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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Cries and Whispers is a powerful study of three sisters and a faithful
maid who share a manse in a remote location. One of the sisters, the
sympathetic and essentially good-hearted Agnes (Harriet Andersson in a
gut-wrenching performance), is dying from an indeterminate cancer, and
it is her slow journey towards death, its effect on her sisters and
Anna the maid, and its aftermath that is the center of this story.
Though why she, and not her sisters, should be afflicted, neither the
movie nor Bergman can explain, and rings out as an injustice.
The reason if, the other two sisters are variations of monstrous people who are successful: Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is what seems to be an icy control freak, not a horrible woman, but close, who cannot stand human touch of any kind, and we're privy to her torment in a flashback where she uses a piece of a broken wine glass to literally mutilate her vagina, seemingly enjoying it (as she shocks her husband), while writhing in unspeakable pain. Maria (Liv Ullmann) shows less, is more of an enigma and a hard character to pinpoint, but she's equally manipulative if not flatly repulsive: she not only tries to resume an affair with Agnes' doctor (who points out she her internal ugliness is starting to show through her facial expressions as she apparently enjoys this criticism) but she also fails to help her husband at a critical moment when he stabs himself in the stomach. Later on, both sisters (particularly Karin) verbally express their hatred for each other in a powerful montage that leads to a moment of equally intense reconciliation that comes without the use of dialogue and is emphasized by the swell of music (Chopin). Ingrid Thulin stands out, letting the gamut of Karin's sheer rage our out of her visage while suddenly changing back to a softer self, then to her steely image of self-control and back to fury in a snap of fingers.
There's a lingering question throughout the movie: there must have been some extreme trauma, some truly horrific event (or events), that must have set forth the deluge of pain that rips throughout the entire story right up until the end. Karin herself alludes to the "tissue of lies" that could mean anything: possible sexual abuse by the unseen father, a complicity between Maria and her mother, and Agnes in the center, rejected. Although Karin does mention the revulsion she felt towards Maria, one can only wonder what it was that transpired which seems to have driven her into momentary lapses of insanity. In fact, her self-hatred mirrors Agnes' intense suffering rather closely, although both characters rarely interact and are on entirely different planes. In some ways, it wouldn't be out of place to say that Agnes, despite the unimaginable suffering she endures, serves as merely a catalyst, a materialization of the horror Karin herself has had to face. At least Agnes has experienced a form of love, if selfless, under the guise of Anna who comes to her aid, gives of her breast in an almost saint-like passion. Karin only has the cold future of her own dismal life to face. And Maria isn't even alive, but sadistically observing.
Aside from PERSONA this has to be one of Ingmar Bergman's most powerful works, one that hits an audience at a gut level (cliched as though it may sound). The dominant color red only adds tension to the already tense scenes between the quartet of women (and the men, who only make pat but indelible appearances). Woody Allen would use these stylizations of the face looking dead at the camera, telling a story of its own in INTERIORS, another looks at three sisters, neither of them sympathetic. Grueling, sometimes unwatchable, this is movie watching at its best.
In a perfect demonstration that horror and trauma are the stuff of
real, everyday life and not the macabre vision of fantasists, Cries and
Whispers marked Bergman's recovery as one of Europe's greatest film
Like most Bergman films, Cries and Whispers is concerned with death, the suffering before death and the re-evaluation of life that death brings. It centres on three sisters: one dying of cancer, another trapped in a repellent marriage, and the last engaged in an uncomfortable affair. Moving between these three women is the maid, who tends the dying woman in her agony and, in one stunning scene, holding her to her naked bosom like a mother holding a child.
It is not, then, a barrel of laughs. Bergman films are not often for casual viewing, and I certainly won't be taking this one home to watch with my mother.
Like a great classical composer, Bergman uses contrast to enormous effect. Muted sounds which force you to strain to listen are punctuated with heart-rending screams from the dying Agnes. The colour scheme is a disquieting red, fading into pastoral greens and blues as the women reminisce about their younger life.
The characters also contrast uncomfortably. The two younger sisters, Karin and Maria, are sitting the deathwatch for their sister, but their task arouses no compassion in them. They are appalled and repelled by their sister's suffering, but they will not hold her hand or comfort her. The mutual dislike for each other is palpable. This contrasts with the simple humanism of their maid Anna whom they callously talk about firing, once their sister is dead.
