Cries and Whispers Review

More than any other Ingmar Bergman film, Cries and Whispers is the film closest to the essence or perhaps just the preconceived notion that many would have of the director’s films – that of cold, bleak, Scandinavian angst, bitterness and invective, dealing with questions of existence, family relationships and death. Bitter dialogue delivered through intense acting performances and all wrapped up in self-conscious formalism, it all appears very much like mere Bergman-by-numbers, but the director nevertheless manages to touch on a deeper level of human existence and suffering in what is one of his most harrowing films.

The idea of the film did however evolve from a number of formalistic ideas around which Bergman fashioned a typically fraught domestic situation. The initial drive to make the film came from a recurrent image that plagued the director of a red room containing a group of women dressed in white. From this image he imagined a situation where one of the women was dying and the others were gathered around her to assist her through her last days. Two of the women would be sisters of the dying woman, while a third woman would be the dying woman’s maid. Discussing how to make the film, Bergman worked closely with his regular cinematographer Sven Nykvist on how to bring this to the screen, doing countless colour tests for each of the highly stylised scenes in the film and considering using a static camera to passively record the action that would take place. In the end, this idea was abandoned as unworkable as the development of the script progressed.

The final film however remains strictly formalised and structured. In between the framework of the story of Agnes’ painful and agonising death, each of the women’s lives are examined through a flashback sequence, the transitions marked by a fade to red. It’s hard not to see the significance of the colour red which not only permeates the walls, carpets and curtains of the house, but is evident in the instances of violence and bloodletting that make up each of the sections of the film. For the two sisters, Maria and Karin, the incidents are related to dissatisfaction with their married lives and the violence enacted against themselves and their families binds them into hopeless and loveless relationships. This is contrasted with the depiction of Anna the maid’s inner life, which is not rooted in bitterness and regrets of the past – although she has every right to be angry about the treatment she has endured – but in love for her dead mistress and in an idealisation not necessarily based on harsh reality. Whether that love is platonic or sexual is left ambiguous, but the nature of that love scarcely matters as much as the fact of its purity and selflessness.

The stories of Maria and Karin are perhaps rather clichéd and certainly not unique within Bergman films. The stories of women dissatisfied with their relationships stretches back to the early films of Waiting Women, A Lesson In Love, Dreams and beyond Cries and Whispers to Scenes From A Marriage, while family relationships between sisters and women were certainly more experimentally examined in Bergman’s peak period of the 60s in films such as The Silence and Persona. Being Bergman however, those themes are still taken to extreme lengths in Cries and Whispers. There is the possibility that the shocking events that occur (including a scene of genital mutilation) are only imaginary, but whether they occur or not, they provide a horrifying insight into the mindsets of each of the women. Played with unbearable intensity by Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin – two remarkable actresses amongst Bergman’s regular exceptional group of actors – they are moreover given further weight and conviction.

One can’t help feeling however that they are mere foils for the more important characters of Agnes and Anna (Harriet Andersson and Kari Sylwan – both no less impressive in equally difficult roles). In the stories of these women Bergman would examine important new areas regarding the confrontation of suffering, death, memory and regret. In Agnes’s remembered relationship with her mother, there is much of Bergman’s own uneven and difficult relationship with his own mother (a subject taken further in Autumn Sonata and of course in Fanny and Alexander) and in Anna there is an exploration of the purity of love, a selfless and ideal one, untainted by regret and bitterness, one that you suspect the director himself longs to imagine exists.

Cries and Whispers is released in the UK by Tartan. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, is in PAL format, but is not region encoded.

Despite the flaws clearly evident in the transfer, it’s hard to complain too much about it, since the striking cinematography and colouration of the film still have a tremendous impact. The aspect ratio is correct – 1.66:1 – but the transfer is non-anamorphic. There is little in the way of marks or dustspots on the actual print, but there are signs of age. Surely a very difficult film to transfer on account of its pervasive red colour scheme, there is a sense that the reds are slightly over-saturated and bloom somewhat. Nevertheless, they are extremely vivid and their impact is more or less fully achieved. More importantly, detail is still visible and there are no problems with the kind of digital artefacts that could have been problematic here – macro-blocking, chroma noise etc. Blacks don’t always fare just as well and there are some instances of low-level noise with the block blacks discolouring badly. Overall, the transfer is perhaps little more than adequate - the image slightly soft, but showing reasonable detail, the colours perhaps not entirely accurate in tone, but the essential force of the imagery is nonetheless evident in a reasonably stable transfer.

The original audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is fairly clear throughout. The soundtrack is of vital importance, the tone and character of the house conveyed through its silence, its ticking, chiming clocks and the chilling screams that occasionally break through it. All of these, as well as the sparse, delicate music score that punctuates the film, come across with requisite tone and no problems with distortion or analogue hiss.

English subtitles are provided in an optional white font. They are clear and readable and, barring one instance I noticed of a word being doubled, free of any errors.

The principal extra features here are all text-based, but they do provide an extensive overview of the film. Much of this comes in Bergman on Cries and Whispers, taken from Bergman’s extensive chapter on the film in his book Images: My Life In Film. It provides a lengthy description of the process by which the film came into being, from that initial mental image through to filming. The Philip Strick Film Notes place the film in the context of Bergman’s work and his personal life during the period, as well as examining the themes and their treatment in the film. The standard Ingmar Bergman Collection (2:56) trailer-reel is also present here, as well as a Stills Gallery of six soft-focus images from the film.

Cries and Whispers is certainly an overly stylised piece of work - cold, calculated and theatrical in a dark Strindbergian way, recycling themes that have already been exhaustively explored in Bergman’s previous films – but the strict formalism is quite intentional. The suffocating atmosphere of the red house, the ticking of the antique clocks and the immaculate perfection of the period dresses that are all laboured over serve to create a specific effect of time and space within which Bergman places his characters, not only to contrast their lives and manner of living, but to touch on “wordless secrets that only cinema can discover” in the lives of his characters. Cries and Whispers is consequently a difficult film and one that is at times extremely painful to watch, but it’s a rewarding film that has an infinitude of riches and meanings to yield to the viewer.

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