by Paul D. Zimmerman
To many Americans who know his work, Ingmar Bergman remains a director of metaphysical concerns, seeking God and the meaning of life through the prism of a lens. But, in fact, the Swedish creator of The Seventh Seal long ago abandoned his interest in the mysterious ties between God and man in favor of a broader humanism. His latest film, Cries and Whispers, confronts the realities of the human condition—man’s destiny on “the dark, dirty earth under an empty, cruel Heaven.” Now Bergman seeks his answers in the workings of the human heart alone.
This is a story of four women—three sisters, one of them dying of cancer, and a young servant girl—who spend some autumn days in a beautiful manor house trying to ease the last moments of the dying woman No doubt it will be taken up in some quarters as a statement about the problems of womanhood in current society, despite its very deliberate setting at the end of the last century. But it is no more specifically a document on women’s liberation than War and Peace is an antiwar tract, and to put it through the thresher of women’s-lib rhetoric will only leave its comprehensive vision in shreds.
Bergman has chosen to tell his story through a quartet of women, because, quite simply, he loves women and finds them more interesting than men, both as beings and actresses. In the house’s crimson-walled rooms their luminous faces float like great seraphic globes, golden and filled with pain, loneliness, isolation, fear—which are the themes of this threnody. Harriet Andersson as the maiden sister rides the ship of her deathbed, at one moment reposed in tranquillity, then suddenly vaulted onto a crest of intolerable agony. It is a role an inch wide and as deep as pain itself, and Miss Andersson answers with nothing less than the definitive statement on physical suffering, her extraordinary technical resources seeming to carry her literally to the threshold of death.
Outside her chamber wait her sisters: Ingrid Thulin as the eldest, an elegant porcelain figure, icy yet percolating with barely contained bile, who guards at her very center a lingering, all but extinct longing for love, and Liv Ullmann as the emotionally shallow, sexually wanton sister, all cool smiles and surface sentiments, whose appetite for love is shackled by a fear of suffering and an unremitting selfishness.
With death close at hand, these estranged figures move toward one another, bargaining for love and self-respect, baring their fears, until at last they touch and caress and croon to one another, clinging fast in a void. This is as close as Bergman comes to a clear prescription for his characters and for ourselves—that we must break through the defensive constructs of our psyches to touch one another. For Bergman, it is an attitude of crystalline simplicity, but he conveys it in a rhapsodic style charged with emotion.
The sisters, in fact, do not achieve any permanent reconciliation. Their fragile alliance of feeling perishes the very instant they emerge from the shadow of death into the separateness of social relations. They have both married badly, to men without strength or sensitivity—almost as though Bergman in his dual role as director and lover were loath to share them with anyone who might compete successfully for their affection. But their common predicament, insoluble by divorce in the rigid morality of the late nineteenth century, fails to bind them, just as vast social distance deters them from seeking common cause with the young maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan), who sees herself as the real spiritual sister of the dying woman because only she can minister to her with a whole, open, tactile love.
Bergman first presented this film in screenplay form in The New Yorker. It is remarkable to see how exactly he realized his vision, how little was lost in translation. For it is style that elevates this masterwork, lends it its incredible intensity of feeling and extraordinary sense of intimacy. A montage of ticking gilded clocks serves as a kind of collective time bomb, slicing precious seconds off the dwindling lives of all the women. The fluid, totally controlled weaving of Sven Nykvist’s camera catches breathtaking shots of white-robed heroines in classic attitudes and lets the mood of panic gather force without technical impediment. Bergman has stated that his films are essentially emotional experiences, and Cries and Whispers stands as his ultimate argument. That this magnificent movie had difficulty finding an American distributor reflects the sad decline over the past decade of this country’s interest in serious work by the best foreign filmmakers.
Newsweek, January 8, 1973