Directed By: Ingmar Bergman
Written By: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann
Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers is fierce to the point of intimidation. It’s a hugely portentous rendering of family and hatred. Oddly, it recalls a fellow nominee from 1974, Friedkin’s The Exorcist, in its portrait of family where an evil sickness draws burrowed scars and anger to the surface of its central characters, each ailing in their own spiritual way. It becomes a morbid examination of waning faith, of a complete cessation of love and intimacy. Even stranger is that Friedkin’s savage, supernatural, horror is the more affectionate of the two, the less calloused and angry.
Cries and Whispers opens with a montage of ticking clocks, mechanics that will come to offer us our only reprieve from the film’s barren soundscapes. The metronomic cranking lends a sense of surely accumulated pain, before Bergman settles on an extreme close-up of the declining Agnes (Harriet Andersson); eaten by cancer. Bergman lingers on her ghostly features, clinging to every tortured wince and crease of the face, the incessant ticking and drawn-out takes elongating the pain as she stirs in her bed.
She is being watched over by her two sisters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullman) in their lavish 19th century mansion, each struggling in their own way. However the struggle of the women isn’t the pain of their illness, or the torment of a fruitless sisterly devotion. Rather the struggle is in the unbridgeable distance that has grown between them. Agnes’s suffering is a manifestation of the sister’s poisonous discomfort with each other, of the sadness and isolation in which they live. Each is tormented by an existence devoid of compassion and intimacy.
Karin is the eldest, a vitriolic and discontented woman, living in perpetual disgust. The closest she comes to a sympathetic plea is when she asks if it is known how horrible it is to forever contain such explosive hatred as she does for her own family. In the film’s most confronting moment, she mutilates herself to deter her husband from touching her. She loathes contact and connectivity, perhaps because she wouldn’t know what to do with it if she had it.
Maria is the beautiful younger sister. She longs for contact, but is lustful and cold in her pursuit of it. She is a seductress, her advances and desperate grazing of other’s skin a pathetic plea for admiration. She commits adultery and is on the cusp of disaffectedness. Her intentions are hopelessly transparent, a transparency made brutally clear in one scene by a doctor she’s trying to bed.
Through a series of flashbacks, each triggered by Bergman’s motif of a slow fade to an impassioned crimson, we learn that the sisters’ segregation runs deep. Agnes, who pines for reconciliation, has forever been an outcast, ostracised even in youth by her detached mother. Karin and Maria are both trapped with husbands who they meet with utter indifference. In a dreamy, supernatural sequence, Agnes begs her sisters for a final moment of unity, however both are so jaded that even the pleas of their dying sister are neglected.
The only warmth is provided by the loving maid Anna (Kari Sylwan) who maternally cradles Agnes to her breast when she’s in pain. Unlike Karin or Maria, Anna has love to give, and she knows what to do with it.
The episodic sifting between adultery, crumbling marriages, illness, weepiness and broken families does threaten to become cumbersome. It teases the fringe of melodrama, however Cries and Whispers overcomes any exploitive tendencies with sheer intensity.
It’s a contracted experience. With little reprieve we are contained to the decadent household where Agnes suffers. We’re constricted to the pain of this family, suffocated by Bergman’s protruding reds which lend a spiritual desperation and intensity. There’s a deliberate stillness and futility to the atmosphere. Those ticking clocks haunt every corner of the house and every soul that inexplicably clings to their isolation and hatred.
As though to counteract the theme of detachment that drives the film, Sven Nykvist’s award winning photography is extremely personal, dwelling on the faces of the actresses in extreme close-up, latching onto every expression and glance. It lends a weightiness to each fleeting moment of contact, every caress and brush of the skin. Bergman takes no motion for granted. The craftsmanship is tireless and seizing.
The pain of this film is so immersive. Its claustrophobia and unrelentingly bleak tone are visceral and stirring. It’s an enormously impassioned picture, it’s uncomfortable, but its power stems from the anguish of its characters becoming our own. It’s ironic; the extreme intimacy with which Bergman allows us to see his characters is exactly that which the characters helplessly scratch for.