Cries And Whispers, (Viskningar Och Rop) a 1972 film of Ingmar Bergman’s, which was consistently and highly lauded around the world, upon its release, is not a great film, nor anywhere the masterpiece that it’s claimed to be. That said, it’s not a bad film, merely an interesting and lesser one from his oeuvre that is laced with some very odd moments, some really bad moments, and some cringingly self-conscious moments that show Bergman at his auteur and poseur worst, far in excess, even, of his much better 1966 self-conscious opus film Persona. At his worst, Bergman hammers his viewers over the head with rather puerile and obvious symbolism, such as the insistence of the color red and blood, which haunts the mansion’s décor, and is used as filmic dissolves, in this film which basically recounts the death of an early 20th Century Swedish rich woman, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), as her two sisters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullman- who also plays the sisters’ mother in flashbacks) bicker over what is to become of her and the huge estate they inherited. Bergman’s multi-linear narrative approach, while interesting, does little to serve the film’s real story, nor create audience empathy for the characters.
It is a very despairing film, and bleaker than the usual Bergmanian dourness. Nothing much happens, except that Agnes slowly suffocates to death because of a cancer, presumably in her lungs, and the two other sisters go mad, and rage and bicker at each other. Even worse, is that there is great psychological violence in the two healthy sisters’ marriages. Maria, a more open and life giving sort of woman, is a hopeless flirt who cheats on her dim husband Joakim (Henning Moritzen), with presumably many men, and even once, years ago, with the doctor, David (Erland Josephson) who is now treating Agnes. This treachery send Joakim to a suicidal attempt at hari-kiri, where, bloodied, he called out for Maria’s help, only to have her refuse. With her sister dying, Maria shamelessly tries to restart their affair, until David points out that her internal ugliness is wreaking havoc with her good looks, due to her unconscious’s effects via their release in her facial expressions. Maria seems oddly turned on by this fact, and enjoys the negative criticism, as the scene shows Liv Ullman’s face and gorgeous light blue eyes in an extended closeup. Even more loveless and pathetic is the frigid Karin, who cannot stand to be touched by anyone, even her sisters, and whose loathing for her own husband, an elderly diplomat named Fredrik (Georg Årlin), causes her to stick a broken piece of a wine glass into her vagina, in a scene that had me thinking she was going to pull the old ‘hooker’s revenge’ scheme, and slice her husband’s penis to ribbons when he entered her. She doesn’t, instead merely smearing the blood from her gonads across her lips in yet another Bergmanian nod to vampirism and the failure of human sexual love, that may or may not be a mere mutilation fantasy. About the only thing pleasant in the scene is seeing Thulin’s lovely naked body, just as she had similarly undressed for Bergman’s earlier Hour Of The Wolf.
But, perhaps the sickest take on love and sexuality occurs between the dying Agnes and her fat, frump, and butch housemaid Anna (Kari Sylwan), who seemingly and sickly indulges her lesbian fantasies with the dying woman, by allowing Agnes rest and suck upon her breasts, and later, in what is likely a dream or symbolic sequence (for there’s no evidence that Agnes was merely in a coma, and Karin even claims Agnes’s body is decomposing), after a reanimate Agnes has frightened her two sisters away, Anna crawls nakedly into bed with the corpse, and caresses it in necrophilic splendor. Clearly, she is the most disturbed of the three remaining live women, even though few critics have ever recognized this fact.
This DVD from The Criterion Collection comes with English language dubbing (always a MAJOR plus for foreign films), done by the actual members of the cast, under Bergman’s direction, yet I cannot recommend this film wholeheartedly, especially to lay audiences, for many of the stereotypes and criticisms that Americans make of European films are laid fully bare. Cries And Whispers is slow, ultra-symbolic, and requires great attention to detail, with far too little payoff in the end. The only other DVD feature to speak of is a television interview with Bergman and Erland Josephson, but this is featured on other Bergman Criterion DVDs, so is not that ‘special’.
The imagery in the film is sterling, though, and the use of Chopin during scenes of the living sisters seeming to reconcile, and hearing only the music, not their talk, is Bergman at his best. Unfortunately, this is perhaps his weakest screenplay, save for The Serpent’s Egg, and the plain fact is that, when many of the nasty things that happen in the film happen, the audience is thrust into an emotional maelstrom with no emotional ties forged between them and the characters, so they are left not caring of the suffering that is shown, for they have not experienced anything with these characters up to that point. Empathy is never built up, and this hands off approach dominates and suffocates the film emotionally.
The core of the film, however, is Bergman’s overweening symbolism, for it is so obvious, and the main characters simply act in such over the top, grandiose ways that no one in real life would, that the viewer is forced to find non-rational motivations for them- i.e.- what does the director mean with this rather than why would the character do this? In that sense, this film is pure artifice, and not organic in any sense. Sylwan, as Anna, especially, basically just sleepwalks through her almost horror film level performance. The cinematography of Sven Nykvist, and the use of red to make the film almost all hallucinatory, is outstanding, and in this regard the technical mastery of film that is exhibited overcomes, if only slightly, the film’s many flaws.
Cries And Whispers, by contrast, is one dimensional, void of character development, empathy, and a compelling storyline, and it plays almost as a pre-PC PC screed about how females need to bond lest become as impotent as the males in their lives. In the end, only dead Agnes has peace, and that peace is merely a memory or delusion. Yes, bleak describes this film, and it is even more so when one considers how Bergman hermetically seals off his characters from the audience, thus recapitulating the characters’ detachment from each other by our own from them. While this might be technically devious, even brilliant and defensible, it simply goes too much against basic storytelling technique. Martin Scorsese portrayed inner loneliness and impotence much better in his 1984 film, The King Of Comedy, giving the viewer both a sense of the main character’s frustrations, and allowing the audience to empathize with that impotence, rather than feel it along with him. Here, pain is merely an end to itself, and the viewer simply does not care, for we never know what brought the sisters to this state, are never let inside their lives, and are given no reason to desire exploration. A better title would have been The Glass Menagerie, for that’s what all the characters are: transparent, fragile, and small. But, Tennessee Williams took that one, and his is a much better zoo of the human soul.
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