Cries and Whispers Reviews
Like most Bergman films, Cries and Whispers is concerned with death, the suffering before death and the re-evaluation of life that death brings. It centres on three sisters: one dying of cancer, another trapped in a repellent marriage, and the last engaged in an uncomfortable affair. Moving between these three women is the maid, who tends the dying woman in her agony and, in one stunning scene, holding her to her naked bosom like a mother holding a child.
It is not, then, a barrel of laughs. Bergman films are not often for casual viewing, and I certainly won't be taking this one home to watch with my mother.
Like a great classical composer, Bergman uses contrast to enormous effect. Muted sounds which force you to strain to listen are punctuated with heart-rending screams from the dying Agnes. The colour scheme is a disquieting red, fading into pastoral greens and blues as the women reminisce about their younger life.
The characters also contrast uncomfortably. The two younger sisters, Karin and Maria, are sitting the deathwatch for their sister, but their task arouses no compassion in them. They are appalled and repelled by their sister's suffering, but they will not hold her hand or comfort her. The mutual dislike for each other is palpable. This contrasts with the simple humanism of their maid Anna ? whom they callously talk about firing, once their sister is dead.
Set in the late 19th Century, the story flits intermittently between present and past, fleshing out the motivations and the stories of the sisters. One of these flashbacks confronts the audience with one of the most disturbing image in cinema, a repressed Karin cutting her vagina with glass to avoid sex with her husband.
Only a director of Bergman's calibre could make such a film riveting. Yet riveting it is. Bergman gets sensational performances from his four main leads; regulars Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thurin and Harriet Andersson and a majestic, understated Kari Sylwan. To call this film Ibsenesque would be a slur on the originality of Bergman's vision. It is a testimony to his genius that this may not be his best film, yet it is one of the most striking films in modern cinema. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
In a nutshell, two sisters (Liv Ullman and Ingrid Thulin) are at the deathbed of a third (Harriet Andersson). Andersson's character is in pain, but the sisters have great difficulty empathizing with her. The three are cold and isolated from one another, and it's only the housemaid (Kari Sylwan) who provides any comfort.
Through flashbacks, the film gives insight into their characters. One of these is highly disturbing (stop reading now and avert your gaze if you're squeamish) - and has Thulin mutilating her genitals and smearing the blood on her face in front of her husband.
Some adjectives to describe the film: cold, bleak, slow, depressing...should I go on? It is emotionally honest, yes, but it doesn't ask the big questions about God, death, life, or love - it just shows us how sad our little existences can be, even when living in luxury as the three sisters do, and how pitiful dying is.
It was great to see Harriett Andersson again, 20 years after her first Bergman film, 'Summer with Monika', and she has the movie's best line in the final memory, a happy (and profound) moment on a swing with her sisters: "I wanted to cling to that moment, and I thought...Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much..."
If only there were more of those moments, or philosophical questions raised. As it is, it's too painful to watch or recommend. I have a feeling the 5 Oscar nominations were more a reward for Bergman's films in the 50's and 60's, most of which were genius, and would have me thinking about them for hours afterwards. It's hard to imagine anyone giving 'Cries and Whispers' a high rating wanting to see it again.
In simple terms, the film is an emotional horror story between three sisters, one dying (named Agnes) and two (named Maria and Karin) in utter disconnect, and how they all try, as reluctant as they may be in doing so, to mend their fractured relationships. Oh, and there's also the maid named Anna (Kari Sylwan in a sublimely affecting performance), the person who has been the most caring towards Agnes yet isn't really being given much importance or attention by the sisters simply because she is just, well, a housekeeper. But is she, in the eyes of the terminally ill Agnes, really just that?
"Cries and Whispers", for me, is easily the most frightening of Bergman's works simply because it has eerily established, with its masterful use of dream-like flashbacks and painfully ingraining dialogue ("it's all a tissue of lies"), the wounded core of an ostensibly functional family. Evidently, familial dysfunction is one of Bergman's most favorite issues to explore in most of his films, and here in "Cries and Whispers", I do think that it has reached its most destructive zenith.
In a way, the film can easily be compared to his later, equally masterful "Fanny and Alexander" simply because they have both examined the hidden perversions and emotional hollowness of an otherwise happy and affluent family in a way that's both realistic and stunningly metaphysical. But for me, "Cries and Whispers" is much closer, both in style and in intent, to Bergman's earlier "The Silence", likewise an ambiguous tale of two emotionally strained sisters and their effort (or the lack thereof) to try and connect with each other in sexually abstract ways that only Bergman (and his legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist) can capably and eloquently capture on-camera with so much dramatic force. And just like the said 1963 film, "Cries and Whispers" is also extremely claustrophobic, be it in its literal 'mansion' location comprised mainly of narrow hallways and red-draped rooms or in Sven Nykvists's dramatically suffocating camera work.
