PERSONA SWAP PT. 1: PAST by Miriam Bale

What do women talk about? What do women talk about among other women? Cupcakes and candy, sex details and call backs, and how fabulously we strong “we” are, the women at our table. These mini-sisterhoods of girlfriends as represented on television shows and “chick flicks” show women positioned against men in strained superiority. What do women talk about? Men, mostly, according to most media depictions of women.

But in films such as Mulholland Dr., Persona, 3 Women, Single White Female, Daisies and Céline and Julie Go Boating, women talk about other things:

“I don’t know who I am.”

“Now I’m in this dream place.”

“Lower your voices, the child is resting.”

“Stop, I’m having fun.”

“Eye of lynx and wooden head, yeah.”


Women in these films speak of dreams, hair-dos, identities, and candy, too. But mostly they talk of mysteries. She wants to help her solve the mystery of who she is. “What do you mean? You’re Rita.”


There is a thread that connects these films that has never before been officially acknowledged. Is it possible in an era of film criticism overload, when there are seemingly more film critics than readers of criticism, that a subgenre so specific could go on unrecognized? These films that I’ll call “persona swap” films are about the friendship between two people, usually women (often a brunette and blonde, and frequently one eccentric/dominant and the other more conventional) who swap personas. It is usually a story about two women, yet is differentiated in tone and logic from something like Thelma and Louise. That film is deliberately a buddy action flick starring two women; there is no swap of supple personality types and there is no magical merge. The films that belong in this subgenre have a recognizable, nonrealist tone, a dream logic. They’re psychological, supernatural and, at their best, illuminate very specific aspects of relationships between women.

The following examination of the watermarks and developmental notches of ten important titles in this category reveals what makes these films part of a distinctive, though rare, species:

a)     These are all films about a distinctly feminine experience. [One film described is about two men, but for men to enact the motions of this Persona Swap, they must first be feminized. In Performance, the feminization is blatant, with make-up and a wig.]

b)    These films share not only the swapping, or sometimes stealing, or often merging, of personas, but suggest then that any distinctive personality is a performative act. They indicate that femininity, in particular, is performance. This was  also the theme of much feminist video art from the seventies and eighties, which emerged at the same time as a large number of the narrative features that I’ll be examining were released.

c)     The recognizable but almost ineffable tone of these films is one in which magical events are accepted in a grounded reality, the above-mentioned dream state, with an ever present, hard-to-shake tinge of nightmarish doubt: “Is this real?” But it isn’t fantasy in opposition to reality; in the worlds of these films there simply is no real.

d)    While this is a short list of ten films, one or several of these films is on the list of the favorite films of virtually every woman director or film critic I know. (This list, in fact, may be a separate, secret canon of the films that women love, as opposed to the “gender neutral” canon of greatest films which is actually comprised primarily of films chosen mostly by men.)

e)     These films are the favorites of so many women because they describe the complexities and conflicts of female friendship accurately, the unique joys and also darker aspects that often remain hidden or at least unacknowledged in real-life friendships.

These last two notes are important to keep in mind in looking at this microscopic subgenre. As an editor asked me when I first suggested this article, could it ever rival Film Noir or the western, for instance, in output and critical assessment? Those are primarily films about men in which women appear as the foil or the villain or the goal, if they appear at all, while this category is primarily about women often in a world removed from men. And so I answered that editor, no. In a film industry dominated by men, of course this subgenre will be miniscule in number.


There is a long tradition into the silent era of films about gender swapping and role-play. But Ernst Lubitsch’s Smiling Lieutenant (1931) is an early sound film example of a swap between types of women. The shocking irreverence that Miriam Hopkins and Claudette Colbert (rivals for the affection of their insatiable soldier Maurice Chevalier) show for their destined roles, when the mistress teaches the wife how to be a married mistress, comes from the genuine sweetness that they show to each other and from a loyalty to their sex. Yet this film is about a swap of position, not personas, so is not quite an example of this subgenre.

George Cukor was responsible for two foundational proto-Persona Swap films. Girls About Town (1930) showcases a female friendship merged with pre-Code pluck, and in Two-Faced Woman (1941), Greta Garbo plays not actual twins but one woman with two personas pretending to be twins. (Films about twins are a separate but related category; though barely credible, even when played by Hayley Mills, they are technically realistic.) Another One-Woman-as-Two film that was a key influence on the genre is, of course, Vertigo (1958). As both the blonde and the brunette, Kim Novak bears the weight of male-imposed identity. Later, as stripper Polly-the-Pistol, Novak would swap positions with a demure housewife in Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) with a lighter, more Lubitschian, touch.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, Howard Hawks)

