Ingmar Bergman: Cries and Whispers (1972) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: Cries and Whispers (1972)

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Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYFive years ago I had the flu pretty bad, a 103 fever, constant coughing and kidney pains from a recent surgery that was supposed to remove three stones (it failed).  I was being kept from the sleep I desperately needed to make the pain stop.  I wasn't interested in being well or able to stand anymore, I just wanted it all to end.

Earlier the night, in a fit of strange foresight, I had put Cries and Whispers into my DVD player before I was handicapped from the pain.  So, alone in the apartment and unable to get up to turn on a light but with enough control over my arm to hit the remote, I started watching Cries and Whispers.  The throbbing red releasing and enveloping each woman was no longer surrounding my makeshift misery pillar in the living room.  It gave me a locus for my pain and my entryway into Bergman's most hypnotic and unsettling film.

Cries and Whispers is a triumphant return to form for Bergman after several interesting partial successes and peculiar failures.  He was once again following his dreams and the idea for the film germinated from an image he kept seeing in his mind of three women arriving together over someone's body.  Eventually that image morphed into the most grotesque and hateful family to grace Bergman's films, countered by a vision of good equally pure and powerful.

Agnes (Harriet Andersson) spends her days bedridden with the sound of clocks her constant companion as the mist drifts in the blanket the statues and trees around her home.  She rises and goes to diary to write "It is early Monday morning and I am in pain".  That sentence informs how the rest of the movie will unfold.  Bergman is not hiding behind complex images or metaphors this time.  He is going to show us exactly how painful it is to get sick and die, to feel blind hatred for all surrounding you, to mask contempt with false tenderness, and to burn brightly with dignity and strength.

Cries and Whispers features the most brutal verbal evisceration of it's characters (save, perhaps, Winter Light).

Agnes' two sisters have long forgotten how to love anyone be it their husbands, lovers, or each other.  Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is the coldest and cruelest of them all, taunting her husband and trading verbal blows with her sister Maria (Liv Ullman), a vain and false woman who uses her beauty to get what she wants so she does not have time to think about death.  Neither one of them believes in God or any kind of redemption but takes no delight in causing torture to themselves or others.

They live their lives as an embodiment of mutated jouissance, of pleasurable suffering minus the pleasure, alternately sadistic and masochistic with no release.  One is merely more distant and taunting, the other more manipulative and vain.  They convey the existential pain, dread and disgust of Bergman's existence.  He has always struck me as an Atheist that despises the fact that he still, at times, believes.  Karin and Maria are a manifestation of that, one who is violently opposed to any religious release and the other who pays hateful lip service.

But if Bergman is one who still finds reluctant faith in the world there is a character who stands for that hope, and it is one of Bergman's purest and most noble creations.  This is Anna (Kari Sylwan), a maid who has worked with the family for some time and is the only one with any faith, but what a faith it is.  She has dedicated herself to tending to the sisters, especially Agnes.  In one scene, that in my five viewings of this film continues to bring me to uncontrollable tears, Agnes cries out in pain and Anna is the only one who is willing to comfort her.  Anna strips and bares her breasts to Agnes, cradling her and soothing her pain with her kind and selfless words.

I cry every time I see this painful expression of love and care.

To touch with feeling is something that everyone has forgotten except for Anna.  Her faith wakes her up in the morning and then allows her to confront Agnes' body and spirit after she has passed.  Even in death Anna will continue to hope and pray for Agnes, even if Karin and Maria fall short again and again.

Moments of pure good like the cradling and balanced with malice and hatred.  Karin, rather than allow her husband sexual access, prefers to taunt him by cutting herself in a sensitive area then tasting her victory.  Maria pursues an affair and then allows herself to be torn down with a series of brutal observations, partly because it confirms her power and partly because she asked for it to be done.  Then there is the hypnotic fade to red as each woman experiences a moment of heightened emotion or pain, a fleeting connection that returns back into the darkness where we actually reside.

Sven Nykvist won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for this film and with damn good reason.  The culminating effect of those fades, the women standing in the darkness then bathed in blood red as they torment one another, Anna clad in white leading the charge against the dark - it all has the effect of a fever dream (which is probably why it allowed me to focus so clearly when I was in so much pain).  It has a logical progression moving forward in time while allowing individual shots and moments to linger amidst all the pain and despair, as well as the hope.

Bergman matches the organic intensity of Nykvist's cinematography with his most potent use of sound in any of his films.  The sound heightens each of the emotions and since those are played with such raw intensity Bergman is as direct.  The sounds coming from Agnes are more akin to a dying animal than a sick person.  The clocks tick on as each fade to red is cut with a low gurgling much like blood being pumped through a giant vein.  Then the footsteps, the tiny echoes that stand for so little with each sisters cowardice of the death Agnes represents.

Blood binds us all. It's a reminder of an essence that no one can get to. It also makes for a terrifying prop at the right moment.

I respond very strongly to naked displays of emotion and pain.  It is impossible for a film to be more stripped than this.  Each scene is like a different raw nerve plucked not out of some desire of Bergman's to be manipulative, but to exorcise these horrible feelings he has had inside him for so long.  It's because of this that many have had reactions that range from the positive but distant, to the less than charitable focusing on the "overacting" and simplistic drive.

That is part of the point.  Bergman created this as a subjective experience dedicated to ridding himself of demons that had long since tormented him.  None of his films are as cathartic or direct in dealing with the horror, hope, pain and pleasure that our existence represents.

Next week I continue on Bergman's remarkable roll with another one of his made for TV productions.  This time it is the intimate and brutally honest look at the life of a married couple with Scenes From A Marriage.  If you're curious, I will be watching the full six-part television version for next week then may revisit the theatrical cut at a later date.

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Cries and Whispers (1972)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullman.

Posted by Andrew

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