Set in the late 19th Century, the story flits intermittently between present and past, fleshing out the motivations and the stories of the sisters. One of these flashbacks confronts the audience with one of the most disturbing image in cinema, a repressed Karin cutting her vagina with glass to avoid sex with her husband.
Only a director of Bergman's calibre could make such a film riveting. Yet riveting it is. Bergman gets sensational performances from his four main leads; regulars Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thurin and Harriet Andersson and a majestic, understated Kari Sylwan. To call this film Ibsenesque would be a slur on the originality of Bergman's vision. It is a testimony to his genius that this may not be his best film, yet it is one of the most striking films in modern cinema. I cannot recommend it highly enough. 9/10.
The idea of this film that is considered by many as Bergman's crown
achievement came to him in his house at Faro where he lived by himself
for sometime in a melancholy state of mind after a rather painful
breakup. One image kept coming to him and it was a very vivid and
persistent image of a red room (red walls, red furniture) and four
women sitting at the window in the room and dressed by the fashion of
the beginning of the 20th century. He could not shake the image out of
his mind and he knew that the only way to deal with it would be to
start writing about the women who were they, what was their
relationship, their lives, their fates?.. He also knew that should the
movie be made of his writing, the dominating color of it would be red.
Bergman talked with affection and gratitude about his friend and long
time collaborator Swen Nykwist who spent many days creating the
passionate haunting red world of "Cries and Whispers. The title came to
Bergman from one of the reviews on a Mozart's sonata (he does not
remember which one). The sonata was described as sounds of cries and
"Cries and Whispers" is about pain, death, love, lust, hate, and self-loathing. There are more than one scene in the film that I found unbearable, horrifying and depressing. In the same time, it is about beauty and power of life, every minute of it - how little we appreciated it until it is too late. Typical Bergman's subjects, Bergman's actresses giving amazing performances, strikingly beautiful it even hurts your eyes cinematography by Sven Nykvist - typical Bergman's masterpiece - what less do we expect from him? I admire the brilliance of it: acting, cinematography, Bergman's simple but devastating approach to Death as an inevitable part of life. The ending is heartbreaking - with Harriet's face and her words from beyond the grave about appreciating every minute of life...
Powerful and devastating film.
Upon its release CRIES AND WHISPERS was hailed as one of Bergman's
finest films. Although it has not quite held onto that original
evaluation, it remains a very fine film--a subtle and delicately
performed drama as remarkable for its silence as for its occasional
moments of dialogue. And in many respects it offers an extremely good
introduction to Bergman's work.
Like many of Bergman's films, CRIES AND WHISPERS shows the director's preoccupations with memory, communication, time, community, and death. The story is bleak: Agnes is dying and her sisters Karin and Maria have come to attend her during this final illness--but they prove unable to communicate in a meaningful way with either Agnes or each other, and Agnes' emotional care is left largely to her long-time maid, the devoted Anna.
As the film unwinds, we are bought into the memories of each woman in turn. The dying Agnes (played with powerful realism by Harriet Andersson) not only grapples with increasing pain, she recalls with regret the emotional separation that existed between her long-dead mother and herself. Sister Maria (Liv Ullman), a mindless sensualist, recalls an act of adultery that has poisoned her marriage; Sister Karin (Ingrid Thulin), who is emotionally cold, recalls an act of self-mutilation designed to thwart her husband's desires. Only the maid Anna (Kari Sylwan), with a peasant's directness, actually works to be of comfort, even going so far as to cradle Agnes' head on her naked breast and dreaming of comforting Agnes while her sisters fail.
The film is ever so delicately tinged with subtle elements of lesbianism, sadomasochism, and incest, and the emotional problems experienced by Maria and Karin are at least partly sexual in nature--but these are not the focus of the film so much as they are surface indications of a deeper internal turmoil. As to what that deeper turmoil is... Bergman might say it is the nature of life itself. We each stand alone, usually in denial of our own mortality, usually unable to reach each other in any meaningful way. A deep film, and in spite of its occasional awkwardness a memorable and touching film. Recommended.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
To see Liv Ullmann, whose nature is so warm and natural, play a role in
which her warmth is superficial and fraudulent, is a little offsetting;
yet, great actress that she is, she pulls it off, so that if I had
never seen her before, I would believe she was that way.
