Cries and Whispers

I first experienced Cries and Whispers  in 1973.  I was, even then, drawn to the deeper, darker aspects of human psychology.  It was no wonder, therefore, that I was into Bergman. I rated the Seventh Seal and Persona as the greatest films I had seen.   Then came Cries and Whispers.  And now, after a gap of nearly 40 years, I have experienced it all over again.  And I still agree with the reviewers.  Cries and Whispers is probably the most intense expression of emotion it is possible to experience in a cinema.  Ingmar Bergman was a truly great director and his partnership with the cinematographer, Sven Nykqvist, was one of the most creative in the history of cinema.

The opening sequences set the mood, time passing in the ticks and strikes of the clocks, the unrelenting passion of the crimson carpets, walls and drapes.  We see a woman or is it a man; the angular face and lank hair obviate sexuality.  She is lying in bed.  Another woman, plump and beautiful with ringlets of honey blonde hair lies asleep in a chair.  The invalid gets up stiffly and walks painfully across to her bureau and writes in her diary, ‘It is Monday and I am in pain.’ 

Agnes is dying of cancer.  Her sisters, Karin and Maria, have returned to look after her, but it is the peasant Anna with her plump expressionless face and simple faith who loves and cares for her.  ‘In elliptical flashbacks, intended to give us emotional information, not tell a story, we learn that the three sisters have made little of their lives.’ Karin is icily detached, married to an older husband, a calculating, sneering diplomat, whom she loathes. She cannot bear to be touched and in one awful scene lacerates her cunt with a broken glass and smears the blood over her lips to avoid her husband’s attentions.  Maria is beautiful, but corrupt and heartless.  She is married to a weak man, whom she despises and so she consoles herself with other liaisons.  When her husband stabs himself and pleads for help, she turns away.  Maria and Karin were close as children, but are now too damaged to allow any real intimacy.  Agnes always felt isolated, especially from their tragic though beautiful mother.      

Theirs is not a happy house, it’s a place of guilt and repression, cries and whispers.  Nobody can get close enough to draw comfort from anybody else.  Agnes is in agony, her back arched as she struggles to breathe, desperate for human warmth, but her sisters turn away.  Only Anna can console her, pillowing her head in the living flesh of her breasts to ease her terrible transition.   

Cries and Whispers is a disturbing film, a film about life and death.  It’s not only Agnes who is dying.  Karin and Maria are too, and in a way, we all are.  Their lives have no hope, no meaning.  Karin works while Maria plays, but these are evasions.  Theirs is a simalcrum.   Without human warmth, without love, there can be no life.   Paradoxically, it is Agnes,  who finds life  in simple pleasures, the garden, a drink of water and the comfort of  being held.   So Bergman presents us with a contrast, a counterpoint between the hopelessness, defensiveness and meaninglessness of  Karin and Maria’s lives with their compromises, pretences and terror of real contact and the dreadful void of death that confronts Agnes.  

Bergman does not spare us the shock and horror.  Harriet Andersson is not beautiful in death; sweat glistens on her angular face, her hair is lank, her skin pale and grey, her eyes terrified;  she arches her back, she drags air into her damaged lungs with long, tortured stridor, she retches, she beats her fists on her barren, wasted chest. 

The cinematography is superb.  As the critic, Roger Ebert, wrote, ‘The camera is as uneasy as we are. It stays at rest mostly, but when it moves it doesn’t always follow smooth, symmetrical progressions. It darts, it falls back, is stunned. It lingers on close-ups of faces with the impassivity of God. It continues to look when we want to turn away; it is not moved.  Agnes lies thrown on her death bed, her body shuddered by horrible, deep, gasping breaths, as she fights for air. The sisters turn away, and we want to, too.’  We know things are this bad, but we don’t want to have to feel it.  The scene of  Anna embracing the decomposing Agnes has all the soul searching depth of a Rembrandt,  the horror of embracing death but at the same time a moving and familiar reminder of the pieta.   So the death of Agnes  represents the corruption of humanity.  And here again we have the dialectic;  life in death and death in life.   This film gets as close as any film can get to the crimson membrane of passion and sexual disquiet that for Bergman is the soul.  

Cries and Whispers has little narrative.  We don’t know how the major characters arrived there; we are left to fill in the gaps from the darkness of our own experience.  This is the power of Bergman.  He does not attempt to explain; he just shows us what its like.  He communicates on a level of human feeling so deep that defies description – but how well he communicates.