Cries and Whispers (1972, Ingmar Bergman) In Cries and Whispers, Ingmar Bergman, the great late Swedish director, invites the viewer to spend some time with a family on the brink of self destruction. People even remotely familiar with Bergman’s work know the director was no stranger to stories involving sad, conflicted characters. This time however the Swede adds deep physical pain to the proceedings.
Agnes, played by Harriet Andersson, lies in bed every day because she is suffering of cancer. Her illness is terminal and it is only a matter of time before her body gives up. To ease her through her final days, her two sisters, Karin and Maria (Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullman respectively) as well as the faithful housekeeper Anna (Kari Sylwan), are her bedside company. As the days go by, it is clear that Agnes’ physical state is deteriorating. What began as mere sleepiness and weakness soon develops into full blown episodes of shocking pain that jolts Agnes to her very core. In these scenes Harriet Andersson gives a surprising performance. It’s eerily real, almost to point of discomfort for the viewer. She has difficulty breathing properly and her voice goes horribly horse and it is shocking.
Bergman goes for the close up shots here, which is a bold move because none of these characters are feeling particularly cheery or healthy. Agnes looks worse day by day and the close up shots give the viewer an almost too intimate look into her status. Her sisters, Karin and Maria, while in better physical condition, are both experiencing their own turmoil. They are obviously saddened by Agnes’s unavoidable death, but in addition are currently wrestling with their own personal issues. Karin recently lost faith her own marriage, to the point of inflicting self mutilation. Maria is presently in a lustful relationship with the family doctor, even though she is married…with children. The function of the close up shots is therefore twofold. First and foremost, viewer cannot turn away from the anguish every player is going through. What better way to transmit the emotional turmoil of these characters than with uncomfortable close up shots? There’s no escaping it, it is relentless. Secondly, it shows off how well all these actresses can act. To put it succinctly, Cries and Whispers displays exceptional acting from all four leads. Each actress holds her own with such professionalism that it’s some of the best acting this reviewer has ever seen.
The ticking of clocks is a recurring audio element that haunts the film. The passing of time is excruciating as Agnes lies on her bed, dying a bit with every second. Such a wait can be, and usually is for most, a rather unbearable exercise. In their sorrow, the sisters and the housekeeper are reduced to many scenes of silence. The ticking of the clocks becomes a painful soundtrack suddenly. The story also back through time and shows one episode of each sister’s married life. Needless to say, neither Karin nor Maria are involved in the happiest of marriages. Karin’s marriage is an unfulfilled bed of lies while Maria’s desires are split between her cold husband and the family doctor. Time isn’t repairing any of these open wounds and it certainly isn’t bringing Agnes back to her usual self. Even Anna is affected by the passing of time. She has offered 12 years of faithful service to Agnes and with her death, Anna will have not only lost an employer, but a dear friend.
The emotional charge of the film reaches its apex following the death of Agnes, when an old animosity between Karin and Maria is renewed. This strenuous relationship was not so apparent just days ago, most likely because both were far more occupied with their sister’s health. But with Agnes now gone and the sisters bruised like never before, the masks come off in stunning fashion. The personal attacks by Karin are harsh and relentless. Does she genuinely feel this way towards Maria or is she merely succumbing to an dysfunctional emotional status Just when the viewer thought that things couldn’t get any worse, Bergman ensures that they do. Cries and Whispers is not for everyone. Any viewer who doesn’t like their films too bleak should stay far away. But those interested in seeing Bergman toy with the human condition and pushing the envelope to dark territories, this is a must see.