One of the most acclaimed films from a body of work containing multiple masterpieces, Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers is disturbing, mysterious, and profound. Those who avoid Bergman’s work because they dread emotionally wrenching narratives and existentially themed monologues will find the experience of watching Cries and Whispers challenging, because it’s unrelentingly bleak. The concept of death permeates every frame, and characters wrestle with demons including betrayal, hopelessness, self-loathing, and suicidal impulses. The movie also contains a gruesome scene of self-abuse, and a painful sequence in which a man assaults his lover’s psyche by listing all of her faults, external and internal, until she’s deeply wounded. Like all of Berman’s important films, Cries and Whispers explores how the battlefield of the human condition intersects with the caprice of fate, essentially cataloguing the thousand cuts we inflict on each other every day while also recognizing the likely futility of existence.
Set in a remote country estate sometime in the 19th century, the film follows two sisters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann), as they care for their dying sister Agnes (Harriet Andersson) with the help of a God-fearing maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan). The sure knowledge that Agnes will die after a long period of suffering compels the other women to search their souls, and none likes what she finds. Despite having already suffered a terrible loss, the death of a child, Anna endures the least torture, because she has God for comfort, but even she experiences shattering emotional pain. Karin approaches madness thanks to the unhappy dynamics of her marriage to Fredrik (Georg Arlin), and Karin’s story culminates with a ghastly scene of Karin mutilating herself while an appalled Fredrik watches. Maria, haunted by memories of her dead mother (played in flashbacks by Ullmann), withstands the cruelty of her lover, David (Erland Josephson), because he’s the one who bombards Maria with withering criticisms of her aging facial features as well as her “laziness, indifference, boredom.”
Bergman observes all of this anguish with a mixture of chilly distance and disquieting intimacy. Sometimes he trains the camera so closely on a face that every microscopic nuance of emotion is visible, and sometimes he composes stylized tableaux that are rich with visual metaphors. Bergman’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, won an Oscar for his work on this movie, and his images—laden with the color red, motifs of clocks, and other loaded signifiers—are exquisite whenever mise en scène takes the fore and unobtrusive whenever performance is the focal point. Not every effect that Bergman renders here is perfect. The dialogue often addresses complex emotional states too perfectly, leaving the way that real humans speak behind; the nonstop onslaught of misery becomes distractingly oppressive; and some of the more art-designed elements border on the pretentious. If anyone has license to venture too far into these areas, however, it is Bergman, who proves again with this film that he is, was, and probably always will be the cinema’s boldest and most incisive psychological clinician.
Cries and Whispers: GROOVY