Alma, a young nurse, is assigned to care for a well-known stage actress, Elisabet Vogler, who has inexplicably fallen into a mute, catatonic state. Elisabet doesn’t respond to Alma’s attempts at drawing her out of her shell, but when left alone she becomes hysterical after watching a Buddhist monk immolate himself on television. Alma continues to try to resuscitate Elisabet, playing her a radio soap opera, reading her a letter from her husband, and showing her a photo of her young son, which Elisabet tears to shreds.
A seaside cottage.
Elisabet’s doctor sends Elisabet and Alma to her cottage on the coast. Elisabet begins to improve, reading books and taking walks, and listening to Alma, although she still refuses to speak. Alma keeps up a constant stream of chatter to break the silence, her monologue moving from trivial matters to more substantial ones. As the days go by, Alma grows increasingly attached to Elisabet, despite her silence. Eventually, Alma confesses to cheating on her fiancé in a ménage à quatre with underage boys. After this confession, Alma thinks she hears Elisabet speak for the first time.
Alma opens and reads a letter Elisabet has written to her doctor, in which Elisabet relates Alma’s secrets. She confronts Elisabet. When Elisabet doesn’t respond, Alma flies into a rage and violently grabs Elisabet, who retaliates, hitting Alma in the face. Alma grabs a pot of boiling water from the stove, a move that finally elicits a response from Elisabet, who yells “NO.” Chagrinned, Alma begs Elisabet’s forgiveness.
That night, Alma watches Elisabet sleep. She hears yelling outside, and finds a man claiming to be Elisabet’s husband, Mr. Vogler, in the garden. The man mistakes Alma for Elisabet, proclaiming his love for her and their son. The man and Alma make love.
The next morning, Alma finds Elisabet in the kitchen holding the torn photo of her son. “I know you wanted your baby to die,” Alma tells her, viciously.
Has she gone mad? Have she and Elisabet exchanged identities? Is she dreaming?
“I’m not like you,” she says. “I’m not Elisabet Vogler; you are Elisabet Vogler. I’m just here to help you!” Slicing open her arm with her own fingernail, she forces Elisabet to drink her blood.
In the last scene, the two women have returned to the hospital. Elisabet has become fully catatonic again, and is completely in Alma’s control. Alma convinces Elisabet to say her first word: “Nothing.”