CRIES AND WHISPERS
Review by David Ng, imagesjournal.com
Since its initial release in 1972, Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers has been increasingly compared to another film released that same year, The Exorcist. The similarities may not be apparent at first glance. Bergman's film takes place over a century ago on an estate in rural Sweden; it concerns the story of three sisters, one of whom is dying, and their maid. Through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences, the relationships and psychology of this quartet of characters are explored in meticulous and often painful detail. The dying sister, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), is the center of the movie, both emotionally and physically. From her bed, she writhes in pain, summoning her feuding sisters with her cries of agony. Her nameless affliction inhabits her so deeply that it takes on supernatural dimensions; she seems in fact possessed. Like Regan, the little girl in The Exorcist, Agnes is the vessel for something so unimaginably horrible that it tests the devotion of those who love her.
As Christian allegory, Cries and Whispers is certainly the bleaker of the two films. Rather than pitting good versus evil, it stages a passion play of sorts, but one that goes awry. Agnes is the Christ-figure, her suffering sent by God to cleanse the sins of her sisters. The maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan), is like the Virgin Mary, who takes the barely conscious Agnes into her arms as in a pieta. The two sisters represent the Apostles. Karin (Ingrid Thulin), the eldest, is cold and forbidding; Maria (Liv Ullman), the youngest, is coy and passive-aggressive. Karin and Maria don't get along. When Agnes dies and, in a dream sequence, is resurrected, Karin and Maria are driven even further apart as they recoil in horror from Agnes' reanimated body. Instead of everlasting forgiveness, there is only more mistrust and apprehension.
As a secular story, without the religious symbolism, Bergman's film still registers powerfully, and contains more raw suffering and, for some, more horror than The Exorcist. When Agnes, in her death throws, screams out "Can't somebody help me?" her sisters can only hide their faces in fear. This is the lowest form of fear, the fear of the unknown. In these moments, Bergman's camera chooses not to pull away, but to angle in as Karin and Maria squirm uncomfortably. They are powerless, even more so than Agnes, and though they try to hide it, their inability to confront their sister's illness is evident in their faces and small mannerisms. Agnes must rely almost exclusively on Anna, the maid, for any kind of physical contact. Baring her breast in a display of maternal care, Anna takes Agnes into her arms. Her sisters can only watch from doorways and windows, partly out of fear, mostly out of shame.
Their insecurities are explored in more detail in a series of flashbacks, which in their overly schematic way, seek to explain their stunted emotional growth. Maria, we learn, is a flirt who tries to seduce the family doctor (Erland Josephson) while her husband is away on business. Observing her face in the mirror, the doctor notes how she has aged, how her disingenuous smiles can no longer fool him. Her mother's favorite, Maria has lost her ability to charm. Ullman projects the incertitude of a woman passing directly from childhood to middle age. Karin, meanwhile, seems to have been middle-aged her entire life. Caught in a loveless marriage with a man who won't touch her, she learns to evade all physical contact. In an act of hysteria, or maybe an attempt to feel something, anything, she cuts her genitals with a shard of glass, and then smears the blood across her face. Ingrid Thulin plays her like a dowager: tall, imperious, unforgiving, but racked with regret over the lack of warmth in her life. After Agnes' death, Karin and Maria attempt to reconcile, and for one evening, they regress pitifully back to childhood, nervously touching each other's faces and exchanging small kisses. But after the funeral, they have already returned to their normal selves, as if awakened from a dream. In an act of misplaced aggression, they dismiss Anna from her post, and as they part ways, their mourning veils sealing themselves off, they reassure each other using words they don't mean that they will stay friends.
Despite its emotional turbulence, Cries and Whispers is a quiet movie. Most of it takes place in silence or in hushed tones. The incessant ticking of clocks, which opens the movie, constantly reminds us of the vast emptiness of the manor. Visually, Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist (who won an Oscar for his work) enshroud the actresses in shadows. In one scene, Karin, Maria, and Anna are called in the middle of the night by Agnes' screams, and with only a single oil lamp, they navigate the vast corridors of the manor like lost children in a forest, the darkness threatening to swallow them up at every corner.
Those corridors are painted from floor to ceiling in red, the movie's dominant color. Its meaning is obvious; it is the color of blood, passion, and the soul. Red is everywhere, from the bed sheets that surround Agnes, to the blood of Karin's self-mutilation, to the color of wine spilled in frustration. Even the fade outs are to red instead of the traditional black. Though not Bergman's first color film, Cries and Whispers is his first where color plays an integral part. It bathes the movie in a pool of intensity, almost drowning the characters in their own emotions. It can even be at times stifling and overwrought, but for Bergman, the choice was entirely personal. Realizing the vision of a childhood dream, Bergman uses red to depict the "interior of the soul" at its deepest, most mysterious levels.
An unquestionable technical achievement, Cries and Whispers deserves to be seen in only the best conditions. The Criterion Collection has recently released the movie on DVD. The new digital transfer was mastered from a 35mm interpositive and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. Both sound and image have been restored. It's probably the cleanest, most technically perfect print of the movie to be seen in awhile and for this reason alone, it's worth owning. But there is the added bonus of a rare interview with Bergman and his frequent collaborator Erland Josephson made by Swedish television. For 52 minutes, they answer personal questions about love, fatherhood, and death. Bergman, always candid, expresses few regrets about his life and reveals a healthy sense of humor which his movies, particularly Cries and Whispers, have hitherto concealed. Joking about everything from his many children born out of wedlock to his tormented childhood, Bergman appears to have forsaken the solemnity of his films. A tireless master who is still working actively in the theater, Bergman has taken a long look into the interior of his own soul, and from what we can tell, has liked what he has seen.