Red for blood. Red for love. Red for the heart. Red for suffering. But not, in this film, for joy.
The story is that long before he made Cries and Whispers in 1972, Bergman had “a vision of a large red room, with three women in white whispering together.” And that he wanted to know who they were, and what the whispering was about. (The Swedish title in fact puts “Whispers” first: Whispers and Cries, which doesn’t affect my perception of it, but perhaps did Bergman's.)
It turned out that the three were two sisters, Karin and Maria, and their servant, Anna. And what they were whispering about was, among other things, a third sister, Agnes—and yes, you should think agnus, “lamb,” when you hear her name. Agnes is in the next room, in bed, dying of cancer. The three sisters are wealthy and the setting is the family estate. Somewhat improbably, but very effectively, most of the rooms we see have wall coverings of deep, intense red.
Karin, Anna, Maria
Bergman brought together three of his most notable leading ladies for this tour de force: Liv Ullman (Maria), Ingrid Thulin (Karin), and Harriet Anderson (Agnes). These three are of course great beauties, though Thulin is made to look severe and Anderson is not exactly at her most photogenic as a terminal cancer patient. The stocky, plain Anna is Kari Sylwan, who was not primarily an actress—Wikipedia says she was a dancer and choreographer, which you would not think of when you see her.
Maria and Karin are a bit of a reprise of the two sisters in The Silence (1963) with Thulin playing a somewhat similar woman in both works. Karin is stern, cold, and anti-sexual, perhaps only because she has a loathsome husband. Maria is vain, flighty, and an unfaithful wife to a dull husband. We learn a good deal about them in flashbacks. We don’t know a great deal about Agnes apart from her current situation, except a brief but immeasurably important diary entry. We don’t learn a lot about Anna, at least not in the way of external facts, but what we do learn—that she had a daughter who died in childhood—is significant. We don’t know much about the husbands, but we certainly get the measure of them. The only other male character, if I remember correctly, is a clergyman who puts in a brief but important appearance.
As is often the case with Bergman, to summarize the plot might leave you thinking that this is really not very much of a story. But that would be very misleading. What’s important is not so much the action as the emotional plot. What’s important is the relationship between Karin and Maria, between Anna and Agnes, and between Anna and Karin+Maria. And it is a very dramatic story indeed. I’m not much for “relationship” stories in which nothing much actually happens, but this is an enormous exception to the rule, because Bergman’s vision is so profound, and because he works it out so effectively.
Karin and Maria mean well toward their sister, or at least want to mean well, or at least want to seem to mean well. But they are too closed in, too self-centered, to give her much. This is brought home in a strange, disturbing, and powerful scene which takes place after Agnes dies. Agnes wants their love, and in extremis wants simple physical comfort—warmth, touch, even if they cannot alleviate the pain. And Anna is the only one who can or will give it to her, which she does. These scenes are startling, even a bit disturbing, in a way that I will let you see for yourself.
Anna, being the most generous and most capable of love, is, not surprisingly, treated badly. Karin and Maria are cold to her, seeing her, as is all too often the case with wealthy people and their servants, as of no consequence, hardly even a person in the full sense, certainly not deserving to be treated fully as one. And I think I’ve said enough to give you an idea of how the film’s themes connect with Christianity.
I write these reviews with the assumption that my readers have not seen the film I’m talking about, and so I don’t want to say much more about this one, though there is a lot that might be said. But its ideas are not in themselves especially new or striking, and to discuss them apart from the experience of seeing the film would make them seem thin and abstract, which would be even more of a distortion than might be the case with any work of art, because this one is so very fleshly. Or maybe I should say fleshly and bloodly—all that red. (I should warn you that there is a wrenching and fairly direct scene of self-inflicted violence.)
I first saw Cries and Whispers when it was released in 1973. I was powerfully moved by it, almost to the point of tears. I was only twenty-five years old, and I’m a little surprised now that it had such an effect on me. One insight that I took from it at the time was the possibility that moments of love and joy in even a tragic and pain-filled life are every bit as real, significant, and in a sense permanent as the long stretches of sorrow. I clung to that at the time, and for long afterward. I was not a Christian then, but I think it helped to move me in that direction, with some inchoate notion that life might be redeemable.
I didn’t see it again until perhaps six or seven years ago, and it didn’t have the same effect. I was a little disappointed, in fact, and I remember thinking “Well, that’s good, but not quite what I thought it was; not one of Bergman’s best.” Then I watched it again a few weeks ago thinking that I might write about it, and...well, I don’t know what was wrong with me six or seven years ago—maybe I was just distracted or something—but I was right the first time, back in ‘73. Now I’d say that this is one of Bergman’s very finest works, and as you know if you read this blog very often, that means I think it’s one of the very finest movies ever made.
--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.