Cries and Whispers (Spine #101) is a 1972 drama written and directed by legendary Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman and starring Harriet Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, and Kari Sylwan. Bergman is a favorite of the Criterion Collection and presently has over twenty films in the collection, including Persona (Spine #701) and The Seventh Seal (Spine #11).
Cries and Whispers, like many of Bergman’s films, is steeped in a sort of deathly dread. The movie begins in a room painted in a striking, bloody crimson. Though Cries is a remarkably understated and quiet film, from the beginning there is an innate feeling of pain and sickness running beneath the bloodless mundane. It concerns three sisters and a maid, with one of the sisters, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), on her literal deathbed, coughing and heaving with some horrid, insidious sickness. Agnes’ slow dying is clearly taking a heavy toll on each character in the film, albeit in a different way. As death begins to creep closer and closer, the existential weight hanging over the mansion begins to affect the women more and more.
Death, like the red of the mansion walls, seems to be a constant background force in the films of Ingmar Bergman. It seeps into every scene and becomes such a character in itself that one begins to forget its even there as the film progresses. Even then, however, that impalpable aura of something sinister remains. With Cries and Whispers, Bergman proves his mastery of tone and theme, as is evidenced with the unshakable feeling of mortality that hangs over the entire film. Every part of the film works together as if it is not several different things working together to create a single work of art, but a cohesive whole; the actors, music, and direction melding into a mass of dread and sadness.
For a director who has worked so frequently in black and white, Bergman’s use of color as almost a character, particularly with the aforementioned red, is incredibly impressive. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist does career best work here, adding a distinct look to the movie, perfectly capturing everything Bergman is trying to say. The film could be totally silent, and the death would still be felt. In addition to the color, the lead actresses here certainly add multitudes to this. Ullmann in particular, a seasoned Bergman favorite, seems to emanate a kind of innocent yet scheming character that invokes both empathy and distrust from the audience.
At one point towards the end of the film, Agnes’ character, after supposedly expiring, comes back and beckons to the sisters. The sisters run in fear, feeling the situation reeks of satanic and sacrilege. Yet, the maid, whom Agnes was particularly close with, enters the room and comforts the conscious corpse. It’s haunting and evocative stuff, characteristic of Bergman. It’s that bending of the tenets of reality and what’s acceptable in small scale dramas like this that makes him such an interesting artist to watch.
Cries and Whispers is packed with the typical Criterion extras, along with a few pleasant surprises that make this worth a buy. All of the interviews on the blu-ray are excellent and the introduction from Ingmar Bergman himself is something to be cherished, but chief among the supplements is Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death, Love with Erland Josephson. It’s an around hour-long interview with Ingmar Bergman that’s beyond insightful and a must watch for any interested cinephile. Besides that, the rest of the supplements aren’t much to write home about, as they say, but the terrific restoration of the film itself is enough to warrant a purchase.
Cries and Whispers is far from the best of Ingmar Bergman’s psychologically probing existential dramas, but its quiet cinematic power and exploration of death’s effect on people do not leave the mind after viewing. Cries and Whispers is something to sleep on and watch again for years to come.
Film Grade: A
Criterion Grade: A-