Cries & Whispers (1973)
Dir. Ingmar Bergman
Written by: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann
By and large, the works of Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman are a pretty large cinematic blindspot for me. For whatever reason, his films were sparsely taught at the University of Pittsburgh, at least by the professors I had when I was in film school there. I saw Persona in a class my first year of college and really loved it, although I found it fairly inscrutable, and I sought out a few other films of his on my own. For the most part, however, I haven’t given this challenging filmmaker his proper attention. I briefly attempted a deep dive into his filmography around 2012, shortly after purchasing Bergman’s career-spanning autobiography Images: A Life in Film, but his filmography is so deep that I didn’t put much of a dent in it. I still haven’t completed the book, nor have I progressed much further in my exploration of Bergman’s cinema over the last half decade, but even attempting to explore his massive body of work gave me a better appreciation for this master’s art. Though his films are often extremely personal, investigating his own life, history, and relationships, at the same time, they explore universal themes of death, faith, and identity. Bergman’s is a challenging, cerebral cinema, and I think he often gets a reputation of being a cold filmmaker, but his work also plumbs the depths of human emotion, attempting to portray the full scope of human existence. Cries & Whispers bridges this gap somewhat, providing an emotionally stirring narrative that explores the nuances of human love and familial relationships while also holding its subjects at arms-length. It’s a study of the limits of human love and also the propensity of humans for cruelty, a rumination on the meaning of a life.
Cries & Whispers, set at the turn of the 20th century, is the story of three sisters, Agnes (Andersson), Karin (Thulin), and Maria (Ullmann), who have been brought together in their familial home because Agnes is dying. As her illness progresses, Agnes’s sisters find themselves unable to provide her with any comfort or empathy. Instead, they sulk and pout around the isolated mansion, leaving Agnes’s care to the family’s dedicated servant, Anna (Sylwan), who is Agnes’s only source of comfort in her final days. A series of flashbacks, one focusing on each woman, explore the incidents in their interconnected lives that have brought them to this place of resentment and have shaped them into the women they’ve become. Being in the family home also seems to bring these feelings of jealousy and malice to the forefront for the women as Maria and Karin begin acting increasingly hostile towards each other, and particularly towards Anna, whom they intend to fire once Agnes dies. Upon Agnes’s eventual death, Karin and Maria are forced to recognize their callousness and their failure as sisters, but they are ultimately too driven by their own selfish desires to allow for proper reflection, and they choose to return to their bourgeois lives, forever closing the door on their past.
Like the other Bergman films that I’ve seen, Cries & Whispers is richly symbolic, its narrative and visual compositions both densely packed with information. Unlike other Bergman films that I’ve seen, which seem to purposefully hold both their subjects and their audience at arm’s length, Cries & Whispers is an enveloping experience. Bergman has said himself that all of his films “can be thought of in black and white, except for Cries & Whispers,” and it’s true that the film’s distinctive red color palette is its defining quality, creating, to me, a womblike atmosphere in the film that makes me feel totally ensconced in its chamber drama. This is a film of suggestion, hinting at states of heightened emotion through its rich swaths of color and Bergman’s impressionistic direction. The title is perfect, as the text communicates with the audience in sharp, startling cries through its memorable visuals, while the characters therein are able to communicate with one another only in whispers, if at all. Maria and Karin find themselves totally cut off from any emotional response, unable to connect with one another on any meaningful level, although they attempt to feign concern for their dying sister. Though it provides only sketches of backstory for its four central characters, with its flashbacks feeling purposefully elliptical, the scant details the audience is granted allow for a deep understanding of the various women’s psyches. All three sisters suffer from a deep-seeded repression, and the film’s refusal to fully unleash all of its mysteries is a perfect mirror of that denial. The film’s structure makes for a beautiful suture of form and content, as the its setting of the familial mansion forms a hermetically sealed environment made up of disparate rooms, reflecting the sisters’ detached relationships and closed-off natures. Its red walls, at the same time soothing and intimidating, are representative of the storm of emotions bubbling under these women’s calm surfaces. The white dresses that Karin and Maria wear during the early parts of the film stand in stark contrast to the overwhelming red interiors of the home and serve as visual reminders of their attempts to maintain their states of emotional detachment. Both women have reasons for retreating into themselves, each having experienced traumas in her marriage, and though the film is largely observational, refusing any ambitions towards melodrama, watching Karin’s and Maria’s emotionally stunted state is heartbreaking.
