—David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
From Wild Strawberries (1957) to his final feature film, Fanny and Alexander (1982), the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman returned again and again to stories about the family, about the ways that members of a family relate to one another, the ways they grant and withhold intimacy, the ways they conceal or reveal their true feelings for one another. Along with Through a Glass Darkly (1961), his 1972 film Cries and Whispers is probably his most concentrated and focused examination of family dynamics.
At an upper middle-class country estate around 1900, two sisters, Karina (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann), have come to be present as their eldest sister, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), dies after a long illness, probably cancer. Agnes is cared for by her long-time servant Anna (Kari Sylwan). These are the main characters in the movie, although other characters—Agnes's doctor (Erland Josephson), the sisters' mother (also played by Liv Ullmann), Maria's daughter (played by Linn Ullmann, the daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman), Karina's and Maria's husbands, and a handful of others—appear briefly.
Bergman was a master at creating highly individualized and complex female characters, a rarity in male directors and one of the most remarkable things about him as a screenwriter and film director. In Cries and Whispers he has done this four times over. Agnes, the eldest sister, is a loving and warm woman. (The name Agnes is derived from the Latin for "lamb.") She is unmarried, and her relationship with the servant Anna suggests she might be a lesbian. Karina, the middle sister, is a cold, withdrawn, self-centered woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a domineering and equally cold older man. Maria, the youngest sister, is flirtatious, promiscuous (in the past she had an affair with Agnes's doctor, which caused her husband to attempt suicide when he discovered it), and also self-centered, but warmer and more sensual than Karina. The servant Anna, who is about the same age as the sisters, is a simple, selfless woman devoted to her mistress and of the four women in the household the only one who is openly religious. No mention is made of a husband, but she did once have a daughter, now dead.
We learn these things about the women not only from the way they treat each other, but from details about their pasts that are subtly interpolated into the plot as very short flashbacks. Childhood memories of a brief glance at a doll's house and of a Twelfth Night celebration with a magic lantern limn a contented childhood for Agnes and Maria. Karin's most vivid childhood memory, in contrast, is of her cold jealousy for the affection given by their mother to Maria. The childhood dynamics of these three sisters are stunningly observed: the confidence and maturity of the eldest sister, the feeling of being excluded and starved of attention of the middle sister, and the pampered special position of the youngest and prettiest sister. It is easy to see how these experiences as children prefigure the personalities and behavior of the three sisters as adults, especially in the pressured environment of the present situation.
The reactions of Karin and Maria to the coming death of their eldest sister clearly indicate how unnerved and frightened they are by the idea of death and the inevitability of their own deaths. After Agnes dies (about halfway through the movie), there is a stunning dream sequence that vividly shows this fear. It is not clear whose dream it is (at one point the dead Agnes says it is her dream); it is likely that the sequence is a cinematic conceit intended by Bergman to represent a collective dream. In the dream the dead Agnes, laid out on her bed in her funeral attire (which eerily resembles that of a baby), calls Anna to her in the night and asks her to bring each of her sisters to her. First Karin then Maria gingerly enters the room, is overcome with fright, and immediately turns and leaves. Only the religious Anna, who seems to accept death as a natural occurrence, consents to stay with her mistress and is seen in a final shot cradling Agnes, curled in the fetal position, in her arms, almost like a Pietà. Most of this sequence is shot in tight close-up and with few edits, making the expressions on the faces plain to read.
The second half of the movie deals with events that happen after the death of Agnes. Karin, Maria, and their husbands are quite businesslike and unsentimental about wrapping up the estate and dismissing the faithful Anna. Far from being a transformative event, the death of their eldest sister has only hardened the personalities of Karin and Maria. The one possibility for change occurs when the shaken Maria confronts Karin and pleads with her to accept her affection. Resisting Maria's overtures, Karin loses control of her tightly reined-in emotions and tells her younger sister how much she hates her. But Maria persists, and finally Karin (who can't bear to be touched) responds, the two embrace, and a new intimacy seems to have been created. Near the end of the movie, though, just before they part, the mercurial Maria disavows this new relationship as just a passing whim and leaves Karin alone and isolated once again. It is the final and most potent example in the movie of what David Thomson calls Bergman's "convictions of the harrowing separateness of people, the intractable privacy of men and women."
In a recent post on Bergman's Shame, I wrote of the precise balance in his best films between the thematic and the narrative, between ideas and people interacting in emotionally charged situations, and attributed this to his background in theater. (Bergman was involved in theater from his days as a student at Stockholm University, later managing several theater companies. For several years in the 1960s he was director of the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm.) This theater-influenced approach to film, which is more apparent in his movies of the 1960s and 1970s than in his earlier work, is on full display in Cries and Whispers, with its plot reminiscent of the family dramas of Ibsen and Chekhov.