The film, in its immediate essence, is a darkly consummate chamber drama, but typical of Bergman, such simplicity is but a veneer. In ways more than one, I do think that this film is a definitive representation of who he really is as a filmmaker in respect to what he can present visually and thematically. For the former, this film, as usual, is an exquisite costume drama, and for the latter, it is a flinching account of how memories can forever scar the deepest recesses of the 'soul'; an aspect of existence which Bergman himself has imagined as a "damp membrane in varying shades of red" (the reason for the film's crimson visual motif). Even in the casting, headed by regulars Liv Ullmann, Harriet Andersson and Ingrid Thulin (three of the most stunning actresses the cinema has ever seen), the film is typical Bergman.
Often framed in stark close-up shots, the three actresses effectively convey, through the most anguishing of facial expressions, the very shadowy extent of the soul. And in one of the film's most enigmatic sequences, we see the younger Maria (Liv Ullmann) circling around and caressing the older Karin (Ingrid Thulin) as if she's trying to convince her to give in, but to what? It is here then where the ambiguous questions of 'homoeroticism' and 'incest' come to play. But on the other hand, to accept such a perspective, as what others are claiming, is but a betraying over-simplification of what the film is really all about.
"Cries and Whispers", essentially, is an ambiguous film about love regardless of context, and whether or not you see the relationships between the characters as homosexual or not is quite irrelevant because although the film is littered with potentially sexual images, love is really the film's central focus, and Bergman is quite comfortable in not letting his audience know where that 'love' is coming from, how it came to be, or why is it such a mysterious and elusive force in the first place.
But aside from that, the film is also about trying to build a bridge between two cold souls (Maria and Karin) and the inability of such a bridge, built in the most hastened of ways, to instantly translate into a pure form of affection. Here then is where Bergman's often used concept of the 'Silent God' enters the scene; that even though we can call to Him all we want, there will always be this underlying current of futility in doing so because, well, humans, and the relationships they create, are just either too fragile or already damaged from the get-go to be mended in an instant, even by an all-knowing God.
In conclusion, although I would highly recommend "Cries and Whispers" to every single cinephile out there, I wouldn't go my way as to immediately force it down the throat of a Bergman tenderfoot. Exploring his oeuvre, in my view, should be treated as a journey, and honestly speaking, "Cries and Whispers" is never the preferable starting point. But still, if you're looking for a peculiarly intense yet visually elegant drama, then look further, you must not.
"Cries and Whispers" focuses on three sisters, one of which is in her last days of her struggle with cancer. Ullman, Thulin and Andersson who play the sisters each put in an amazing performance, though not to forget Kari Sylwan, who is equally as impressive as Anna the maid.
"Cries and Whispers" is by no means easy to watch, some of the scenes wouldn't be out of place in a horror movie. The scenes before Karin's (Andersson) death were particularly distressing and realistic. Then of course there is that famous mutilation scene.
I know alot of the reviews here have already mentioned Bergman's use of the colour red and Sven Nykwist's cinematography but it really is outstanding. Bergman himself said that " 'Cries and Whispers' is an exploration of the soul, and ever since childhood, I have imagined the soul to be a damp membrane in varying shades of red."
One of the great Bergman's best in my book.
Bergman's usual focus on the mental processes of his characters is here, but with an added emphasis on the physical nature of intimacy, light touches and unspoken words communicating the desperate longing for emotional availability the sisters feel towards each other. This period of existential openness doesn't last long, however, as they retreat into the cold, safe isolation of their own minds, shrouding their conversations in reactionary social cues after time separates them from their experience with death.
Setting all of this against the constant presence of ticking clocks, Bergman suggests that we ultimately know nothing about anyone around us and never really will as we slowly inch towards the grave; as depressing as this is, there's no denying the intelligence with which it's communicated, the experience primarily dealing with the inevitability of isolation made riveting through the use of color, the deeply layered performances, and the affecting filmmaking that imparts this dour message. It may honestly be impossible to love those around us given the nature of the individual, but complete emotional openness is surely the only way we could ever begin to do so. Cries and Whispers is a desperate plea for this openness, lest we end up like the sisters it documents.