Criterion Collection · Drama · Sweden

#101: Cries and Whispers (1972)

Criterion Challenge #101
Cries and Whispers

1972 // Sweden
Spine #101
Release: Jun 19, 2001
Reissue: Mar 31, 2015

Crimson, a bloody red hue filled up the entire screen, just like the curtain before the opening in theaters. It draws the audience in, instead of being step by step, the film sucks and absorbed us immediately into the realm of the senses: agony, suffering, torment, both physically and mentally. There is the sound of ringing bell in the background, or is it the clock? Together, I see the blood, I feel the passion, I sense the love. To Ingmar Bergman, “red is the interior of the soul”. So in “Cries and Whispers”, red is spilled, but not before the garden, the statues, the exterior of the mansion are show . Now the fog came in, and everything dissolved into red again.

The exterior shots are rare in the film, we see them in the beginning as a montage, a shot of the garden when Agnes (Harriet Andersson) woke up and glimpse through the window, and last but not the least, at the end we have a sequence recalled from Agnes’s diary. These external shots are open, relaxed, and warm. No signs of red are seen, contrasting with the “interior soul” throughout the entire film. Crimson is printed all over the wall and the floor, carpet is soaked in red, inside this mansion, the human souls are magnified and tested, the human connections are taunted and repeatedly amended.

The theatricality, like “Persona” and “Autumn Sonata”, put the women first and foremost. In “Cries and Whispers”, there are three sisters and a maid. Agnes, looks like the youngest, has cancer and is lying in her dying bed; Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), sisters of Agnes, are looking after her, but not without moments of disgusted and repulsion; the one who truly accepts and comfort Angnes is the maid Anna (Kari Sylwan), who took care of Agnes since childhood. Agnes’s disease made her in constant pain and agony, with her sunken and paper-like pale face, darken eyes, dried lips and non-stopped sweats, she is not “living” but suffering.

There are cries and grasping, with the purifying white gown she wore, Agnes is like a Christ-figure suffering for human being, and the the crimson room is just an allegory for the blood to purify the sins of soul. This religious motif is further reinforced upon the speech given by the priest (Anders Ek) upon Agnes’s funeral, declaring Agnes’s faith is stronger than him; and what’s more visually striking is the recreation of Michelangelo’s Pieta, with Anna as the maternal figure holding Agnes’s body after martyrdom.

But is there any salvation awaiting both Anna and Agnes after their penance? Anna’s both “children”, her own daughter and Agnes, passed away in their youth. And her final treatment from the family, after serving tenderly and loyally to Agnes, is nonetheless cruel and unmerciful, at least materially. However, eternally, Anna, as well as Agnes, are the only ones capable of connection. They can “touch”, can connect.

In the first flashback in the film, Agnes remembers her mother while smelling a white rose, a pure figure close to her own mother. Though she highly admired her mother, but she is not the one her mother internally connected to. During a magic lantern show (similar to the one in “Fanny and Alexandre”) in a family gathering, Agnes felt jealous over Maria as Maria is the one shared the resemblance with mother (Liv Ullmann played both the mother and the grownup Maria). But when mother had a moment of sorrow, dressed in white dress sitting in a red room, Agnes was the one who touch her at the cheek, a sign of comforting and connection, and the scene dissolved into crimson.

This highly unusual but sensual use of crimson dissolve provokes a feeling of dissociation, represents a testament of what yet to come in the characters’ mind. There is a form used repeatedly in the film, a close-up of a singular character (firstly it’s Maria, then Karin, and finally Anna) in a red filter with timid voice of whispering, sandwiched between two dissolves of crimson, declaring the beginning and the end of a minor chapter centers around that character.

In the chapter of Maria, her infidelity with the family doctor David (Erland Josephson) is shown, she tried to seduce him but ended up in futility and humiliation. Maria’s husband Joakim (Henning Moritzen) chose a suicidal way to express his anguish and sorrow, with the appearance of blood in the end. For Karin, her way to deal with her husband Fredrik’s (Georg Årlin) coldness and unconcern, was self-mutilation for sexual pleasure, and a smear of vaginal blood over her face. Both chapters includes “bloody” results. At the same time there are no emotion connection between all these characters, just hollowness. Bergman is the master in portraying dysfunctional human relations, especially the feminine one. After Agnes death, there are some intense, hysterical and erotic scenes between Maria and Karin, echoing the director’s previous masterpiece “Persona”. Again, there is attempt for re-connection between these two sisters by touching, hugging.

It is Anna who is dedicated to the final chapter of the crimson dissolve, but it is not a flashback, not manly-related. The scene is almost dream-like, a miracle, or should it be a curse? Anna heard Agnes calling for help, she arises from dead. One by one, Karin and Maria went into the room, feeling frightened and repulsive, the rotten body is disowned by the sisters. Only Anna accepts her, comfort her. Is this resurrection real? More Christian and psychological reference? Maybe, maybe not. There is no resolution, but we don’t need one as Bergman ends this narrative labyrinth with warmth, shininess and perfection.

Anna finds Agnes diary, Agnes’s own voice subsequently narrate her most happy memory. All four women strolled in the garden and sat on an old swing on a sunny day, at that moment, Agnes felt the connection to the people she fond of. This ambivalent ending could be an illusion, or could be a belief on humanity, depends on which side you are on. Either way, the cries and whispers fell silence at the end, as human cannot escape death, including Bergman himself. But he continues to live eternally in the screen, so does “Cries and Whispers”.

Film score: 5/5

Supplements: 4.5/5

The 2015 reissue version is a huge improvement over the old DVD. It stacks with supplements, notably a 12 minutes video essay by filmmaker :: kogonada, and the audio commentary by Peter Cowie on the behind-the-scenes footage, which is an interesting and refreshing choice over usual commentary accompanying the film itself.


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