1 Hr., 45 Mins.
The Silence / Cries and Whispers February 12, 2019
1 Hr., 31 Mins.
are more dramatically enriching.
In the film, Thulin and another frequent Bergman collaborator, Gunnel Lindblom, star, respectively, as Ester and Anna, sisters traveling from a Central European country to their unspecified hometown. In tow is Anna’s young son, Johan (Jörgen Lindström), who is well-mannered though bored of being isolated with a pair of adults.
The film begins as the trio is on a train. It's made clear, through body language and curt exchanges of dialogue, that the relationships between these people are involuted and worn. This becomes even clearer when the triad rents a two-room space in a lavish hotel in the center of town. Ester, a professional literary translator, is dying from an unspecified illness, emotionally closed-off, and reclusive. Anna, comparatively, is sybaritic, and often has meaningless one-night stands. She seems at-once attached to Ester and eager to get away from her. The movie covers a few days of their stay; it climaxes when Anna brings a waiter back to her room and has sex with him, and ends with some but not all of the characters returning home.
The Silence is more engrossing than it sounds on paper. Unlike Cries and Whispers, which neither is primarily visceral nor cerebral, The Silence is defined by the sensorial. With the dialogue spare, and the action mostly limited to watching these characters, on their own, passing time, it is a film in which we are meant to live rather than totally decipher. Of course, its rather slice-of-life, purposefully vague narrative style helps balloon a need to interpret: the popular theory is that the two female characters are actually one woman, with Ester being the brain and Anna the body. Johan is simply an onlooker, perceiving the individual parts.
But as was the case when I watched Cries and Whispers, it was not explanation, much less an even more profound version of the one more or less depicted, that came to the fore of my mind: I was infatuated with its seemingly limitless conundrums. (Locations, character backgrounds and motivations, etc., are made hazy.) Not only are the characters themselves rebus’ whom we want to but cannot easily solve: their actions — which involve Johan roaming around the hotel, which looks so Resnais; Anna creeping about the oracular town at which they’re staying; Ester writhing around uncomfortably in her bedroom and scrutinizing her shortcomings — form something of a physical and cognitive labyrinth. Pinpointable clarification doesn't matter — something I often think when watching Bergman’s regularly impenetrable movies.
The Silence: A
Cries and Whispers: A
ith The Silence, an arcane drama from 1963, Bergman similarly constructed a scourged narrative concerned with splintered sisterhood. There are other similarities to Cries and Whispers. Thulin again stars (only this time, she’s the literally dying sister, not the emotionally dying one), and again does enigma float in the air like pollen. It's just as mystifying, stirring. The difference, though, is that its uncertainties
spaces, would begin whispering incoherently into one another’s ears.
At the time this tableau began inserting itself into his sleep cycles, Bergman was living alone in a house in Fårö, a glaucous island surrounded by the Baltic Sea. Aside from a woman who would sometimes visit and make him supper, and aside from a pot-bellied dachshund he kept as a pet, Bergman was alone. He was also reeling from a breakup from the actress Liv Ullmann, with whom he recently had a daughter. The dream kept him company, in a way. It would also soon serve as the basis of a new project.
In the culminating film, three of the four women as seen in the dream — Agnes (Harriet Andersson), Karin (Ingrid Thulin), and Maria (Ullmann) — are established to be sisters. The fourth is a servant named Anna (Kari Sylwan), who is employed by Agnes.
Tragic circumstances have brought them together. Agnes, whom we presume is in her early 40s, has late-stage uterine cancer. Her sisters have gathered at her country home to spend her dying days with her. The reunion, though, is tense for other reasons besides Agnes’ suffering. Emotional distance, which has grown with age, predominates.
Karin is frosty and severe — she cannot so much as embrace a loved one without feeling disgusted. Maria is egocentric and shallow. Agnes, meanwhile, longs to be comforted by her sisters as she endures unthinkable pain. But such is a desire that proves itself progressively intangible as the film unspools. She's only ever shown real love by Anna, whose affection does not abide by the bounds of a typical employee-employer dynamic.
Cries and Whispers is among the few Bergman films that can, with certitude, be called sumptuous. Forebears, chiefly photographed by the cinematographer Sven Nykvist, were faithfully lensed in rimy black and white. If images called for the sumptuous label, it’d be the fault of a particularly shadow-spot sequence. But in Cries and Whispers’ case, deluxe color is both a supplement to the action and an amplifier of its emotion.
