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Cries and Whispers
(Viskningar och rop)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Ingrid Thulin (Karin), Liv Ullmann (Maria), Harriet Andersson (Agnes), Kari Sylwan (Anna), Erland Josephson (Doctor)
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 1972
Country: Sweden
Cries and Whispers Poster

Cries and Whispers DVD "Beautiful" and "haunting" are probably the two most oft-used words employed to describe the films of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, especially his 1972 film Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop). And, as much as I would like to avoid invoking them for the sake of sidestepping cliche, I am at pains to come up with two other words in the English language that better describe this work.

Taking place in a large, isolated manor in turn-of-the-century Sweden, Cries and Whispers concerns the slow death of an unmarried woman in her late 30s named Agnes (Harriet Andersson) and how her two married sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), deal with it. In the film's opening shots of golden-hued morning sunlight filtering through the misty grounds outside the manor, Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist (who won an Oscar for his work here), immediately establish a dream-like state that will pervade the entire film. We then move inside the manor, which is visually composed of large, elegant, almost empty rooms and aurally composed of the entire range of the human voice--from heavy silences, to frightened whispers, to groans of discomfort and screams of agony. Cries and Whispers is a film that takes place not so much in any human reality as inside the human soul.

The majority of the interiors are bathed in various shades of red, everything from the carpet, to the wallpaper, to the furniture. Red is also used for the dissolves between sequences, where the screen fades in and out of an intense scarlet hue, as if the scenes are composed directly out of human blood. For Bergman, red represents the interior of the human soul, and it is clear that this is where his story takes place. In fact, according to Bergman, it was the recurrent image of a "room draped all in red with women clad in white" that was the seed from which the film sprang.

While Cries and Whispers is thematically concerned with the process of death for both the deceased and those left behind, Bergman is also concerned with the lives of his characters, who are largely symbolic of various human potentials. The impending death of Agnes becomes a moment in which her self-absorbed sisters are forced to reflect on their lives. Both Maria and Karin have flashbacks to earlier moments in their lives that represent their deeply flawed natures. Each of these flashbacks morph into a nightmarish fantasy that comments upon the reality (or is it the other ways around?). For Bergman, there seems to be little distinction between the real and the fantastic, as he uses no cinematic device to separate them for the audience.

For Maria, the youngest sister, her flashback is a moment when she adulterously seduced the local doctor (Erland Josephson) while her husband (Henning Moritzen) was away on business. The next morning, when her husband came home, she imagined that he suspected her infidelity and stabbed himself in the chest with a knife, an action that at first shocked her, but ultimately left a twisted smile on her face. For Karin, who is older and more reserved than the sexually provocative Maria, her flashback distills her hateful relationship with her politician husband (Georg Arlin), in which she fantasizes about mutilating her vagina with a piece of broken glass and then flaunting her own desecration to her husband by rubbing the blood across her mouth. Both of these flashback fantasies are ghastly moments, shocking in their refusal to look away from these two women's worst psychic impulses. But, in this way, they are also deeply revealing, even in their ambiguity.

There is a fourth woman, Anna (Kari Sylwan), a stocky, peasant maid who extends all her devotion to Agnes. Anna is everything that Maria and Karin are not: gentle, kind, giving, selfless. She was once a mother, but her child died early in life, and now she has no one to extend her love to except Agnes. This is never so clear as in Anna's fantasy sequence, in which she imagines Agnes' slowly decomposing body crying out to be held. Maria and Karin run in disgust while Anna crawls into bed and comforts Agnes, allowing her to move peacefully into the afterlife. For Bergman, this was one of the key moments of the film, perhaps its essence. In his journal while writing the film, he noted:

"I believe that the film--or whatever it is--consists of this poem: a human being dies but, as in a nightmare, gets stuck halfway through and pleads for tenderness, mercy, deliverance, something. Two other human beings are there, and their actions, their thoughts, are in relation to the dead, not-dead, dead. The third person saves her by gently rocking, so she can find peace, by going with her part of the way."

All the characters in Cries and Whispers can be placed in a series of simple equations, where Agnes = purity and innocence, Maria = self-infatuated sexuality, Karin = repression and spite, and Anna = care and selflessness. There are some Freudian overtones, as an earlier flashback establishes that Agnes was largely rejected by her mother (also played by Liv Ullmann), who doted over Maria and Karin, thus suggesting that they have been somehow corrupted, leaving them unable to love fully and appreciate other people in their lives. Yet, the purist simplicity of it all works because Cries and Whispers is a dream story in which the characters function as symbols of human virtue and vice, rather than as fully embodied human beings.