To understand why this film marks the true beginning of the genre it’s important to differentiate Persona Swap films from films in which there is a male/female identity swaps—from Turnabout to All of Me. Those films are about gender, while these films operate within gender. Hawks was fond of gender swapping as a plot devise in his romantic comedies, even putting Cary Grant in drag repeatedly. And since Hawks rarely deviated from his formulas, he transposes that same male/female dynamic, including the role-swap angle, to this musical about two women. But which one is the tough talking Hawksian Woman? It’s straight shooter Jane Russell, obviously. So Marilyn Monroe, then, is in the typically Hawks male role as the “professional,” the John Wayne cowboy or Cary Grant professor, but she’s a professional woman! (Quite literally—when told she needs $15,000, her eyes roll to the back of her head for a few seconds before she announces that will take her one hour and 45 minutes.) The film, then, is not only about women but also about what it means to be a woman, about how it looks to play a woman. Jane Russell can perform the Marilyn persona as easily as Monroe can, and does, in a shockingly funny set piece in which Jane-as-Marilyn avoids a tight spot by suddenly whipping off some clothes and bursting into song, performing the same “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” routine that Monroe had done previously. The film is one of Monroe’s best because it’s clear that the filmmakers and Marilyn herself—and, it’s implied by Russell’s relationship to her friend, women generally—are in on Monroe’s sharp-witted joke on the appeal of blatant femininity.

Daisies (1966, Vera Chytilová)

The first three minutes are in black and white, and then the brunette slaps the blonde (“if you don’t mind”) and instantly the two friends are in a rainbow-filtered fantasy of their own creation. Marie I and Marie II have the same name, go on the same dates, and share virtually the same identity. Daisies skips the swapping and goes straight for the merge. Once grappling with that tension is passed, it’s pure freefalling frolic, exhilarating and even nauseating, like eating only cake. It’s full of flapper jazz, flowers and frosting, and much of it takes place in the ladies’ room; few women who see it don’t respond with some recognition at the thrill of this Best Friend Forever daze. Jacques Rivette was a fan and interviewed Chytilová for Cahiers du Cinéma upon the film’s French release in 1968.


Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman)

Bergman got through a three-month hospitalization for double-pneumonia and penicillin poisoning by slowly scratching out the scenario for this film about a role reversal between a silent actress and talkative nurse, inspired by a glimpse of the “uncanny resemblance” between actresses Bibi Andersson and a younger actress he’d never used before, Liv Ullmann. He described this writing process as “a sort of truth-crisis that made me feel suddenly that I had to take a stand. What is true and where does one tell the truth? It became so difficult that I thought the only form of truth is silence. And, in the end, going a step further, I discovered that it, too, was a kind of role, also a kind of mask.”

This particular category of film came to fruition with this film’s iconic images and also in its unsettling approach to time/space: “Whenever suitable, an occurrence is prolonged or shortened. The conception of time is suspended,“ Bergman wrote of his approach. Though the film is ostensibly about the two women, the real protagonist is the little boy at the beginning and end of the film (whom Bergman has admitted is a self-representation) with his hands pressed against the projected images of these women. The disdain of the women’s relationship observed from that observational place of removal and longing comes across subtly; Bergman described the nurse’s fascinatingly digressive confessional monologue, about a love affair and abortion, as a “long, banal story.” He also wrote the following about the most iconic and copied image in all of these films: “In most people, one side of the face is more attractive than the other, their so called good side. The half-illuminated images of Liv’s and Bibi’s faces that we combined into one showed their respective bad sides.”

Performance (1970, Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg)

Though the personas melding here are those of the characters played by Mick Jagger and James Fox, there is no half-Jagger/half-Fox trick shot. Instead, both of their faces are shown in a dissolve as the complement to Anita Pallenberg’s face. While Fox give a performance ragged with intensity and Jagger is dippy and delicious, it’s Pallenberg who is the soul of the film, and also one of its authors. (She worked on the script with Donald Cammell.) “And BANG went the Ferrari,” she says with a lip curl while filming herself in a full-length mirror, mocking Fox’s phony delivery of this line previously while in disguise in a hastily copped together, dubious fake identity. Pallenberg later repeats this same lip twitch in an unexpected echo; hers is a brilliant and fervent performance. Performance settles that this is essentially a feminine genre. The men who merge in the film must be feminized, as Pallenberg attempts to do to Fox (asking him if he ever has “the female feel”) and then putting a red wig on him so that he looks “like Rita Hayworth!” And Jagger is already, from the start, according to Pallenberg, “a male and female male.”

Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974, Jacques Rivette)

While there is a mystery in Céline and Julie, and also instances of the two women stepping into each other’s shoes to purposefully wreck a little havoc, the film’s over three-hour running time and loopy format help transcend suspense; after a certain length, the viewer stops expecting resolution. This Daisies-style freewheeling frolic is sustained long enough to become, not a fantasy, but a valid alternative world. The sharp structure built on alternatives is what makes this 16mm eccentric vision one of the all-time masterpieces of cinema. (It’s a lucid daydream compared to the night dream of Mulholland Dr. or the nightmare of Persona.)

