Tuesday, October 05, 2010

#101: Cries and Whispers

Cries and Whispers, 1972, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.

In Harold Pinter's marvelous play Moonlight, a woman tells her terminally ill husband, "Death will be your new horizon." It's the most quietly chilling sentence I know, and it would have made the perfect epigraph for Cries and Whispers. The film is concerned with the business of dying, and not in an abstract way. Harriet Andersson plays Agnes, a woman who is rapidly losing a battle with cancer, and for the first forty-five minutes Bergman mostly makes us watch her die. Her performance reminds you just how much the movies have always lied to us about death: Agnes doesn't have one of those terminal disease where you have a touching final conversation, then drift off to sleep as flights of angels sing you to your rest. She's clearly aware that her body is destroying itself from the inside, and her performance lets you know exactly what that must feel like.

Her battle has nothing in common with a chess game. Agnes is attended by her two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), as well as her live-in maid, Anna. Here they all are, in one of Sven Nykvist's typically soothing compositions:

Nykvist uses that jarring, intestinal red throughout the film, starting with the opening titles.

Never underestimate the cumulative effect of an unsettling palette that unsettling. Even without the colors, and even if you got rid of Agnes entirely, Cries and Whispers wouldn't exactly be a cakewalk, because Maria and Karin are so miserable to watch. What, you thought this was going to be a Bergman film where familial relations weren't a swamp of guilt and sorrow? Maria's flagrant affair with a man who despises her drives her husband to attempt suicide, Karin mutilates herself to avoid sex with her husband. And they don't much like each other either. As in Autumn Sonata, their conversations range from landmined to openly hostile. And neither one is willing or able to deal with the exigencies of Agnes's dying. The only person who is at all capable of comforting Agnes is her maid, Anna. It's possible they were lovers; at the very least, their relationship is deeper than is typical for an employer and employee. Kari Sylwan plays Anna as the milky-skinned embodiment of selfless, maternal love.

So it's completely appropriate that when Agnes asks for one last act of affection, Bergman quotes the most famous image of maternal love in Western civilization.

You can see in that shot just how painterly Sven Nykvist's cinematography is throughout. The formal, staged, quality of the film's compositions is the only thing that makes the intense on-screen suffering at all watchable; along with the period costumes, it distances the viewers a little from Agnes's pain. A little, not a lot. There's a lengthy shot of Agnes laboring to breathe that is the stuff of nightmares. Speaking of nightmares, Cries and Whispers has a nightmare sequence that, once again, establishes Bergman as the best horror director never to direct a horror film. Sometimes shallow focus can be terrifying.

The film's structure is intensely formalized: between scenes of Agnes's death and its aftermath, we get a flashback or dream sequence focused on each of the four main characters. Except for Agnes's flashback, each begins with a closeup of the character's face, strongly lit on one side.

And each ends with a similar closeup, lit from the other side.

Bergman and Nykvist abstract the actors' faces into something lunar and alien, but by the end of each flashback, we know some of the damage behind their eyes. But only some of it. There's an emblematic scene shortly before Anna's death where, in obvious pain, she tries again and again to throw up into a basin.

No matter how hard she hacks, spits, and heaves, she can't get anything to come up. That's part of what Cries and Whispers is about, something we all know to be true but don't like to think about. The thing that will kill us is the thing we can't get out, the poison in the wound. All we can do is tire ourselves out. And yet that's not everything Cries and Whispers tells us. For all the film's relentless interiority, Bergman ends with a passage from Agnes's diary about a day she was feeling well enough to venture outside with Anna and her sisters.

She writes:

I wanted to hold the moment fast, and thought: "Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection."

Our glory is that we can experience perfection, if only for a few minutes. Our tragedy is that we recognize—even as it's happening—that it's only for a few minutes. The poison is in the wound.


  • The film ends with an untranslated intertitle:

    From what I can tell from googling, it means, "So the cries and whispers become silent." Is that more or less correct, hive mind? Any idea why it wasn't subtitled?

  • The DVD features an interview that Bergman gave along with actor Erland Josephson, which makes him seem like he must have been rather horrible to know in his personal life. Both he and Josephson are remarkably blithe about having mistreated women and been awful fathers, although they're certainly charming in an "incorrigible grandpa" sort of way. I did like one of Bergman's stories: unhappy with the negative reviews a particular critic was giving his work, he apparently cold-cocked him because he knew the critic's newspaper could no longer allow him to review Bergman's work after a public altercation. Diabolical.