In the early 1970s, Bergman was forced by various economic factors to begin working in television, which, as a medium, relies much more heavily on close-ups than on long shots. This influence can be seen throughout Cries and Whispers, as Bergman's camera moves into extreme proximity to the faces of his actresses, constantly assessing their emotions. This, of course, requires particularly good acting, as every minor movement is magnified to enormous proportions. This also results in a certain level of ambiguity, because so much is shown without being discussed. For instance, Bergman infuses many of his images with a deep eroticism--despite the motherly intentions of Anna, it is hard not to read her efforts at comforting Agnes in sexual terms. The same is true of Maria's attempts to reconcile with Karin, who refuses to be touched in any way. The movements and gestures are often oblique, suggesting many things but confirming nothing.

Cries and Whispers is a slowly paced film, and some would argue that not much happens in it. In terms of physical action, no, there is not much happening. But, when you take into account the importance of the close-up and the emotional states of the characters, there is almost too much going on, with conflicting feelings and heightened emotions constantly clashing. Bergman's mastery of the cinematic medium allows him to convey this inner battle with minimal physical activity.

And yet, despite all this psychic and spiritual conflict and passion, Bergman manages to end the film on a positive note that doesn't feel jarring or out of place. In a film composed of flashbacks and fantasies, he ends on a final flashback depicting the three sisters reliving a childhood memory by sitting together on a swing. It is, appropriately, one of the few scenes to take place outside, freed from the blood-red confines of the manor. It is, like the other scenes in the film, one of great simplicity, but one that says much about what it means to be human and just how precious life can be when we recognize the importance of the people in our lives.

Cries and Whispers: Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
Audio Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesSwedish, English
Supplements Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death, and Love: 52-minute interview with Bergman and actor Erland Josephson
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision

The visual imagery in Cries and Whispers is truly evocative, and the image quality on this disc is superb. The high-definition anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) transfer, taken from a 35mm color-reversal interpositive, renders the various shades of crimson captured by Sven Nykvist's camera in bright, bold terms that remain solid and natural-looking without bleeding. Red is one of the most difficult colors to master successfully during transfers, as it tends to "bloom" more than other colors, but Criterion has done an excellent job maintaining the integrity of the image. The quality of the image on this disc is immediately apparent in the opening shots, which show the misty morning sunlight in almost painterly terms. Bergman's emphatic use of extreme close-ups is also well-rendered, with warm, natural fleshtones and the kind of detail that allows you to see the pores in the actor's skin. Although some reel markers are still evident, the image is free of any nicks, scratches, or dirt.

While much has been written about the visual nature of Cries and Whispers, as its title should make clear, the aural aspect of the film is also of great importance. The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack included here is excellent, rendering the hushed tones, long silences, and cries of pain in all their haunting eloquence without any hiss or distortion. Bergman uses music minimally, and this disc does a great job of rendering the lonely strings of Chopin or Bach to underscore the film's emotions.

In addition to the original Swedish-language soundtrack, Criterion has also included an optional English-language track that was written and directed by Paulette Rubinstein. While I normally don't advise listening to dubbed tracks on foreign films, this is one of the best of I have seen, not only because the voice performances are excellent, but because the minimal dialogue in the film and its subdued nature makes the dubbing much less distracting. The characters tend to speak in hushed tones, which means minimal mouth movement that might contradict with the English words being spoken on the soundtrack.

The only included supplement on this disc is Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death, and Love, a 52-minute interview with Bergman and his longtime friend, actor Erland Josephson, who appears in Cries and Whispers as the doctor. This rare interview, recorded in 1999 when Bergman was 82 years old, was conducted by journalist Malou von Sivers for TV4 International Sweden. Interestingly, the interview is not at all about Bergman's cinematic career; in fact, not a single one of his films is named during the entire 52 minutes. Rather, the interview is geared toward Bergman and Josephson's personal lives, literally their reflections on life, death, and love. Von Sivers' goal seems to have been to get beneath Bergman's public persona as a "demon director" and find the human being underneath. In this, she is largely successful, as both Bergman and Josephson are frank and forthcoming about numerous aspects of their lives (which are largely intertwined because they have known each other so long), including moments of embarrassment, pain, and sadness.

¬Overall Rating: (4)

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