Three years ago Miriam Bale identified a sub-genre of films featuring the experience of women where the reality of the characters was as unstable as their identity. She came up with the name “persona swap,” a niche sub-genre that counts movies like Daisies, Persona, and 3 Women among its foundational texts. Bale will expand on this theory in her upcoming book, She Is Me, which will be released by Critical Press in 2016. Her groundwork serves as inspiration for this exploration of the theme in the cinema of 2015.
The persona swap has slowly become the emblematic genre of 2015 film, where women’s merging and dissolving identities are pitted against the backdrop of an unstable reality. It begins with a character who is lost, usually having hit rock bottom. Faced with the need to reconstruct or rebuild the self, the line between a friendship begins to dissolve, or else, an image or idea is presented to be emulated.
The threshold is crossed and an unfamiliar situation is breached as reality becomes more unstable. The persona-swap of the character is reflected in the landscape, which becomes dominated by reflective surfaces, doppelgangers, and a fractured sense of self. The woman takes up the performance of this new identity, as the lines between who she was and her new identity blur.
In Phoenix, the persona-swap reflects Germany’s fragile sense of identity in the post-war era. Nelly survived the camps, was betrayed by her husband, and is now facing the idea of erasing that trauma by recreating as closely as possible her old life.
In Clouds of Sils Maria, this transformation is literal, as Juliette Binoche’s character rehearses for a theatrical role. Revisiting the play that established her career, she now plays the older woman. As she rehearses without makeup and her hair is sheared, it is as if she is rendered as a blank slate. She resists the call though (at least at first), lashing out at her own doppelgangers. Taking up this new role forces Maria to face the reality of age and the shifting expectations that come with being an older actress.
The persona swap in The Duke of Burgundy centers on a world populated by women. Evelyn and Cynthia play an elaborate role-playing game, where one body is more comfortable with her role than the other. The performance of identity is confused through escalating repetition and a conflict between expectations and reality.
As the original impression of reality also begins to crack, the strict artificiality of the central relationship begins to take hold. Strickland does not suggest the role-playing and decorative living off his characters is insincere.
This is a film where style is substance, as it reveals continually the inner workings and transformations of the characters. As the lives and experiences of women are traditionally regarded as decorative, The Duke of Burgundy questions that narrative by revealing that the performance doesn’t negate individuality.
Many other 2015 releases like Mistress America, Queen of Earth and Carol hint at persona swaps and explore the relationships and desires of women. The characters who were once lost are now transformed and have adopted new identities through the persona swap. These films speak to female viewers who identify with friendships and questions of identity. Long overdue, these films seek to answer the question of how women assert their sense of self.