Who will care for us when we die? Who will keep our memories alive? Who will comfort us and give us dignity? Is comfort and dignity something that can even be given? I have a lot of questions swirling through my mind after viewing Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers for the first time yesterday afternoon.
I’m well aware that Cries and Whispers is one of Bergman’s most well regarded films. However, I am just getting around to seeing it now for the first time thanks to the newly released Bergman box set distributed by the Criterion Collection. I’ve been a fan of his films for a very long time, really ever since seeing The Seventh Seal on cable television of all things complete with commercial breaks and a few important scenes cut for the sake of fitting the film into a specific late night time slot. That was more than twenty years ago and I’ve managed to get my hands on numerous works since then. But Cries and Whispers was always one of those movies that eluded me. So thank you Criterion, I now have in my possession a comprehensive (though not totally complete) library of Ingmar Bergman films.
Anyway, back to Cries and Whispers. It’s not often that a film will move me to such a degree that I feel compelled to put my thoughts to paper immediately and without a second viewing. If this essay feels scattered and not entirely well expressed you can blame the fact that Cries and Whispers is still lingering on the surface of my brain and it will take some time for it to absorb into the sub-conscience. Like many Bergman films, Cries and Whispers is a film that takes some time to truly sink in. The more you think about them, the more elusive they can be. The seed of thought needs to grow naturally on its own accord.
On the surface, Cries and Whispers plays out in three acts. A woman named Agnes lays in bed dying of cancer and is attended by three other women in a large mansion. Two of the women are sisters of the afflicted, one is the house maid. Each act of the film is more or less centered around one of the attending women, the first focused on the younger sister Maria, the second on the older sister Karin, and the third on the house maid Anna. Agnes, the woman dying of cancer is the central focal point that drives the inner stories of all three women forward. Or perhaps Agnes is the main character and each of the three women are a supporting role propelling the arch of Agnes through her experience of dying. I’m not really sure. Nothing in a Bergman film is really that straight forward.
What transpires throughout the film is a study in desire and relationships, both the desires that elude us and the desires we seem to achieve too easily. All four women ultimately desire the same thing, touch and comfort, but only Agnes, who is looking death square in the face, seems to be able to ask for it openly and honestly. The others fumble their way through it, or keep their actions hidden completely behind the roles they are expected to play.
The youngest sister, Maria, seems the most open emotionally at first, until we realize her physical contact with others never seems to go beyond secret affairs and ill-advised flirtations. She refuses to touch and comfort her dying sister out of fear and horror but openly seduces the doctor, a former affair, who comes to check on Agnes in a secluded hallway. The older sister Karin on the other hand goes to extremes to feel the sensation of touch, at one point inserting broken glass in-between her legs in what seems like punishment to her emotionless husband and out of solidarity to her sister dying of cancer in the uterus. The house maid Anna seems more than willing to give and receive physical comfort, going so far as to remove her clothes and let the dying Agnes cuddle her naked flesh, but her social position in the house necessitates this be kept a secret from the others.
I really can’t say much more about the plot at this point in time. Bergman films can be difficult to write about without making them sound like soap operas or desperate melodrama. There is far too much subtlety in the dialogue and the events that transpire and it is a crime to speak of them is such simplistic terms. Even though the entirety of the film seems to take place in as few as three rooms, Cries and Whispers is anything but simple. There is more to see and experience here than any big blockbuster epic I can think of in recent memory.
From a purely technical point of view Cries and Whispers is a film of both subtle and overt beauty. Bergman was perhaps more comfortable working with black and white cinematography. He is after all, very well known for working primarily in black and white film stocks. But here he makes full use of bright and vivid color, particularly red. Every wall, every fabric in the home, even the floors are awash in red and contrast against the bright whites and blacks of the clothes being worn by all four women and the additional cast. Not surprisingly, red, white, and black and all primary colors and they play such a powerful roll in driving the narrative forward that Cries and Whispers could work on some levels as a silent film. We the audience knows what to feel, or what we are going to feel, before a single word is uttered by the players on the screen.
One can draw a lot of obvious thematic parallels with Bergman’s color choices here. Black is the color of death, and white the color of faith and innocence. Red is the color of the womb, the color of rage, and the color of sensual desires. Bergman’s use of color themes is clearly manipulating the audience here. You may not consciously notice it right away, but your brain certainly did and it works to the film’s advantage. It’s glorious to look at and it helps you to understand the themes of Cries and Whispers all that much more.