The performances across the board are superb, with Ullmann and Thulin as Maria and Karin, respectively, bringing differing motivations to characters who have ended up in similar emotional and psychological places. Both characters are icily cold, but Ullman’s Maria is more manipulative and active, while Thulin plays Karin as defeated and reserved. Karin’s emotional repression manifests itself in a self-destructive tendency, while Maria’s is more outwardly cruel and harmful to others. Regardless, both actresses perfectly portray the agonizing reality of being unable to express the host of human emotions that are raging internally. Their resentment for each other, as well as for their dying sister, is apparent, and it is only magnified by the film’s intense color scheme. Bergman often chooses to focus closely on his actresses’ faces, leading into each character’s individual flashback with a lengthy facial close-up, lit by alternatingly naturalistic and artificial red light, and their blank expressions staring directly into the camera are memorable, but it’s the tiny tics and attempts at human connection that Ullmann and Thulin bring to their roles that stick with me after multiple viewings.
Sylwan’s Anna is the film’s emotional core. Her obvious goodness is the natural counter to the contempt that Maria and Karin exude. Unlike the sisters, Anna is deeply in touch with her emotions and her faith, providing genuine love and care to the dying Agnes. Sylwan’s performance lends Anna the quiet dignity of the meekly pious. As a servant, her role often relegates her to the background, but she has an important role to play in the dynamics of the household. We see that Anna has suffered as much, if not more, than Maria and Karin, having lost a child. However, Anna’s faith is strengthened by her suffering, and rather than turning inwardly, she has devoted her life to loving service. Anna is the only character in the film who offers any genuine kindness to Agnes, and it is implied that through this kindness, Agnes is able to finally experience some of the beauty of life in her final days after years of being deprived of the familial love that she has craved. Anna shares a strong religious faith with Agnes, and in the end, it is their optimistic point of view that is reinforced by a coda that features Anna reading from Agnes’s diary, negating the staid, emotionally repressed viewpoint of Karin and Maria. All of the performances are naturalistic and haunting. When combined with the film’s overall visual aesthetic and tone, they create an atmosphere of mystery, with small gestures containing monumental significance and personal character history only vaguely implied but easily perceived and understood.
Cries & Whispers is a profoundly challenging film, representing, as it does, extremes of human emotion and suffering. It’s a painful watch, and the cold indifference with which the characters hurt themselves and one another, with Maria and Karin waging cruel psychological warfare, can be tough to watch. For viewers who choose to wade into the claustrophobic examination of trauma that is Cries & Whispers, though, there are rich cinematic rewards. I feel similarly about this film as I do towards Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which I have written about as one of my favorite films and one of the most important films to me. Though my personal affections for Cries & Whispers are not as strong, I feel that it is a similarly prescient look into the emotional human experience, although perhaps from a more cynical viewpoint than that of Bresson’s film. While Bresson was, admittedly, a man of strong religious conviction, Bergman was possessed of no such religious faith, opting instead to approach the questions of God and the universe through close examination of the human psyche. Bergman used the tools of the cinema to delve into the depths of human psychology, seeking to use the filmic image to create a language to express not just tangible reality but also the psyche, identity, and emotion. It is this examination that informs the masterpiece of modernist filmmaking, Persona, and this examination which Bergman expands in Cries & Whispers, visually representing emotional states and transmogrifying them into vibrant color, sound, and, importantly, silence. With its elliptical flashback structure, Cries & Whispers mimics the patterns and functions of memory, creating a textual representation of the very workings of the psyche. The film is great enough simply as a narrative film, but as a formal experiment in expanding cinematic language, it is brilliant.
I watched the film twice closely and once distractedly in preparation for writing this post, and each time, like every other time I’ve watched Cries & Whispers before, I was struck with the desire to watch more Bergman. His filmography is daunting in its depth, with well over 50 features made, and his style is not the most accessible, even when judging by the standards of international art house cinema, but I want to make further inroads into viewing his films. The handful that I’ve seen have left me stunned by their visual beauty, their formal and narrative audacity, and their ability to tap into universal truths about the human experience. I’ve written many times that I feel great art should always give its audience cause for introspection and there is no way to come out of the experience of viewing this or any Bergman film without doing serious soul searching. Art should be used as a tool to reveal real, human truths, and Cries & Whispers insists on doing that. The film’s style is decidedly modernist, but the emotions and human truths that it speaks to are something primal. It might not be a comfortable watch for everyone, but it’s a powerful piece of art that demands thought and attention, and that rewards careful viewers with deep insights.