Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann
Cries and Whispers is planted in a middle ground between the theatrical and the cinematic. As a play, it works for the uncanny focus on its primary characters, the rapidly understandable emotions each character holds back, the dramatic moments of pain, the rich setting in absolutely unbelievable color. As a film, its reliance on extreme close-ups means that it could never really be a play; we rely too much on the individual freckles on Ullmann’s face or tight pull at Thulin’s hairline for this to ever be anything but a film. Cries and Whispers proves that a movie can provide the pathos of the theater and more; no theaterpiece I’ve ever been to has pushed me back in my seat in horror.
In many ways this is an enormously straightforward film. The vast majority of it is in three colors. There are four characters who really matter, and four characters who matter less but are instantly recognizable. The four characters who matter are concisely written, each one with a distinct personality that can be summed up in a sentence. Dialogue comes in spurts, and long sequences are either quiet, filled with screams, or statements so simple that a child would understand them. If the film plumbs the depths of the characters, it does so in the way that a large rock dropped in the center of a lake will reach the bottom. The film could choose a number of paths to describe the sisters, or even choose more than one. Cries and Whispers is only an hour and a half long; one could easily imagine a film half again as long or even twice as long in which we understand more and more about how each of the women came to be. But the lines are chosen beforehand. Agnes (Andersson) is already sick. Maria (Ullmann) is already shallow. Karin (Thulin) is already distant.
Only Agnes gives some thought to her past, and that is not a meditation on her illness but a meditation on a mother who seems to have been present and absent simultaneously. Her mother, Agnes remembers, was beautiful and witty and a beacon of light. Her memory of her mother is primarily those things, remembering her mother’s loveliness as she walks down a easily sloping hill in leaves, wearing a white dress. But her mother was also as distant as that long shot, and seemed not to care too much about Agnes, and interacted much more with Maria (both the mother and Maria are played by Ullmann), and the moment of greatest connection between them appeared to be unbearably sad. Mother has been dead more than twenty years, Agnes remembers; given the protagonists’ ages, probably between thirty-five and forty-five, she almost certainly died young like Agnes will.
Physical touch and nearness are necessary elements of the film, just stylized enough so that they are impossible to ignore. Perhaps it’s those close-ups again, but how important hands on faces are in this movie. People touch each other’s faces with their hands; in one uncomfortably sensual scene, Maria touches Karin, who cannot stand to be touched. Maria softly touches Karin’s face once, and when she is not further rebuffed, runs her hands on Karin’s cheeks, rubs her fingers on Karin’s temples. It’s a scene that very nearly gets incestuous but for Karin suddenly remembering herself. Anna (Kari Sylwan), the faithful maidservant who has lived in the manor for more than a decade as Agnes’ help and company, holds Agnes’ head and hair as she appears to be about to throw up. Agnes doesn’t have to, which is probably for the best; Karin is holding the bowl and she is so close that it would certainly splatter on her neat dress. It’s not the only time when someone, for the effect of closeness, holds a bowl unnecessarily. At one point Maria, who has had an affair with the doctor (Erland Josephson), holds up a bowl for him to wash his hands in. It seems like this should be simpler for him to do with the bowl on a dresser or table, but the power of pushing people closer together would be lost. The nearness continues in the next scene; certainly Maria can’t be sitting that close to the doctor while he’s eating – he would have no room to move his knife – but the shot certainly makes it appear that her chin should about touch his shoulder while they sit. In the scene after that, Maria looks in a mirror while the doctor discusses every bit of her expression and features. She is more beautiful now than they were the first time they did it, he says, but she has changed. It is not merely age but deception and pettiness and sneering on her face now where they weren’t before. “Why have you been sneering so much?” he asks. Her face, which seems to fill the screen before the doctor’s beard and mouth appear behind her left ear, moves in small ways. Her lips will rise into a quarter of a smile, her eyebrow will quiver. This is a long, long shot; how Ullmann keeps any expression at all while playing a cipher is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever watched an actor do in a film.
The title of the film accurately describes nearly all of the words spoken. The whispers make up the greater part of it. Think of Karin sitting in front of her vanity, breathing the words, “It’s a tissue of lies,” or the quiet, firm voice that Anna uses when she prays to God, assuming that he must have had a reason for taking her daughter, or the hushed vocal simper that Maria drops on Karin at the end, euphemistically ending any chance the two of them will have at a relationship. The cries are much harder to banish. As Agnes begins to die about halfway through the film – she has been crying out for much of her time on screen – she screams, “Help me!” It’s a terrifying shot. Her torso and head make a forty-five degree angle to the bed, her lank hair dark in a sunlit room full of that red, and she is not even the focus of the shot; she is banished to the lower corner. It is not the film’s most absolutely terrifying shot (that belongs to Ingrid Thulin, who does something which is the stuff of nightmares about three-quarters of the way through), but it is for me one of the most memorable. It is starkly contrasted with what happens outside Agnes’ sickbed. In her room, people sweat, and the red is contrasted with the sunlight and the dark walnut of the bed and the white sheets and white gown she wears. Outside of her room, in the sitting room before it, red floors and walls and chairs abound, and people cannot help but appear posed. Ullmann and Thulin are breathtakingly arranged; in that room close-ups fade away into medium shots where one sister is at a different distance from the camera than another. Ullmann is often turned to the window at the left of the screen; in an early scene she is asleep, hair cascading down, while in another she looks out of it as white light obliterates her features. The cries are quieter in that room, for the most part; within Agnes’ sickroom the cries seem to resound and echo off the walls.
The red of the film is the most memorable aspect; I didn’t think it was possible for a movie to beat its viewers with a primary color this savagely, down to the fades, but Cries and Whispers manages it. Looking at one color for a long time can change one’s body chemistry. There are all sorts of interesting studies which consider how color affects us or makes people feel a certain way; the most famous example is the lurid pink that’s been merrily christened “drunk tank pink” because it was used on a cell in Seattle where they put the particularly boisterous, angry drunks in the hopes that they’d calm down. Red is eye-catching, certainly, but it’s also an inherently threatening color, one that promises danger, one that can even raise heart rate or blood pressure. In a house that is red from floor to ceiling, it’s hard not to look at the characters as being hopelessly trapped within a body, like they were being imprisoned in someone’s veins. The scenes which take place outside – like the first scene, which is so beautiful that Nykvist is the exception to the rule that sunsets look better in person, and the last, where in flashback the three sisters happily walk down the same hill their mother descended – are strange in comparison. Agnes remarks how good it is to be outdoors again, for the first time in a long time; it’s as if she finally gets to enjoy an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t wish, she remembers, for a more perfect moment.