I couldn't begin to tell you what Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers is really about, but I can tell you that it's one of the most emotionally intense films I've ever seen. It's Bergman's most ferociously personal and anguished film; a cinematic plunge into the most uncomfortable depths of human emotion. Bergman throws his characters into the abyss, and then watches as they attempt to free themselves from a waking nightmare. It's also one of Bergman's most tender films, featuring moments of deeply moving humanity amidst all of the quiet terror. This movie will shake you.
The film begins with Agnes (Harriett Andersson, Through a Glass Darkly) on her deathbed. She is in the final stage of her battle with cancer, and she will likely be gone within a matter of days. Her sisters Maria (Liv Ullmann, Scenes from a Marriage) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin, Winter Light) have returned to the family mansion to stay with Agnes during this time, but they are both uncomfortable with being so close to death. They observe Agnes from a distance, leaving a kind-hearted, deeply religious maid named Anna (Kari Sylwan, Face to Face) to handle the dirty business of actually comforting their sister.
Cries and Whispers was made before Christian author Gary Chapman popularized the notion of “love languages,” but Agnes' love language is undoubtedly physical touch. She yearns to be touched by her sisters – to be held and caressed and hugged and kissed. In one heartbreaking scene, a dying Agnes – so weak she can no longer speak – invites Maria to her bedside. With all the strength she can muster, Agnes raises her arms, grabs the back of Maria's head and pulls her down for a kiss. Maria recoils in horror, flinging her sister aside and screaming at the top of her lungs. What should have been a tender farewell is instead something awful and hurtful.
In contrast, Anna is always willing to provide comfort. In one of the film's most iconic scenes, Anna gets into bed with Agnes, unbuttons her shirt and holds Agnes' head close to her breast. To ease Agnes' suffering, Anna provides a level of maternal comfort Agnes yearns for but would never dare ask for. In a video essay included on The Criterion Collection's new release of the film, filmmaker ::kogonada notes that Anna simultaneously provides the touch of a mother, a lover and a friend. Her heart is generous enough to encompass all of these things.
Both Maria and Karin behave in horrible ways at various points, but their awfulness is often accompanied by unshakable guilt. Over the course of the film, everyone in the house experiences vivid flashbacks. Maria recalls a passionate affair with a doctor (Erland Josephson, Hour of the Wolf), and her jilted husband's subsequent reaction. Agnes recalls her complicated relationship with her depression-afflicted mother. In the film's most shocking sequence, Karin remembers a desperate moment of painful self-mutilation (the scene's combination of body horror and self-loathing surely made an impact on Lars von Trier).
Sven Nykvist won an Academy Award for his striking cinematography, which fills the screen with blood-red imagery. Almost everything in the house is a deep, bright red, which Bergman says he feels is, “the color of the soul.” Red is often used as the color of passion, but here seems to represent the color of agony. There are more than a few moments when it feels as if the entire film is unfolding inside an open wound. Nykvist also applies dark red filters to striking shots of the character's faces, which effectively serve as wordless chapter titles.
Onscreen and off, Bergman's relationship with religion has long been a complicated one. He spent many movies wrestling with the unsettling notion of God's silence, before finally coming to the conclusion that God was probably silent because he wasn't there. Cries and Whispers stands out among Bergman's later films because it returns to issues that the filmmaker had supposedly put behind him. A scene involving a doubtful priest inspires memories of Bergman's “Silence of God trilogy” (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence), as the priest begs Agnes to speak to God on humanity's behalf if and when she reaches the afterlife: “Pray for us who are left on the dark, dirty earth under an empty and cruel heaven. Lay your burden of suffering at God's feet and ask him to pardon us.”
Even as Bergman continues to express his doubts about the existence of God, he seems to envy Anna's ability to maintain such unshakable faith. Her religious beliefs grant her a level of inner peace the others seem incapable of finding, and she offers Agnes of the sort of saintly human kindness the others seem incapable of providing. Her reward is a pitiful one: muttered words of thanks from her wealthy employers, and the promise that she can keep a single memento of her choosing after Agnes passes. Anna declines, but ends up taking something, anyway – a journal featuring an account of one of Agnes' happiest recent memories. Why does Anna choose this? Perhaps to be reminded that the suffering woman she cared for so deeply did indeed experience true happiness in her lifetime.
Bergman would make other great films after Cries and Whispers (the insightful Scenes from a Marriage and the beautiful Fanny and Alexander among them), but never again would he push himself to such extremes. This film is a howl of agony; an unflinching exorcism of the filmmaker's guilt, sadness, doubts and pain. It seems strange that a film this esoteric and uncompromising would find such mainstream success (in addition to winning Best Cinematography, the film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Costume Design), but that's a testament to the universality of the complex emotions Bergman captures. Regardless of how you interpret the film, there is no escaping its tidal wave of raw power. In its emotionally punishing way, it reminds us that love is most essential when providing it is most difficult.
Cries and Whispers
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 91 minutes
Release Year: 1972