Added to this balancing of ideas and characters is the theatrical staging of the action and the overall look of the movie, with its strong emphasis on composition, on the placement of objects and people within the frame and their limited movement within a confined space. Cries and Whispers is in the literal sense of the term a chamber piece. Nearly all of the action takes place in Agnes's country house—in the sitting rooms, in the dining room, in Anna's room, and most vividly in Agnes's bedroom, which is, of course, also her sickroom and the scene of her death and laying out. I can't think of another film by Bergman with such a strong sense of being influenced by stage sets.
Perhaps the most obvious indication of this is the use of an identifiable color scheme in the movie, only Bergman's second film shot in color. The predominant color in this scheme is red, with white, black, and the occasional gray the other colors in the scheme. Every room in the house is painted an intense red color, like those red rooms in paintings by Matisse. The dresses the sisters wear are often red or rust colored. The nightclothes, the bed linens, the linen in the dining room, and the clothing Agnes is laid out in are pristine white. The furniture is of dark mahogany or black lacquer and, of course, the clothing worn after the death of Agnes is mourning black. There is no blue or yellow in the movie, and even the outdoor foliage is drained of color because the movie takes place in the fall. And whereas movies conventionally fade to black or occasionally white, the fade-outs in Cries and Whispers are always to red. This saturation of the images in the color red may perhaps be intended to remind the viewer of blood. After all, there are a lot of open emotional wounds on display in the movie. But blood is also essential to life. When something is referred to as bloodless, it is lacking in vitality, and the result of anemia is a dearth of the nutrients necessary for life.
Each of the three actresses who play the sisters had a long association with Bergman, and each had memorable roles in several of his films. All give beautifully accomplished performances. Thulin has perhaps the most difficult role as the unlikable, neurotic Karin, whose childhood alienation still governs her life and her reactions to her sisters. Ullmann must suppress her natural intelligence and sensitivity to play the frivolous and inconstant Maria, and she does this convincingly, with her red-gold hair and simpering mannerisms. But it is Harriet Andersson who dominates the movie, even though she dies halfway through, as the eldest sister who manages to retain her nobility and selflessness even as she ventures more than once to the brink of death, gasping in agony, only to be pulled back to life again by the devoted Anna, before finally dying suddenly and quietly. These near-death scenes are truly disturbing and the most demanding of any performer in the movie. This marvelous ensemble is completed by the plain, Rubenesque Sylwan—who appeared in only seven movies between 1956 and 1982 but easily holds her own with the veteran Bergman actresses—as the earthy, maternal Anna, the life force of the movie and the person who holds the household together.
The movie opens and closes with two brilliant sequences. It begins with a brief montage of morning scenes in the garden outside the house before moving indoors as clocks in the various rooms strike. We then see a close-up of Agnes's face as she wakes. For a few seconds, her face registers disorientation, then—and Andersson conveys this with absolute clarity—we see the dawning realization of where she is and the sudden memory that she is dying. It is a heart-rending moment. As Agnes is gripped by a spasm of pain, one small tear forms in each eye. She gets out of bed and walks to the window, where she gazes at an allée of leafless trees in late autumn. (In that opening montage, the garden appeared to be in summer. Was that Agnes's dream?) After winding the clock on the mantel, she goes to her writing desk, opens her journal, and writes a short entry: "It is morning, and I am in pain."
The movie ends in another brilliant sequence that tempers all the pain, unsettling memories, and uncertainty that have occurred in the hour and a half since that opening sequence. After the sisters and their husbands have left, Anna stays behind to clear the house. She has been offered a memento of Agnes and has declined the offer. ("She's playing her role well," comments Karin's lawyer husband condescendingly.) But she has kept one thing of Agnes's of which the sisters are unaware: her journal. The movie opened with Agnes getting out of bed and writing a brief entry in that journal. Now Anna picks up the journal and begins to read in voice-over as we are shown what she is describing.
It is a day in early September, and Agnes's sisters have arrived for their visit. For the first time in the movie since the opening montage, the action takes place outdoors. Dressed completely in white summer outfits and carrying white parasols, the three sisters, accompanied by Anna, dressed in pale gray, are strolling through the autumnal grounds, the trees and earth covered with brown leaves. They come to their childhood swing and sit down, Karin and Maria facing away from the camera and Agnes opposite them facing the camera. Agnes no longer has the haggard look of a dying woman wracked with pain. She now resembles the healthy and beautiful Harriet Andersson of earlier Bergman films. And she looks peaceful and contented. As Anna pushes the swing, the camera moves in to a close-up of Agnes, who thinks to herself: "Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes I can experience perfection. [She closes her eyes.] And I feel profoundly grateful to my life which gives me so much."
Perhaps for Bergman this is what the art of cinema is all about: capturing in the midst of pain, the unstoppable passage of time, death, and the certainty that each of us is ultimately alone (the cries?) those fleeting, still moments of perfection (the whispers?) that briefly bring us peace and contentment.