In Agnes’ home, in which almost all of the movie takes place, the walls, and most of the furniture, are distinguished by their almost-pulsating, bloody red. Juxtaposing the rubescence are white, black, and the occasional gold, usually found on the billowing clothing of the ensemble. When reflecting on why he chose to make the film’s color palette so integral to the dramatic discord — something which he had rarely done before — Bergman said: “The bluntest but also the most valid is probably that the whole thing is something internal and that ever since my childhood I have pictured the inside of the soul as a moist membrane in shades of red.”
By invoking the pneumatic, especially in terms of the interior design, I wondered what palpable or otherwise parts of the body Karin's and Maria’s homes parallel. It does not seem coincidental that Bergman has fashioned Agnes’ (and, really, Anna’s) place of living into a cinematic version of his idea of what a soul must look like.
Agnes and Anna, who are religious and hew to the “treat others how you would like to be treated” precept, are the only characters in the movie who seem to understand themselves, and what their souls might be made of. (Though Agnes is comforted in her most painful hours by Anna, who often holds her, bare-breasted, in a facsimile of the Pietà, she is perhaps more so by her faith, and by the memory of an almost divinely perfect day that we will learn about later.)
Karin and Maria, by contrast, are vacant. They seem lost, blighted by the failures of their marriages and the invariability and claustrophobia of the era’s mores. Karin has grown so hardened and misanthropic — something that is said to stem from their mother never seeming to really love her — that she cannot so much caress a sister’s cheek without feeling a little nauseous. Maria’s compassion only comes in brief surges, like vapor erupting from a geyser. Karin and Maria do not like each other, in part because of a maternal favoring of Maria, and so that dislike has manifested in their other relationships. They undoubtedly are concerned with Agnes’ wellbeing. But they do not know how, or much try, to console her. They are too fixated on their own pain.
The movie contains long passages that seek to capture at least a part of their centers. In one sequence, we flash back to a harrowing moment in Maria’s marriage. After her husband (Henning Moritzen) discovers that she has been having an affair with the local doctor (Erland Josephson), he tries to kill himself in front of her. As he bleeds, he cries, “Help me!” Maria shudders, and backs away. “No,” she replies.
In another disturbing passage, Karin, so disdainful of her husband (Georg Årlin), mutilates her genitals with a shard of glass, lay on her and her husband’s bed, and then, while making eye contact with him, smears the blood on her mouth as she smiles. This is intimated to be an act of sexual protest rather than exclusively an extension of psychic disbalance.
Anna gets her own outlet, too. But it is not based in the past. Instead, the Anna-centric portion of the film is suggested to be a dream. In it, Agnes returns from the dead. No one is willing to comfort her, except for her dutiful maid. These actresses — particularly Andersson, whose performance is akin to the tormented one she gave in her most previous collaboration with Bergman, 1961’s eldritch Through a Glass Darkly — are searing, believably tortured.
It is difficult to know what we should make of Cries and Whispers. These movements are as disturbing as they are ultimately indeterminate. (The diurnal scenes at the property, which include a tense dinner between Maria and Karin and several agonizing moments explicating Agnes’ unearthly pain, are arguably more revealing than the all-important flashbacks.) We never know what these women are thinking — we either understand what they’re feeling or try to determine their state of mind — and thus know little of their inner lives. Bergman has a predilection to hover over his actors’ faces and bodies as they perform the most mundane of tasks — something that, in a movie that seems to crave empathy, does not always fortify self-identification. Because of the addition of the dream sequence, which is never exactly denoted as such, it also remains unclear if we are supposed to take much of the film in as if it were literal, or as if it were something more abstract and baleful.
Interpretations of what the film is supposed to be vary, and do help create intriguing lenses through which we can view the film. Is it a meditation on solace, as proffered by the visual-essayist-turned-filmmaker Kogonada? Or is it an allegorical study of gender roles, as offered (among other things) by the academic Eve Rueschmann?
As I watched Cries and Whispers, I did not often think about an obscured meaning, in lieu of instances of clear visual symbolism. I saw it, perhaps simplistically, as a family drama in which a sibling’s excruciating, untimely death works as a catalyst for self-reflection. I was moved by it, and the characteristics that made it feel mysterious and elusive only seemed to up the strange, uncanny power it held over me.
ne of the most indelible images found in Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972) — that of four women, dressed in white nightgowns, spread strategically around a living room with crimson-red walls — was first seen in a recurring dream. The person having that dream, Bergman, remembers keeping his distance by sitting in the metaphysical next room over, while the women, eventually creeping into each other’s personal