(Cries and Whispers)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Production: Cinematograph, in cooperation with Svenska Filminstitutet; Eastmancolor; running time: 91 minutes; length: 8,190 feet. Released 1972. Oscar for Best Cinematography, 1973.
Producer: Ingmar Bergman; production manager: Lars-Owe Carlsberg; screenplay: Ingmar Bergman; photography: Sven Nykvist; editor: Siv Lundgren; sound: Owe Svennson; art director: Marik Vos.
Cast: Harriet Andersson ( Agnes ); Kari Sylwan ( Anna ); Ingrid Thulin ( Karin ); Liv Ullmann ( Maria ); Erland Josephson ( Doctor ); Henning Moritzen ( Joakim ); Georg Arlin ( Fredrik ); Anders Ek ( Isak ); Inga Gill ( Aunt Olga ).
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In the rare company of such films as Marnie and Il deserto rosso, Cries and Whispers fuses its meaning to its controlled use of color. Brilliantly simple, it is a film of reds, even punctuated with red-outs rather than darkening fades. Opening with crepuscular light in the sculpture garden of a 19th-century mansion, the film moves quickly indoors where it settles, with a single exterior flashback, until its epilogue. The house is remarkable for its red upholstery: richly saturated red walls and furnishings set off the white gowns in which three sisters, Agnes, Karin, and Maria, and their servant Anna, dress themselves following the model of their dead mother who appears in a flashback. Agnes lies dying, apparently of a cancer of the womb or stomach. After her death the white motif shifts to black. Perhaps the most brilliant and simple act of color organization comes from the dramatic placement of a final flashback motivated by Anna's reading in Agnes's diary (after her death) of an ecstatic afternoon of lush
In the film's dramatic center, where the logic of dreams holds sway, the corpse of Agnes elicits comfort from the three surviving women. Anna alone cradles the dead body in an image that suggests a Pietà, but shows as well a full breast beside the "dead" face incapable of earthly nurture. As Mater Dolorosa, the servant has a religious faith in the liminality of death itself. This is consistent with the very first sight we get of her early in the film, waking and praying beside the fetishes of her dead daughter.
An elaborate linkage of gestures, both rhyming and reversing, throughout the film suggests that the different characters are vectors of a single fantasy system that generates its narrative complexity by scattering and redistributing its aspects among imagined persons who are in essence a single haunting presence. Anna is as much the absent mother as is Maria (Liv Ullmann plays both her and the mother); even the miserable Karin (named after the filmmaker's own mother) is her most threatening face.
The men of the film are all shadowy figures for the dead, radically absent father. Alternately fierce and weak, they underline the missing male presence in Agnes's life. The doctor, Maria's sometime lover, and Karin's husband, Frederick, represent the punishing power of musculinity, while Maria's suicidal husband and a minister illustrate male weakness as self-absorption.
Within the visual and color economy of the film the wound of Maria's husband (who stabs himself in the stomach reacting to her hint that she has slept with the doctor) is part of a covert symbolical equation with broken glass Karin inserts in her vagina (apparently to deny her husband sex) and their ultimate visual echo: a red book held against the mother's dress (in a memory flashback) as a displaced menstrual stain. In this dreamlike, liminal world of the metamorphic woman, fusing fantasies of defloration, menstruation, and castration, the four men are versions of masculine self-hatred in sadistic and masochistic registers.
We know from Bergman's autobiography the fetishistic importance he gives to the magic lantern. In the flashback of the mother there is a magic lantern version of Hansel and Gretel. Here the magic lantern represents simultaneously the gift of fairy tales, and thereby the psychic-defense machinery for exteriorizing infantile and oedipal terrors, and the gift of cinema for the incipient filmmaker. The oral gratification and oral aggression at the core of the fairy tale are prominent components of Bergman's film, whose very title brackets speech with labial (whispers) and dental (cries) suggestions. Maria's seduction of the doctor involves a sensual and somewhat greedy scene of eating; in direct contrast, the silent meal of Karin and Frederick, in which she spills wine and denies him sexual pleasure, precedes the horrific mutilation of her genitals, and that too ends with her rubbing the blood on her mouth and laughing; Agnes vomits, and Anna goes through the motions of breast-feeding her. Maria fulfills the role of the fairy-tale mother who fails to care for her children and abandons them to the forest. But in Anna we have the all-giving mother who has lost her daughter.
The lesson of Hansel and Gretel , according to Bruno Bettleheim, is that the child must learn to curb his infantile desires and win self-sufficiency through his own ingenuity. The ingenuity of Cries and Whispers is the Orphic transformation of terror into art, of the loss of the mother into the musical richness of autumnal color and the self-sufficiency of memory.
—P. Adams Sitney