Cries and Whispers (1972)

Dir. by Ingmar Bergman

Images: Striking contrast between lush, sun-drenched exteriors and the claustrophobic interior of the manor. Bergman has said that red represents, for him, the color of the soul, which he puts to extensive use here, most memorably in the film’s constant fades-to-red (rather than black) and in the side-lit close-ups that mark the beginning and end of each “dream” sequence. Favorite images: Anna holding Agnes in the pieta; Agnes gasping for breath; Karin recoiling at Marie’s touch; Agnes swinging in the final scene.

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Cries and Whispers is built from the simplest of premises: two wealthy women, both trapped in loveless marriages, return home to the family estate to comfort their dying sister. Agnes (Harriet Andersson), a beautiful artist in early middle-age, is ravaged by a cancer that sends her into fits of agony. For Bergman, the approach of death is a terror. His camera lingers uncomfortably on Agnes, forcing us to watch her body convulse and her lungs gasp for breath. In the final throes of excruciating pain, she screams out for comfort: “Can’t anyone! Can’t anyone help me?”

She receives little solace, though, from her sisters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Marie (Liv Ullman). Both characters are archetypal: the former is cold, distant, and intellectual; the latter childlike, irresponsible, and sensual. Neither is capable of the empathy and selflessness necessary to truly comfort their sister or to find earthly salvation in Bergman’s world. The director establishes their personalities visually in early shots. When we first see Marie, she is asleep in her childhood bed, her face framed by the dolls of her youth. She is an adult in arrested development — a slave to her spontaneous desires, incapable of (and uninterested in) offering herself wholly to another. In her “dream” sequence — the first of three in the film — we see Marie seducing the family doctor (Erland Josephson), a betrayal that leads her husband to attempt suicide. The psychological significance of the act is obvious: too self-absorbed to consider the consequences of her behavior, Marie has destroyed any possibility of discovering meaningful human contact and has only hurt those closest to her in the process.

When we first see Karin alone, she is sitting rigidly at a table, examining financial records. She seems to have also abandoned the quest for love or connection in her life, focusing her energies, instead, on the pursuit of superficial success. Her marriage to a vindictive ambassador has traumatized Karin in unspoken ways. In her dream we see her performing the loathsome rituals of their marriage: the two sit down to dinner, where she (and we) are subjected to the annoying tedium of his bites and swallows. When the two retire to bed, she takes drastic measures in order to escape the inevitable. In a brutally graphic scene, Karin inserts a shard of glass into her vagina, then rubs the blood on her face. Again, by treating the marriage and Karin’s past in a dream, Bergman is allowed a vocabulary of archetypal and psychological imagery. Marriage, “love,” and sex — or at least the rigid, institutionalized versions of them — seem to bring fallen man only greater pain and isolation.

Organized religion, as personified by the bishop who administers last rites, is utterly irrelevant. After we have witnessed Agnes’s brutal struggle with death, the bishop’s familiar words sound inhuman: “God, our Father, in His infinite wisdom, has called you home to Him still in the bloom of your youth. In your life He found you worthy of bearing a long and tortuous agony.” He is not far-removed from Tomas, the minister whose crisis of faith is portrayed in Bergman’s Winter Light. Like Tomas, he is tormented by his own human doubts in the presence of his more faithful parishioners. As he addresses the family, he becomes deeply moved, not by the loss of his friend, but by the meaninglessness of it all. “Pray for us who have been left behind on this miserable earth,” he begs of Agnes. “Plead with Him that He may make sense and meaning of our lives.” Then, turning to Marie and Karin: “Her faith was stronger than mine.”

Only the fourth woman in Bergman’s drama, the servant Anna (Kari Sylwan), is able to genuinely comfort Agnes. Their relationship is represented visually in what is perhaps the film’s most memorable image. When Agnes calls out to Anna in the middle of the night, shaking from cold, Anna comes to her, then lifts the dying woman’s head and places it on her bare breasts. The image returns in Anna’s dream, now filmed in a long shot, making Bergman’s allusion to the pieta unmistakable. It’s interesting to me that Bergman, the atheist, returns to Christian imagery for this most important moment of human contact. Perhaps it can be explained away as Anna’s fantasy — the fulfillment of her motherly duties after her child’s death — but, regardless, the image resonates beautifully.

After Agnes’s death, the two remaining sisters discover a need for human contact. Marie comes to Karin and asks her why they never speak, why two people who have shared so many memories are so distant from one another. It’s a complicated scene. Karin is, at first, almost violently resistant to Marie’s approaches. “No. Don’t come near me. Don’t touch me,” she demands. “I don’t want you to be kind to me.” But her defenses slowly erode, as Marie caresses Karin’s face.The two collapse on a bench, sharing themselves for the first time since childhood. The reconciliation, however, is short lived. When they part company at the end of the film, Marie turns cold toward her sister, reproaching her for her sentimentality and returning to the comfortable routine of her life.

Despite the devastating farewell between Karin and Marie and the total failure of the church to bring solace, Cries and Whispers does have a happy ending, or at least by Bergman’s standards. In the coda, we watch and listen as Anna takes Agnes’s diary delicately from a drawer, unwraps it, and begins to read. The entry initiates a flashback to a beautiful day when the three sisters and Anna gathered together in high spirits, enjoying each other’s company on an outdoor swing. As Bergman’s camera tracks forward into a close-up of Agnes’s lovely face, we hear the voice of her diary: “I received the most wonderful gift anyone can receive in this life, a gift that is called many things: togetherness, companionship, relatedness, affection. I think this is what is called ‘grace.'”

In God, Death, Art and Love: The Philosophical Vision of Ingmar Bergman, Robert Lauder writes:

The human journey is toward death. As God’s presence dissolved, the human person had to look elsewhere for some meaning in human existence, some hope to cling to in the face of death. Art offers hints of explanations, but without God’s animating presence and the superstructure of meaning that religion once provided for the artist, art’s “answers” can never be adequate. The only hope we have, according to Bergman, is human love. There is no heavenly hope. To make loving contact with one other human being or perhaps with many others is the only salvation available to us.

It’s a refreshingly succinct and useful summary from what is, otherwise, a very disappointing book. It’s also, in a sense, a perfect synopsis of Cries and Whispers, the first Bergman film to knock me flat. I watched it again the other night, still mesmerized by it all, and still unable to adequately explain its power. The greatest compliment I can give Cries and Whispers is that it is a profoundly religious film, by which I mean that it is deeply concerned, first and foremost, with the struggles of the human condition in light of the presence — or, in Bergman’s case, the absence — of God. That it approaches this subject with such grace and honesty makes it a masterpiece.