Cries & Whispers
Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann, Anders Ek, Erland Josephson, Hennin Moritzen, Georg Årlin
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The subtle rustle of a silk nightgown, a desperate throat cracking under dehydration, the painful cries of a dying woman. Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers is an aural pleasure as much as it is a visual one.
Bergman’s fascination with the female character has never been on better display than in his short, yet evocative 1972 masterpiece Cries and Whispers. The film centers on three sisters, one of whom is dying from cancer and her maid as they struggle to accept her eventual parting and the various forces that kept them at arm’s length until these final moments.
As Agnes (Harriet Andersson) lies dying, her sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann) begin to reflect on segments of their lives that influence who they’ve become. Agnes’ maid Anna also thinks back on her time with Agnes, always there for her even when her sisters weren’t.
Andersson gets agonizing screams in the latter parts of the film, but her best work comes in the opening scene. Parched, her lips cracked, her throat struggling to wet itself. Her pained expression as she realizes she is not yet dead and must continue to endure this disease, struggling to find peace but unable to do so. It’s a stark choice for Bergman to open with, but it sets a tone for the film that enables the audience to understand they aren’t watching a simple character study or a plot-driven feature, but a performance piece, an art piece, a piece of cinematic chemistry.
After the initial opening as the audience is acclimated to the film, we begin a series of flashbacks exploring the psyches of the four women waiting for death to take one of them. Agnes remembers how she had no emotional bond with her mother (also played by Ullmann), except one brief encounter where her mother held young Agnes’ hand to her face. It was the closest they would ever be as their mother seemed to favor Maria more simply because they were like kindred spirits.
Maria’s memory is spurned on by a brief encounter with the doctor (Erland Josephson) where they share an intimate moment. The doctor faces Maria into a mirror and then examines her various facial flaws and irregularities explaining to her how she has changed. It’s one of many single-take shots where the actresses are given an opportunity to show their talent. Here, Ullmann subtly reacts to each biting barb hurled at her, minute changes express the insecurity in her flaws, yet ultimate acceptance of what she has become. Ullmann’s eyes are incredibly expressive, yet a soft pursing of the lips or gentle smile or even the slight tilt of her head each convey so much about her character.
Thulin gets her time in the sun as Karin, not in the flashback that examines her bitter and tense relationship with domineering husband Fredrik (Georg Årlin), but late in the film as she struggles to understand affection in a meaningful way. Afraid to be touched by anyone, Maria tries seemingly in vain to give her an emotional connection. Karin strikes back, pushes herself against he wall and wails. Her pain is clear. She doesn’t understand love. She has clearly struggled to find some purchase upon which she can stand where affection or compassion reside. Her husband has clearly not provided it to her and she has pushed everyone else away, including her two sisters, but can she learn to embrace an emotional connection with others. It’s not immediately evident and that query, marching across her weary countenance in an unrestrained sorrow and fury explain more about her than anything else.
And in spite of everything, it is the faithful servant Anna who has understood better than any of them what being faithful and compassionate requires. She has spent her life treated as little more than a servant, but it is she who reaches out to Agnes in her dying moments, embraces her when she struggles for companionship. Anna knows more about being a sister or a mother than any of the three sisters. Her flashback is simple, more understated than the others for she has known little else than serving Agnes. She appreciates all that she has given and as she reads through Agnes’ diary, she empathizes with the words and embraces them.
The performances are such a compelling aspect of the film that the rest would almost seem unnecessary until you realize that the sound work, the cinematography, the art direction and the costume design each inform your understanding. How the audio, free of musical embellishment captures every haunting and heart-rending sound. How the cinematography creates a crisp image with whites and reds that never bleed. How the set design tells us of characters whose innocence has been bloodied by time and consciousness. How the costumes act as an extension of the characters. Each aspect adds depth to the film.
Much of the cinematography, art direction and costume design are inextricable. The red chamber is a perfect setting for the film. Most of it is covered in red, from the wallpaper to the carpet. In contrast, the white curtains, white pillows and white-clad actors in the shots of the room, are starkly symbolic. While one interpretation could be that the white on red represents the loss of a young life to an awful diseases, but I think it has a more forceful connotation. These women, once innocent pillars of virtue, portrayed as such a the beginning of the film are cut open to reveal their inner demons. It may be a rather blunt analysis, but it feels right.
The costumes further reveal information about the women. At the beginning each of them is painted virtuous, dutifully sitting at the side of their beleaguered sister aiding in her in waning moments of life. Yet, as each part of the story is revealed, we understand the characters better. Anna and Agnes are still seemingly innocent, retaining their white clothing. Maria continues to feign innocence in spite of her rather guilty past, and Karin starts wearing dark colors, representing the hardened nature of her spirit. She is repressed and unapologetic about it. She no longer puts on airs, but embraces herself.
Cries and Whispers demands your attention. It pulls you into its dark halls, questions our understanding of the female psyche and drenches us in harsh images and sounds, forcing us to keep our attention on the screen. There are moments where you almost feel like a voyeur, peeking into the too-private lives of these women. You know that you should not be so brazen as to look on, but you aren’t able to turn away. Trapped in their pain, fear and suffering, the audience must understand and internalize what they’ve seen before they are able to push the film out of the forefront of their minds. And even then you aren’t able to forget what you’ve seen only allow it to settle into your own psyche and, with hope, make you better for it.
September 6, 2011