Reckoning with Ingmar Bergman’s crimson-shaded tale of cruelty
Film 57 of 115: CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972)
Be it a cloaked figure on a stony beach or vengeful figures waiting in the dark, Death comes in many forms across Ingmar Bergman’s cinema. In Cries and Whispers, Death is never seen, but it is always present and always feared. As Agnes (Harriet Andersson) suffers through the last days of her terminal cancer alongside her two sisters and faithful maid, the family’s sense of mortality approaches a frightening tangibility — brought to life in a perpetually suffocating atmosphere of red. I wasn’t sure if I’d buy into Cries and Whispers — like Persona and Hour of the Wolf before it, Cries and Whispers’ characters felt like little more than existential puppets in a parade of mental anguish. And yet, for an endless rumination on human suffering and fleeting connection, Cries and Whispers is a sumptuous, sensuous film. Here, Bergman overwhelmingly brings these intangible obsessions to life — and forces his characters to confront them in an existential confrontation that’s as inescapable as it is necessary.
It feels impossible to talk about Cries and Whispers and avoid beginning with the Red. It’s indivisible from the film, the main focus of Sven Nykvist’s Oscar-winning cinematography and Marik Vos-Lundh’s production design. Crimson seeps into each frame and each fade to red sears the eyes, creating a sensation that’s as wholesome as it is suffocating. Over the course of the film, this visual motif acts as a prism for the defining emotions at the heart of the characters. Agnes’ pain swallows her whole. Maria’s (Liv Ullman) lust for a family doctor goes frustratingly unfulfilled. Karin (Ingrid Thulin) struggles to swallow her compulsion to drive others away, building into a brimming rage. Agnes’ faithful servant Anna (Kari Sylwan) is overwhelmed by impending loss — for her charge, for her job, for the only home she seems to have known. It may seem glib to suggest one encompassing visual for such a spectrum of emotion; instead, Bergman creates an impressive visual shorthand into the heightened interior worlds of these four women, which ultimately allows him (and us) to get to the heart of the conflicts that drive them.
It’s Andersson, Ullman, Thulin, and Sylwan who ultimately save the women of Cries and Whispers from being just animated abstract concepts. Bergman normally imbues his characters with an abundance of psychological depth. In Cries and Whispers, though, it feels like his actors do much of the heavy lifting of divining actual characters from his given material. Each performer is arresting to watch — be it Andersson in the throes of agony, Ullman’s vain fascination with her fading beauty, or Thulin’s cruelty towards herself and others. Given only the slightest of backgrounds to work with, each woman amplifies her character’s defining flaw until it becomes the one idea their world revolves around, informing each action from cradle to grave. On the periphery is Sylwan, who embodies the maternal grace deprived of the three sisters by their melancholy mother — which is in itself the central agony of Anna’s life, having lost her own daughter to unspecified tragic circumstances.
It’s this agony — be it physical or mental — that defines Cries and Whispers. There’s a craving for connection throughout as universal and all-encompassing as the film’s red backgrounds. It drives Maria in the shadow of Agnes’ death, to be closer to her sister and to the doctor. It also informs Anna as she grows closer to losing the last person she’s close to. Just as universal, however, is this equal and opposing sense of deprivation. Karin seeks isolation, free from others’ judgment or unwanted touch, and Agnes seeks any form of release from her pain. The sisters push each other away just as soon as they get close to each other, cutting each other down just as they approach a place of guarded vulnerability. Relief to one is anguish to another.
In that sense, that seemed to be the point of my frustration with Cries and Whispers. The characters remain trapped in their isolating worldviews, spinning their wheels towards potential absolution or connection while marching ever on towards their fates. There’s little to suggest, though, that this drive for release can ever come to fruition, as their flaws so greatly define them that there’s little room for anything else. Cries and Whispers features a world so defined by its pain and cruelty that empathy seems like a wholly alien concept. And it’s damn hard not to feel wholly alienated by the film as a result.
Heightening this sense of disconnection is the overwhelming beauty that defines the look of the film. The gorgeous production design, the mercurial world outside of the manor with its sunrises and shadows…it’s one full of undeniable splendor that feels so at odds with such an oppressive existence. It’s a world that’s as obviously appreciable by the viewer as it is blindingly oblivious to the characters within it. To the women of Cries and Whispers — and more so to a priest in the film’s midpoint — it’s a world that they seek deliverance from at all costs, no matter as to where. It’s only in memory that they seem to recognize the world for what it might be, but only for so long. Agnes recalls a fleeting moment with her sisters where she didn’t feel pain, only closeness — but her lingering, absent gaze suggests that even outside of her sickroom, she remains mentally imprisoned there. I thought a lot about Antoine de Saint-Exupery saying “what’s essential is invisible to the eye,” but with Cries and Whispers, that invisibility doesn’t seem to be a natural state, but a choice made by the characters themselves, a compulsion to deny others whatever they seek themselves. It’s an ignorance that isn’t bliss, and prevents bliss outright.
This choice comes to a head in one of the film’s more temporally ambiguous sequences, as the recently deceased Agnes returns to the living and seeks solace from the other women one by one. Even after she’s shuffled off the mortal coil, Agnes still looks for escape and solace in others. Karin is repulsed and refuses to meet her. Maria hopefully approaches her undead sister, only to flee in terror as she realizes how rotting and horrid she’s become — how real her dead state is. Agnes doesn’t find herself relieved of her pain, and Karin and Maria create an indivisible bond between closeness and death. Only Anna willingly cradles Agnes, accepting not just this natural desire to connect with someone, but inevitable mortality as well.
It’s this sequence that addressed and alleviated my frustrations with the film despite not completely assuaging them. Much like how Red is this shorthand into the characters’ inner lives, this sequence showed me just how much these sisters’ defining flaws prevented them from achieving whatever they wanted most. It’s a litmus test from beyond the grave, and both Karin and Maria fail it. To come to Agnes means for Maria to acknowledge the end of her beauty, and for Karin to give into a selflessness she finds repulsive. What’s more, Agnes’ return from the grave alone feels like a denial that her pain has already ended. Each sister’s choice rejects a chance to get better, and affirms the flaw that defines them. One by one, each of them retreat into the Red prison of their own creation, unable to recognize the way out for what it is.
By my own admission, Cries and Whispers is a difficult film for me to reckon with because of how hopeless it really is. It’s a film full of beauty that goes unrecognized by its characters; it’s a film where redemption is a choice rejected in terror. It’s a film that feels like an endless chain of malady and malice. What was so moving about this sequence, though, and the film overall, was how aware we become of the choice to turn away from the world’s beauty and hope — so that, in a perfect world, we can embrace the inevitable inky shadows of the void rather than surrender to the Red. While these three sisters cannot recognize the path before them, hopefully Cries and Whispers can illuminate the path before us.