by Hollis Alpert
In Ingmar Bergman’s latest film, Cries and Whispers, the predominant tones are red, and from the very beginning of its production he did not hesitate to explain why this is so. He had a dream, he said, and in the dream he saw a group of women dressed in white, whispering together in a room bathed completely in red.
Bergman, of course, is no stranger to theatricality, and such public pronouncements as he makes often seem calculated to whet the appetite of the public for his films. Before embarking on the production of Cries and Whispers, he assembled his filmmaking team for a special press briefing, with him and his stars sitting informally on a low stage. Cameras clicked and whirred, and the master director showed himself capable of wit and repartee. One thing he does not do, however, is unveil the mysteries of his works, thus leaving them open to endless interpretation and misinterpretation. In fact, some critics, such as Susan Sontag and John Simon, use his films for lengthy scenarios of their own, which, if ever followed on film, would probably bore audiences to extinction.
Probably rule one about his films (and this applies to Cries and Whispers) is that they are not meant to be utterly clear in a factual and rational sense. There is invariably a plot, yes; but it does not always have a traditional solution. Sometimes so-called dream and so-called reality merge, but this is because Bergman will choose to omit familiar film punctuation and grammar, such as the dissolve and the fade-out. Or he may invent his own punctuation, as he does in Cries and Whispers. Here, separate or related scenes are simply separated by blank frames colored red. The film unfolds in an almost dreamlike way; and, if it helps to comprehend it, see it as Bergman’s cinematic rendering of a conscious dream, which he has unraveled from the clues of a sleeping dream.
The story, or the drama, is the kind that was first told in words and perhaps could have been shown onstage. But telling it in words merely describes the film; when seen, it becomes a shattering experience. The story literally requires film for its full effect, and this is the primary test that Cries and Whispers passes before it can be ranked as one of the great ones.
Cries and Whispers begins with a Bergman trademark: clocks. These are gilt rococo timepieces, and the camera lovingly studies their details while they softly tick and chime and ring, as though time and its mysteries are of the essence in this story. Then we are taken through rooms, always furnished, upholstered, and wall-papered in tones of scarlet, and we meet the inhabitants of, at this moment in time, a country manor house. The owner is Agnes (Harriet Andersson), a dying woman of thirty-seven, and she is attended by Anna, a quiet, faithful servant. Agnes’s two married sisters, Karin and Maria (Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullmann), have come to stay with her during her last days. It is the natures of these four women, call it the souls, that Bergman explores during Agnes’s final ordeal; I know of no such intimate and sensitive probing of the female psyche hitherto done in film.
Such would be all but impossible without the quality of performance obtained from three actresses long familiar in Bergman’s films, and one new one (Kari Sylwan), who reveal levels of feeling and emotion that make you feel that their privacy has been invaded. Harriet Andersson’s Agnes will rank as one of the greatest of performances. She is an uncomplaining spinster, whose last trial is harrowing to watch. Her reminiscences take her into a past in which her beautiful mother (again Liv Ullmann) allows her only fleeting moments of intimacy, of contact. Miss Ullmann and Bergman’s small daughter, Lin, appears briefly in the picture.
Her older sister, Karin, is married to an aging diplomat. She has five children and is filled with self-loathing, with loathing and hatred of her husband, and a rage against what life has given her. The younger sister, Maria, is also married, has a five-year-old daughter and has inherited her mother’s beauty and presumably her self-absorption. In autumnal settings outdoors and in deep red interiors, they make their last intimate contact with one another in life and face the terrors of death. The period, one may guess, is the turn of the century; the manor house, too, is dying, and the whispers and cries that stir it to life once more will fade with the fading of Agnes.
Nothing very strange or startling (although it is all beautifully photographed and detailed) in this, but now we come to the truly Bergmanesque material. Bergman’s visions in previous films have run to the fantastic, the magical, the mystical, and sometimes the horrific. These elements are also present in Cries and Whispers in the form of punctuated episodes that we may take to be imagined but are presented as literal. Maria, for instance, has once had an illicit affair with the doctor who is now in attendance to Agnes. In remembering a previous encounter with him we learn that she has aroused her husband’s suspicions. Cut to a cry for help from the husband’s study—is it this house, or her own? She finds him with a dagger plunged suicidally into his midriff.
In another episode we find Karin at dinner with her diplomat husband. During the meal she overturns and breaks a delicate wine glass. Then, after dinner, as she prepares in her bedroom for her loathed bedtime chore with her husband, we find that she has brought with her a sharp fragment of the broken glass. She uses it to wound and deface her sexual organs.
But the weirdest has to do with Anna, the servant. Already, there has been an intimation of sexual, as well as maternal, feeling between her and Agnes. But now Agnes lies dead, and Anna hears the dead woman weeping and calling for Karin. The two sisters, dumbstruck, visit her in turn—Karin to reveal her revulsion, Maria her fear. Finally it is Anna who holds the dead woman’s head to her bared breast. If these scenes occur in the imaginations or the dreams of the women, Bergman’s intent is clear enough: It is one more layer of reserve and protectiveness stripped away as a further revelation of his female souls.
Bergman allows us a moment of peace and beauty before the screen fades into blankness. We meet Agnes once more, in the gardens of the house. She is joyful, because her sisters are arriving. The sisters walk among tall trees, their leaves yellowed and drifting to the ground. Each is dressed in white and carries a white parasol. With them is Anna, her shoulders covered with a white shawl. It is a sad dream, the director seems to be telling us, but it has had its happy moments. There is one last title on the screen: “And so the whispers and cries fade away.”
And what about the use of those red tones throughout? In someone else’s hands it might have seemed a pretentious conceit. But not here: Décor, color, and costume have been welded together into a tasteful visual display. There are no unnecessary beats—but the effect is one of richness. Sound is used sparingly; the only music is the deep tones of a single cello. It is Bergman the master who does the total orchestrating, and it is done as only a master can.
World, December 5, 1972