I still remember my first exposure to the work of Ingmar Bergman very vividly: many would find themselves starting with one of his more well-known works like The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries but for me that introduction to a masterful body of work was Cries and Whispers. I still remember the look on my face as I was taken in with the horrors of his limited use of space, just as I was with the overcome present from his use of the colour red. As far as critical success is concerned, this may indeed be Ingmar Bergman’s most well-known on the count in spite of its polarizing of Swedish critics, it was the work that garnered Bergman his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director as well as a nomination for Best Picture. If this were supposedly “lesser Bergman” on some standards (I view it as one of his best), then it only reaffirms his stature as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Four of Ingmar Bergman’s regular collaborators: actresses Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, and Harriet Anderson, and cinematographer Sven Nykvist return now to tell a story of smaller proportions. This film is set within a manor that carries nothing but great claustrophobia inside of the enclosed atmosphere it presents, but at its heart we have a melodrama about a woman dying of cancer and her sisters as they visit her in aid. The film’s minimal setting is one among many things that only brings viewers closer to the story that Ingmar Bergman is telling but if anything even more wonderful has come as a result of this experience, it was a relative feeling that we know a certain mood being brought by Cries and Whispers that allows us to recognize humanity in unity.
It catches me how Ingmar Bergman is utilizing the colour red in order to tell his story, because a common mood associated with red is that of anger or love. But this whole world that Bergman has encapsulated Cries and Whispers in is entirely a claustrophobic one, and the manner to which it is used in here instils fear. The fear of what happens from being confined inside of a small space for the remainder of one’s life in the same way that Agnes is suffering all throughout the film. If anything has even been clearer from how he and cinematographer Sven Nykvist frame every last image, it would be that in red a fear of dying and lack of meaning runs rampant. Yet it remains a mostly peaceful if cold work to the point of discomfort, something only Ingmar Bergman could have formed so perfectly. For this coldness was perhaps the only way Cries and Whispers could have been told.
Through the years, Ingmar Bergman has always had a great skill with capturing an incredibly empathetic worldview through the psychology he puts on display, and Cries and Whispers presents a perfect case study. But the most wonderful thing about how Bergman presents Cries and Whispers is the fact that there’s a claustrophobia he captures that almost feels like this manor is an area that can close up on his characters. Thus within the fear that forms the film’s atmosphere, it almost plays like a society as it is entering a new dawn and soon the past will seem almost useless. From the first frame to the very last, Bergman captures a desire to improve for the better and the density of such a piece can only be felt – but because of how closely he brings us to the subject matter that we are watching, we can’t help but connect.
But among the many things that come out of watching Cries and Whispers and how much it accomplishes on a purely empathetic level, the power can be greatly felt inside of the performances of the leading actresses. This isn’t especially surprising for Ingmar Bergman’s regular collaborators, but if something greater had ever been achieved from watching a world as it falls upon these actresses from the first frame to the last, it would be how each woman almost feels like a certain desire by the society of Sweden at the time and a lack of fulfilment that draws them to where they head. But within the fact that it took long enough to realize this as a result of the suffering of one sibling, it feels like the fundamentals of how this society is built are indeed mirroring that of a family that requires one part in order to function on its own. And thus come only some of the most devastating performances Bergman has conjured.
What I love most about Ingmar Bergman’s films is how thoughtful they all are within their limited running time. He keeps a good chunk of his work at around 90 minutes, but the reflective nature that he creates is one that lasts. I knew from the fact that this was indeed my first Ingmar Bergman feature that I was in for so much greater. From the way it sounded to me at first, I would only have thought a family drama along the lines of Yasujiro Ozu’s simple, but profound works although what I got instead was thoughtful but in a different sense. It wasn’t so much a family drama anymore, but rather instead almost like a horror film about what happens as the cries and whispers of familial bounds only begin to fall silent. Over the years it has only continued to haunt me because I knew of possibilities up close.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Janus Films.
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay by Ingmar Bergman
Produced by Lars Owe-Carlberg
Starring Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann, Inga Gill, Erland Josephson
Release Year: 1972
Running Time: 91 minutes