"Cries and Whispers," much ballyhooed, I recall, when it appeared, seems too psychoanalytically intense today; dark and mysterious, beautifully filmed in an intense red-yes, very striking against the northern cold, but somehow not entirely convincing. The people are cynically presented as tortured animals caring only for themselves, without a scrap of genuine feeling for others. Anna, the maid, is the exception, so that she may serve as a foil for the rest of them.
Harriet Andersson gives a striking performance as Agnes who is dying of cancer. I have seen what she portrays, and can tell you she expressed it in all its horror and hopelessness. Ullmann plays Maria, one of her sisters who touches others easily, but without real feeling, so that the touches mean nothing. For those who grew up cinematically during the seventies, she was a great, expressive, sensual, flawless star of the screen, one of Ingmar Bergman's jewels. Bergman himself of course was already a legend by the time this film was made, a great master who did what he wanted and what he felt, yet never lost sight of the audience. What he seems to be saying here is we are desperate creatures living a cold and ultimately empty existence. The ending clip seems an after thought that seeks our redemption, but it arrives too little too late. We are lost.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
How many masterpieces can one director make? In the case of Ingmar
Bergman, the answer would be plenty. This is one beautiful, but very
painful and at times horrifying film. I think I've yet to see another
film that depicts the pain, suffering and despair of dying to such
vividness that like the characters, one almost feels the need to look
away. The story itself is fairly simple - a woman is in the final
stages of cancer/tuberculosis and her two sisters and maid take care of
her in her final days - but Bergman's unique narrative style and the
complexity and depth of his script turn what at first seems a horror
show into a profound meditation on faith, love and mortality. Bergman's
direction is simply too perfect. The way the film is conceived visually
couldn't be more evocative of its themes. The intensity of the color
red to convey the hell these characters are living, and the
chamber-like, claustrophobic atmosphere it creates is suffocating and
exhausting. Sven Nykvist's Oscar-winning cinematography is simply one
of the most inventive and unique I've ever seen in a movie. Bergman's
narrative strategy is incredibly thoughtful and effective; it's like
the scenes flowed into each other, and despite the horror we are to
endure, there is such tact, sensitivity, attention to detail and a
feeling of intimacy to every scene. It's simply glorious to behold,
appreciate and let yourself be taken by the emotions and insights this
film has to offer. All four actresses give spectacular performances:
Harriet Andersson (Agnes) is searing physical pain personified, Liv
Ullmann (Maria) is so nuanced and real in her flight sensuality (one
extended scene that is a close-up to her face is astonishing in the
incredible nuances of expressiveness and what the character is trying
to conceal but can't), Ingrid Thulin (Karin) is chilling to the bone
(and that one scene that is about mutilation in a very sensitive place
is for sure one I'll never forget) and Kari Sylwan (Anna) is pure
warmth, dedication and love. Bergman has a fame for depicting a bleak
and pessimistic view of the world, and I won't argue with that, but I
don't think his humanism is addressed very often. I had heard so many
things about how depressing and horrifying this film is, and it is
indeed, but it is not hopeless. Yes, Bergman suggests that the world
can a horrible place and the human experience is full of pain,
loneliness and cruelty, but he also suggests that if we extend our love
to one another and let ourselves be loved, the burden won't be as hard
to bare, and that there will be moments that will bring us love,
happiness and grace, as Agnes says in her beautiful and haunting
soliloquy. Agnes manages to find solace and consolation even though
she's living the most excruciating hell because she allows herself to
love and be loved, and her confrontation with death won't be as
terrifying. Maria and Karin on the other hand, as the film suggests,
will have to endure the pain and fear of dying in utter loneliness
because they don't allow themselves to be loved and have lost the
ability to love as well. The film is also bold and insightful enough to
suggest that the most awful of circumstances in which a human being can
be is paradoxically what strengthens one's faith and love, therefore
sustaining one's existence.
Death is one of those things that no one really likes to talk about. When a
family member or loved one is terminally ill, the lives of all that surround
the individual change, sometimes forever.
This film deals with a terminally ill woman, her devoted servant, and the woman's two sisters, brought together by the tragedy. As the women live through the last days of their dying sister, the superficial layers of each begin to disintegrate, and we eventually see the very core of their being --and it isn't always pretty.
Also not pretty are the deathbed scenes. I found them harrowing, painful and frighteningly realistic. No one at the bedside had any sense of the purpose of so much pain -- not even the priest.
