Under its most basic definition, fantasy is 'the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things'. Most mediums of art - be this film, literature, theatre, or beyond - consistently indulge in the concept of fantasy, and where there is narrative there is often an element or trace of the idea of 'fantasy'. Film especially, with all its imagined scenarios and impossible outcomes, deals heavily in the concept, the stories it depicts being explicitly realised visions, combining the written word with image, sound and performance to depict this non-reality, one separated from our own reality only by our awareness that it is fiction.

Cinema is inherently fantastical. Every narrative film is a projection of an individual's thoughts onto a screen, and the process of imagining a specific frame or writing a line of dialogue for a character to speak is the literal feat of acting out a fantasy. When a filmmaker constructs a narrative in their head, they have fantasised, but when they actually film said narrative, it brings a degree of reality to the product. The product now exists, but its content may not.

It is an endlessly confusing paradox, one that leads academics and casual cinemagoers in circles for hours on end, though affects both in equal measure.

Fig i: Persona (1966) Dir: Ingmar Bergman

Though a few of Ingmar Bergman's films could be said to fall into the broad categorisation of genre fantasy (See: The chess game with death in The Seventh Seal (1957) and the tangential hallucinations of Wild Strawberries (also 1957), he was perhaps more interested in examining the intricacies of film's relationship to fantasy, and what this connection meant from an audience perspective.

Persona (1966) is maybe the most obvious example of this idea, a film that blurs the line between reality and fantasy in the context of its narrative, and again in terms of how its audience perceives this narrative. If it sounds complicated that's because it is, but throughout the film Bergman goes some way to explaining it through images better than I ever could in words.

Fig ii: The Joint identity of the Nurse and the Actress.

The film concerns a young nurse charged with the care of a famous actress who has, for no apparent reason, become a mute. They move to an isolated coastal house, away from the chaos of the city and celebrity, and form a bond. The bond evolves into a friendship of sorts, then to an emotionally charged psychological connection, and then finally into a symbolic/physical melding of the two, where they essentially become the same person. (fig ii)

Fig iii: The film stock shown in the opening sequence.

The narrative itself centres on the exploration of an impossible situation, and is the very definition of 'fantasy', but Persona's most interesting moments emerge when Bergman addresses this idea. An early example of this is during the film's opening sequence. In a parade of surreal images, it is immediately established that this section is based not in reality, but solely in the world of the film itself. The director shows us cinema equipment and film stock during this section, highlighting the constructed nature and constantly reminding us that this is the beginning of a film, and what we are about to see is a film, and what we are currently seeing is all just part of a film. (Fig iii)

Fig iv: The zoom into the camera, and by extension its perspective.

We are shown dead bodies that wake up, a young boy who appears to be in the same room as these bodies, but is not, archival footage lifted from Bergman's own films, and again the scrolling and malfunctioning of film stock. Through this introduction, Bergman addresses the idea of film being wholly unreliable, an extension of fantasy and the explicit product of his imagination in front of a camera... something he then shows us zooming into. (fig iv)

Fig v: The boy and the film separated by the distance of the screen.

Finally we observe the young boy, unrelated to the plot, reaching out and touching a screen that shows the transient image combining the Nurse and the actresses face. Here we observe the separation between viewer and film I mentioned earlier, the idea of the screen we view the film on being the only separation between the world we inhabit, and the world they inhabit. (fig v)

Fig vi: The film breaks

Fig vii: And again

However, we then enter the world that the child reaches out to, and as the separation between the identities of the two women becomes indistinguishable, so too does the distance between what Bergman insists is reality and filmed, and what he tells us is fiction. For example, at the beginning of their joining, the Nurse meets the gaze of the Actress and the film begins to break apart in front of our very eyes (fig vi, vii) highlighting the medium's imperfections and unwinding out of an unseen projector. Immediately after we resume through a blurred lens, before it snaps into focus with the apparent involvement of a third party.

Twice in quick succession, Bergman tells us not to believe what he is about to show us, that what follows is entirely constructed and that there is a hand operating the camera we are seeing this world through. Suitably, from this point on we witness the complete disintegration of logic. The actress's husband mistakes the nurse for his wife (who plays along to the point of making love to him), the nurse reveals she knows the entire intimate history of the actress's life, and finally the character's faces literally join together in a single image.

Outlandish, impossible and the very definition of fantasy, the scenario is, as promised by its creator, a product of his imagination. However, during the film's final moments, an edit suddenly shows us a camera panning down to frame a face, a director and crew member controlling the content of the image.

Fig viii: The director at work.

Revealed through this movement is Bergman and a crew (fig viii) filming the final scene of the film, a distinct indicator of reality intruding on what he has assured us is fantasy. This act, combined with the above instances of highlighting the films 'filmed' nature, throws into question everything we have previously seen, and here he tells us that the melding of his characters identities is as real as he is, which is definitely real since he made the film we are watching. The product now exists, but through this logic its contents does also.

Bergman twists the paradox. We know what we are seeing is impossible, but for it to be filmed as he shows us he does, it must exist - thus is the very nature of the photographed image. By showing us his process, he tells us that as he exists in the film, so too must the films events, and so too must we the viewers, as there is no doubt that Ingmar Bergman was definitely a real person and did, at one point, exist in the same universe we currently do.

With this act, he questions the concept of fantasy and its symbiotic relationship with narrative fiction. The film's events are fantasy, but nonetheless it exists in the basic sense of the word. Persona is a comment on our perception of what is real from a spectator's perspective, and more importantly what it means to watch a film.

So next time you sit down in a cinema - or even just in front of your pirated stream of Transformers 2 - remember that what you're watching may indeed be a product of a fantasy, but it no doubt exists through your observation of it. Through Persona, Bergman exclaims that you must question what you see, that you must examine the double negative thrown up by this act of voyeurism, and that you must notice the infinite, cyclical paradox involved in just sitting there and watching.