Everything in the film is doubled: “Quite early on I felt I wanted to have a film-within-the-film, “ Rivette has said in a 1974 interview. “Even before I knew what the second film would be about, I planned to use Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier, so as to have a second couple not only acting this story but relating to the other pair.”  The project began as collaboration between Rivette and star Juliet Berto (who went on to direct movies herself). They brought in her close friend, Dominique Labourier, to play Julie and help Berto write the script. “Each of us is the other half of our divided and ambiguous selves,” said Labourier of their relationship. The women imagined creating a combination of Persona and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the bulk of the film, at least initially, came from this collaboration. “During the filming, we got up early in the morning and told each other our dreams, which the film depended on,“ said Berto. “We wrote our lines each morning and evening… [and we always] knew what stance we had and why.” Rivette found this approach too psychological for his own tastes, but he let them find their own authentic reflection of this friendship. He brought in Eduardo de Gregorio to provide an alternative narrative world based on two Henry James’ stories, to contrast with the friends’ self-created universe. He let these two sets of narrative rules, initiated from separate sides, coexist, clash and blend. His overarching thoughts, though, were of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He told Jonathan Rosenbaum in a 1974 interview in Film Comment that they were channeling a Hollywood from twenty years before, that they were specifically thinking of Hawks while making it. (There are many specific shot references to Gentlemen.) The careful orchestration of all these elements—male and traditional, female and collaborative—is what makes the film unparalleled. It’s interesting that in a film that feels so loose, that Berto describes Rivette’s directorial style as “like surgery.”


3 Women (1977, Robert Altman)

The idea for this sun-bleached desert watercolor of a movie came to Altman in a dream, but the characters, especially Shelly Duvall’s, were primarily self-created. “All of her diary entries in the film, and her recipes, and all of that stuff on her shopping lists…her make-up and the fantasy about the boys who were all after her when obviously none of them wanted to get near her—that all came from her… I couldn’t have done that,” Altman said of Duvall’s contribution in the DVD commentary. (The film was also written by Patricia Resnick, but only Altman is credited.) “You’re the most perfect person I’ve ever met!” says Sissy Spacek to Duvall’s women’s magazine monstrosity. “Thanks,” is her deadpan reply. The horror in this film is the characters’ humorlessness about themselves. Instead of being liberated by the elasticity of their superficial identities, as the characters in Daisies or Céline and Julie are, here the shallow characters are, in the end, drained. The last scene is of the three women of the title merged into one unit in a feminine utopia, but it’s a dreamy, creepy suffocated world. (Perhaps it’s better described as a dystopia, especially in contrast to another film about three women also written by Resnick but produced by feminist Jane Fonda, 9 to 5, which ends in a real life work-world utopia.)

Freaky Friday (1976, Gary Nelson)

The magical persona swap here, lasting not for moments but for the bulk of the picture, allows mother and daughter to overcome their squabbling and realize that darling daddy is, in their own mid-seventies language, a “chauvinist pig.” This is one of the most overtly feminist films of the group. (The 2001 remake ditched the father character, and so lost this strain.) This era was the peak point of production for this type of film (in mainstream film as well as experimental video) and also, obviously not unrelated, a peak point for feminist activism and feminist film criticism. Another overtly feminist female friendship film of the era was Agnes Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), which deals with abortion rights. In this era, the feminist subtext of these films became the text.


Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, Susan Seidelman)

Screenwriter Leora Barish, has said that this film was born when she saw Céline and Julie Go Boating at the New York Film Festival. Seidelman also was directly influenced, and transplanted countless aspects of that film into this, most obviously the restaging of Céline’s bird-based magic act. But while charming, a necessary emotional thread is lost by separating the two women until the end of the film. What the film succeeds in best doing is—as Rivette did for Paris—presenting New York as a fairytale setting for adventure.

Single White Female (1992, Barbet Schroeder)

Barbet Schroeder, who acted in and produced Céline and Julie Go Boating, directed this film with his trademark mixture of exaggeration and restrain. It’s the cartoon nightmare of the subgenre, a caricature of the Persona Swap but disguised as standard Hollywood thriller. There is something perverse and hilarious, as well as genuinely terrifying, that the scariest moment in the film is when a woman changes her hair color.


Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)

With this film, Lynch is exquisitely “tapped in” to the archetypes of this subgenre. That is perhaps an unacknowledged part of the film’s appeal. (A film that was best of the decade on several film journals’ lists.) Magic, merges, mysteries and amnesia, plus sexual tension heightened to steamy girl-on-girl action: this film hits every recognizable characteristic of these films. (It even echoes Performance, where Pallenberg tells a wig-wearing James Fox that he looks like Rita Hayworth. This time, Rita Hayworth’s Gilda character becomes the name of the dubious, cobbled-together fake identity.) All these aspects meld together beautifully, organically, and seem as familiar as a forgotten dream. With this film, this category hits maturity. Unlike the almost trademarked dark suburban Americana of Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, the most memorable scenes in Mulholland Dr.—Naomi Watt’s showstopping performance-within-the-performance, the intimate scenes between the women, the subtle transitions in a hall-of-mirrors of identity—are all key facets of this subgenre. In earlier scenes, Lynch is self-mythologizing, dishing out expected bits of Lynchian surreal kitsch. Yet, by the end, it becomes clear that this approach, the early “student film” awkward bits of forced artifice that eventually evolve into scenes rendered with subtle skill and artistry are an essential part of the film’s self-conscious construct. As Bergman had said in describing his inclusion of some frames of burning film stock images in Persona, “The film itself is an artificial construct.”