'Cries and Whispers' Is a Life-Affirming Film About Death

To call Ingmar Bergman's red-drenched masterpiece Cries and Whispers essential to any collection would be a serious understatement.

Cries and Whispers

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
Year: 1973
US DVD release date: 2015-03-31

One could very well be tricked into believing that Cries and Whispers is the film adaptation of some epic, introspective novel that had existed the realm of world literature for centuries. Such is its power, scope, and delicate brilliance. Yet, there was only one man behind its inception, the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Released in 1972, the film is the epitome of everything Bergman: it has tortured characters dealing with their mortality, it’s set in a lavish estate where material considerations are unimportant when compared to emotional poverty, and it centers itself on women who continuously fascinated and haunted Bergman.

The film opens in an opulent 19th-century mansion where we meet three sisters and their maid. Agnes (Harriet Andersson) lies on her deathbed as she is slowly consumed by cancer. Her sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann) have come to spend her last days with her, but instead of giving her the comfort she needs as she faces death, Agnes’ sisters seem to be more uncomfortable than they’ve ever been, failing to provide the dying woman with any sense of peace.

We come to understand them better only as we visit their past through elaborate, theatrical flashbacks that don’t necessarily reveal “what went wrong”, but shed light on who these women are and who they became outside their family home. We learn that Maria had an affair with a doctor, after seeking the passion her husband didn’t provide her. We learn how Karin resorted to self-mutilation in order to keep her husband away from her. We also find out that Agnes always felt that she was being rejected by her mother. None of the events in question justify the cruelty the women resort to, but they make their behavior in the film logical, if not expected.

Bergman was never one for over-explanations, and in Cries and Whispers he proves his point by showing us that the peculiarities of each of the characters would never give us enough reasons to judge them. He shows us their flaws, but then points the mirror towards us, almost daring the characters to find the flaws in ourselves. Never one for facile psychology, Bergman instead fascinated with the concept of life being made out of endless nonsensical moments, and how despite their very cryptic nature they mold and affect who we are.

For example, by showing Karin splattering her face with the blood of her own body, Bergman doesn’t want to shock or disgust us. Instead, he invites us to embrace this lost woman who knows herself so little that she must create a mask for herself out of her own being. She is the only one who contains all the answers to her questions, the eternal paradox of being alive, for nobody can solve our existential problems for us.

Out of most of Bergman’s films, this one is notorious for its use of color. Even the fadeouts are to red, as opposed to black or white, and the director himself expressed that this is the lone film in his body of work that must necessarily be expressed in color. Red predominates over each scene; we see it in the walls, the rugs, the furniture -- blood, rouge, lipstick. Red is the color of blood and violence, which we are reminded can also be the color of love and passion. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography in the film is exquisite, with each frame being full of meaning, while also looking effortless.

While Cries and Whispers deals in loss and death, it is also surprisingly one of Bergman’s most generous films, even though he was notorious for his lack of faith. In this film, he does seem to contemplate the idea of hope as something that we should all consider.

Hope is seen through the maid Anna (Kari Sylwan) who remains mostly silent but appears in the right moments. Bergman infuses this character with such warmth and affection that one can be tempted to call her angelic, if it wasn’t so against the nature of the director. Bergman’s films are often called “depressing”, but there is something undeniably life-affirming in Cries and Whispers, perhaps because of its perfection as an art piece, or perhaps because it faces mortality with such lack of cowardice that it allows us to look straight into the eyes of something beyond us, something divine.

The Criterion Collection has reissued Cries and Whispers in a luxurious DVD set which includes a new 2K digital restoration, an introduction by the director, new interviews with Harriet Andersson, a new essay by filmmaker kogonada, a sumptuous interview with Bergman and collaborator Erland Josephson, a trailer, and an essay by Emma Wilson. To call this essential to any collection would be a serious understatement.


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