Bergman uses silence like other directors use explosions. The ticking and chiming of the clock are almost startling as time drags on and on. Everyone waits for the inevitable, and the inevitable takes it time.
The cinematography is extraordinary, as is the use of color. Red is used to an almost overwhelming degree, but also used to perfection. When I think of red, several ideas or images come to mind, such as blood, passion, and heat. Each of these are presented in various degrees in this film.
The redeeming figure in this film is the servant. Her love for the dying woman is completely unconditional and selfless. It was for her grief that I wept.
Cries and Whispers is a film that will strike at least one chord with
any viewer on its emotional placement, the almost unflinching (and
absolutely masterful) camera technique by Sven Nykvist, and with the
characterizations from the four female leads, in-particular the dying
Harriet Andersson. This is also a film that will be very hard to
stomach for most (it was at times for me), with it's sheer display of
constant despair and grief, and the overall state of mind these
characters hold. Ullman plays Agnes, marked with Tuberculosis, she lays
on her death bed like a zombie writhing in pain for the eventual end,
with her two sisters, Maria and Karin, and the servant Anna, at her
bedside, though seeming at a distance (except for Anna). Bergman also
views Maria and Karin's relationships with themselves and their
husbands, both rather brutal (Karin has a scene with a shard of glass
that had me gasp).
The examination of these roles, and the entire feel of the house, which is always shown as red as blood, make this in the realm of cinematic drama a shocker, and a masterwork to be certain. There's only one aspect of the film that I can criticize: many times in the film Bergman uses a red screen to fade in and fade out, and then again a few seconds later, and this seems to have not much purpose to the symbolic impact since the inside of the house conveys enough that these people are in a metaphorical house of hell already, and the fadings don't add any weight to it. Nevertheless this is one director's great films, a landmark in fact, though this doesn't mean it's quite as accessible as The Seventh Seal or even the epic Fanny and Alexander.
This is cinema for those who almost enjoy, paradoxically, their intestines ripped out and stomped on the floor only to find out it was just an unforgettable dream. Swedish movies rarely get this visceral. A+
It was a haunting and shattering film experience, as promised.
I've never before seen a Bergman film, however, judging by the praise awarded to "Cries and Whispers," I decided to try this one out first. And I couldn't have been more rewarded. The film, even though it clocked in at a short ninety-one minutes, I estimate less than half of those minutes contained dialogue. As Gloria Swanson put it in "Sunset Boulevard," they "had faces." And how they used them! The facial expressions and mannerisms the characters in this film used were breathtaking. Going from Liv Ullman's smug, teasing grin in her flashback scene with the doctor to Ingrid Thulin's anguish-cum-rhapsody in the scene with the broken class (that undoubtedly stays in the minds of all who see the film for one reason or another!) is truly incredible. Each character uses their body language to convey the meaning of their characters and their situations. In fact, I could have watched the film in Swedish without English subtitles and still have known perfectly well what was going on. The dialogue was truly superfluous and unnecessary. Combining the characters' body language with Bergman's masterful use of color to convey the personalities of the characters as well as their environment in general is something that (1) I've scarcely, if ever, seen used in a film before and (2) could not stop marvelling at its brilliance.
The performances were top notch. All of the performances by the four leading ladies were exceptional and perfect in every way. The homoeroticism that pervades the film is perfectly captured by the ladies in a manner that is not sexual, but rather something the farthest possible being from sexuality.
I do not even need to speak of Sven Nykvist's cinematography beyond that it is perfection incarnate.
I am now convinced that Bergman is a master, and I cannot wait to see another of his films! Sure, the film is depressing and certainly is not for those who think that "The Italian Job" is the best film of the year, however, for those who can just watch the relationships of the sisters unfold in all its splendor and anguish, this is truly a work of art rivalling those of any medium.
MY RATING: 10/10 (and I don't give tens lightly)
HIGHLIGHTS: Liv Ullmann, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Kari Sylwan, Sven Nykvist's cinematography, Bergman's use of color and his direction in general
This is one of the most affecting films ever made. I saw it about a year ago and I still can't get it out of my mind. It is one of the few films that manages to ponder profound philosophical questions without becoming self-consciously arty and pretentious. Amazingly, Cries and Whispers is poignant and tender, yet also tough minded. If you haven't seen this film yet, I urge you to rent it. If you like this film I recommend Wild Strawberries, which is an earlier Bergman film.
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