subjectivity to introduce intricate ideas.

Strong and complex female characters are at the center of both Persona and Eve’s Bayou. In Bergman’s film, the complexity of the female characters can be explained by their different views on motherhood. For instance, the fact that Alma and Elisabet’s view on being a mother is quite different already creates tension between the two. At the beginning of the film, the audience sees Elisabet tear up her son’s photograph without having any sort of emotional response. This is contrasted with Alma, who shares a deeply personal story involving a sexual encounter with three other people; this anecdote unfortunately ends in her having an abortion. It is clear by the way Alma speaks that she stills suffers due to this event and that she experiences feelings of guilt. These two women create an interesting juxtaposition: Alma is consumed both by her desire to bear a child and by her guilt of terminating a pregnancy, whereas Elisabet seems unaffected by being away from her son and rejects motherhood altogether. It is ironic how Alma, being the childless one, assumes a maternal role in the relationship.

In Eve’s Bayou the different experiences with motherhood also create interesting and complex relationships between the characters. At the beginning of the film, the audience’s first encounter with Eve’s mother, Roz, is at a party. However, she is quite distant from her daughters and the only one she actually hugs is her son. Eve is aware of this situation, seems to resent her mother, and it creates tension between the two. Furthermore, Roz’s main role in life is limited to being a housewife and a mother, but it seems like it brings her great unhappiness. Roz is not the only character that has a complicated relationship with motherhood, her sister in law, Mozelle, experiences grief due to her inability to have children. Even though she takes great care of Eve and has a positive relationship with her, society casts her as an outsider. In one particular scene, Elzora (the local witch) tells her she is “a curse, a black widow” both referring to the fact that she cannot have babies and to the fact that all her husbands have died. This is later discussed between Mozelle and Julian Grayraven (her new love interest) when she says she cannot marry him because she is barren; Julian proceeds to tell her that she is not barren, just wounded. It is clear Mozelle suffers due to her condition, and that she fills the void by spending time with Eve.

In addition to having complex female characters, both Persona and Eve’s Bayou deal with the issue of reclaiming power and identity. In Bergman’s film, both Elisabet and Alma reclaim their power using two completely different approaches. On one hand, Elisabet ceases to speak as an ultimate quest for truth and meaning. In fact, the doctor mentions she is both mentally and physically healthy, which is why one can assume that her silence is self-imposed. Elisabet is not only going against her acting career, but also against the role she plays in her own life. Ultimately, by choosing silence, she is able to regain control over herself and her existence. Alma, on the other hand, finds freedom and power in speaking, at least at the beginning. When both women arrive at the beach house, she starts sharing things about her life and seems eager that someone finally listens to her. While it is true that later in the film Elisabet holds more power in the relationship, Alma is still able to reclaim her own identity by assuming the patient’s position and by speaking about the things that affect her. Even when it seems like Alma’s personality dissolves throughout the film and that she suffers from a psychotic episode, it serves as a catharsis for her. This ultimately allows her to discover who she is (and who she is not) and to confront her innermost troubles.

In a similar way, Eve’s Bayou also presents women reclaiming their power and trying to discover their identity. When looking at Eve’s character specifically, the fact that she is telling her family’s history is one way she assumes power. In fact, oral history is generally believed to be one of the essential components of female identity, especially when their place in society is constrained by patriarchal rules. By being in control of the narrative, Eve is not only able to understand who she is, but she is also able to claim some sort of authority. Trying to understand her past, even when it is “messy,” is Eve’s way of gaining autonomy.

Persona and Eve’s Bayou share more than just complex women reclaiming their own identities. In fact, both films make use of subjectivity to present the issues and events of their respective narratives. By accentuating subjectivity, both films open up philosophical questions of what it means to be and of whether objective truth is something attainable or not. In Persona’s case, this is accomplished by merging the characters, by blurring the line of past, present and future, and by making unclear what is real and what is fantasy. Sontag notes that, “the insufficiency of the clues Bergman has planted must be taken to indicate that he intends the film to remain partly encoded” (67). In other words, the viewer might be able to approach some kind of understanding of the events depicted in the film, but a complete deciphering is never fully achieved.

Comparably, one of Eve’s Bayou’s main propositions is that memory can be something illusive. Although Kasi Lemmons’s film is much more accessible than Bergman’s, the issue of subjectivity is also at the center of the narrative and the viewer is never fully certain of what happens between Eve’s sister, Cisely, and her father. This supports the idea that two people might remember the same event in a completely different manner. The issue of subjectivity in this context is relevant because memories make up people’s past. This is explicitly stated at the end when Eve says,

Memory is a selection of images, some illusive, some printed indelibly on the brain. Each image is like a thread; each thread woven together to make a tapestry of intricate texture, and the tapestry tells a story. And the story is our past (Lemmons).

If some memories are illusive or deceptive, then what does that say about the identities we create for ourselves? It seems like what we call ‘our past’ is just a collection of subjective experiences and that objectivity can never be completely attained.

Although Eve’s Bayou and Persona share thematic similarities such as subjectivity, identity and power, they deal with male characters in a different way. For instance, men are a central issue in Eve’s Bayou, but they are not in Persona. It is true that both films focus on the female experience, however, Bergman’s film is solely about Elisabet and Alma. The only two male characters that appear in Persona are Elisabet’s son and husband, and while the son plays an important role in Elisabet’s state of mind, the film is concerned with Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson’s characters. On the other hand, men are a central issue in Eve’s Bayou. Kasi Lemmons’s film is about the women too, but male characters seem much more influential in the narrative. The fact that the film opens with Eve’s story of how she killed her father indicates that this man had a significant effect in her life and on the rest of the female characters. In other words, Eve’s Bayou deals with patriarchal issues in a more explicit fashion than Persona.

All things considered, Eve’s Bayou and Persona present subjective narratives dealing with the female experience, while also showing complex and strong women who reclaim their power and identity. An example of how female complexity is portrayed in both films is by exploring the issue of motherhood and the degree to which it affects the characters. Furthermore, female power is reclaimed in both narratives. In Persona, Elisabet and Alma regain autonomy, one by choosing silence and the other one by speaking. Similarly, Eve in Eve’s Bayou uses language to gain control of the narrative and uses storytelling to tell her family’s past. Both films not only have comparable traits in terms of female characters, but they also employ subjectivity to deal with philosophical questions and issues. However, even though female characters are the main concern of both films, men are a central issue in Eve’s Bayou but are not in Persona.

References

Lemmons, Kasi. Eve’s Bayou. Trimark Pictures, 1997.

Sontag, Susan. “Bergman’s Persona.Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, edited by Lloyd       Michaels, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 62-68.

 

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